In 1992 I packed up my $2,000 Honda Civic and headed to Houston, a city I had never visited before, to start my time with TFA. I ran up my credit card waiting to get my first paycheck at the end of September. And every day I woke up terrified about a group of six year olds—many of whom wore frilly party dresses and politely called me Maestro. I’d left my old life behind for this one. But I loved (almost) every moment of it.
Fast forward almost 20 years, and I was packing up my $2,000 family car (I actually only got $1,800 on the trade-in last year) with kids and a small dog and moved to Nashville, a city I had visited once prior to being hired as Tennessee’s state education commissioner. The job was a whirlwind. But I love the place and I’m still here.
Between these two stints I had a job that included managing the external research at TFA. External research can be frustrating. Done right, it’s slow, expensive and often the results are unsatisfying (e.g. little to no statistical significance, even when results trend positive). Still, I think we would all agree that it’s critically important to study results—across many realms—over many years, to make sure what we’re doing works.
TFA is the most studied teacher preparation program in America. It’s been poked and prodded more times than Tom Brady’s footballs. And its success has been questioned as often as the Super Bowl rings he and Bill Belichick share. (I jest, but only some. Steel Curtain forever!)
Which is why it’s priceless to me that professors in some of our country’s academic institutions devote many hours—and many truncated yells on Twitter—to critiquing TFA, where we know the impact of corps members, while they have no idea what the research says about their own graduates. Some of these people are defending higher education institutions that routinely produce graduates having a negative impact while saying we need to kill TFA. Hmmm.
In Tennessee, the state’s higher education commission (not a part of the Department of Education where I worked) puts out an annual report card looking at every teacher preparation program in the state and analyzing the graduates’ impact on student achievement. This is done simply by tracking the value-added results of novice teachers back to their prep programs.
The results match what all of the high-quality literature shows. There are some great traditional programs (Lipscomb and Vanderbilt, in particular) and some lackluster ones (I won’t name names, but feel free to peruse the data in your spare time). There are some good alternative certification programs (TFA). And ones that are…less so.
North Carolina and Louisiana run similar annual analyses and find similar results. TFA acquits itself quite well, year after year, in comparison to traditional schools of education and their research backs this up. And more to the point, our research backs it up too. Corps members in their first and second year outperform most other new teachers. They hold their own against, and often outperform, veterans too.
So, why does this matter?
In a perfect world, this would simply be an acknowledged part of the discussion on TFA. Opponents would concede that corps members are doing a solid job, and argue other reasons why they philosophically oppose the program.
Oh, but this is not a perfect world, my friends. This is a world where Donald Trump tops the polls, where there is a looming avocado shortage and where an assorted mix of haters — often employed by ed schools — routinely claim that corps members are bad for the world.
It’s not an esoteric, philosophical argument. It’s not some sort of joke, where it’s fine for people to be cute as they knowingly shade the truth and wink at their friends. The stakes matter. And they don’t just matter to us as adults. They matter to kids, profoundly.
Like many of you, I have had this experience: I visit a school — staffed with corps members, alumni and awesome traditional-route colleagues — where low-income kids are exceeding grade level expectations and talk openly about their college plans. Then I visit another school with the same demographics where kids are years behind and administrators talk about how “Not everyone should go to college,” while their two degrees sit in frames in the office behind them.
The people that we put in front of children matter. And while there are lots of amazing traditional-route educators in the world, there are also lots of incredible TFA corps members and alumni in the world too. And our kids need every single incredible person we can get.
I would stomach the pushback better if anti-TFA mud-throwers were themselves associated with institutions that demonstrably have a positive impact on kids. Most of the time, though, they don’t know if they do. They literally don’t know.
What they do know how to say is “Five week training!” and “Two year commitment!” But they cannot tell you whether their own graduates are effective, let alone whether they are more effective than corps members. They haven’t bothered to find out. And that is, indeed, the problem. In places like Tennessee, North Carolina and Louisiana, critics are happy to turn fire on TFA while giving a total pass to institutions that fail in the most basic test of all: do they help kids learn?
Like I tell my friends, colleagues and fellow corps alums: It’s the hypocrisy that really gets you.
Look, there are some really awesome higher ed institutions in this country that help kids. If they want to have an honest argument about TFA, let’s politely do that. I have visited tons of incredible schools that will never have TFA corps members.
But I also think there needs to be some ground rules in critiques from the Ivory Tower: 1) If you want to talk about inputs (length of training, pedagogical classes taken, etc.), you have to say something about outputs. And 2) If you don’t know whether your own institution is any good, stop talking smack about TFA. Redirect your time, energy and research into figuring out if your folks help kids or not.
Go ahead. I’m not going anywhere. Let me know what you find.
This post was written by Kevin Huffman, advisory board member for Corps Knowledge.