Teach for America: Savior of Dallas schools?

November 15, 2011

Lead editorial in today’s Dallas Morning News (page 14A):

Retaining Teachers

DISD should redouble efforts to support Teach for America recruits

In 2009, the Dallas Independent School District welcomed 80 Teach for America teachers to its campuses. These newly minted teachers were part of a competitive program that sends top college graduates to work in urban and rural public schools.

Two years later, only 45 teachers from that inaugural class remain in the district.

Where did the others go? DISD can’t say for sure.

Teach for America teachers make a two-year commitment. So, after fulfilling that obligation, they’re free to pursue other teaching opportunities, graduate school or entirely different careers.

Losing 43 percent of the first TFA class is somewhat troubling — particularly because that’s higher than the program’s national attrition rate in high-poverty schools. But that fact alone doesn’t mean that DISD and Teach for America aren’t a good fit.

One number doesn’t tell the whole story, and DISD would benefit from additional data as subsequent TFA classes complete their two-year stints. It would be useful for the district and Teach for America to know more about why these teachers are leaving and whether they are seeking out teaching jobs in other districts.

Still, the attrition rate raises important questions about what more DISD can do to support these young teachers — and encourage them to stay.

TFA is supplying the Dallas school district with teachers who were high achievers and leaders on their college campuses. And while they’re new to teaching, many are distinguishing themselves quickly. In 2010, DISD reported that the district’s TFA teachers were outperforming their peers in educating students in reading and math.

Even Teach for America’s critics, who often complain that TFA corps members don’t stay long enough to make a difference, would agree that these teachers will become even more effective with additional years of experience.

With all this in mind, DISD should refocus its efforts to ensure that TFA teachers who spend two years at a Dallas public school consider extending their stay. While this is still a relatively new program in DISD, the early numbers suggest that the district has not been a particularly welcoming place.

DISD should bolster its mentoring efforts and consider what other strategies could be employed to help TFA teachers succeed — and feel motivated to continue teaching.

There’s no doubt that some TFA corps members enter the program planning to teach only two years before embarking on another career. But Teach for America’s hope is that some will be inspired to continue in education.

Other districts with similar challenges have had more success retaining TFA corps members.

DISD should seize this opportunity to mentor and develop a unique group of teachers — instead of simply watching them walk out the door.

I work alongside several Teach for America people — to a person, great colleagues.  Some of them faced the same barriers to entry I did — Dallas was unhappy with my recommendations, for example, and held out my hiring for a few weeks because they didn’t want to take the recommendation of the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee which deals with education policy, for whom I worked for a decade, but instead insisted I get a teacher  or someone from a local education establishment to write the letter (I got a person who assigned substitutes in a local district to comment — we knew each other on the phone).  Why they wouldn’t take the word of someone who knows me over someone in education, I don’t know — but there is a moral in that morass, somewhere.

Dallas ISD is generally not a teacher-friendly place these days.  After two rounds of layoffs, we have all been informed clearly that we are all on the maybe-needs-firing line.  TFA teachers can stay above that only partly — the poisonous atmosphere infects all faculty meetings and department tete-a-tetes.

There is a big difference between TFA teachers and others:  TFA is tough (sometimes stupidly too tough), but they let every one of their people know that each one is valuable, and expected to do great things.

Dallas ISD tried to do that once.  We had a kid give a great motivational speech at the fall welcome-back-teachers ball.

Then the district announced it had goofed, and a few hundred teachers would have to go.  Then word got out that the mother of the kid who gave the speech — a teacher — was on the chopping block.  Then word got out that the whole program the kid was in, was on the chopping block. Yeah, we believe in you, kid — we just don’t believe in education any more.

Is TFA the answer to Dallas’s woes?  What’s your view?  I’m still thinking about an appropriate, and informative response.

Also see this at the Dallas Morning News site:

Sidebar:

What is Teach for America?

Teach for America is an organization that works to recruit high-achieving college graduates for two-year teaching stints in urban and rural public schools. The hope is that many will continue to work in the field of education or an area that impacts student achievement.

The selection process is competitive — only 11 percent of this year’s 48,000 applicants were accepted.

The chart shows the number of Teach for America teachers in DISD, broken down by the school year they arrived. Many of those who started in 2009-10, the inaugural year in DISD, left after serving their two-year commitment.

School year TFA members received In DISD as of Sept. 26
2009-10 80 45
2010-11 107 102
2011-12 45 45
Total 232 192

SOURCES: Dallas ISD; Dallas Morning News research


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