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To improve teacher retention, NYC should drop Teach for America

July 20, 2009 am31 11:45 am

This post is part of an intermittent series about improving teacher retention in New York City. See also

For years now, the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America have supplied large numbers of untrained teachers to the New York City public schools.

What would you say if someone offered you a stream of untrained teachers who promised to destabilize the system?

But now we have budget problems. There will be fewer new teachers. And this summer the Teaching Fellows have a greatly reduced program, and Teach for America is sending its recruits elsewhere.

Teach for America vs the New York City Teaching Fellows

Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows are both new teacher recruitment programs. They both provide minimal training to put bodies in classrooms. Teachers in either program end up with a Masters. But the differences are greater than the similarities.

NYC Teaching Fellows recruit a mix of younger people and career-changers. Teach for America draws largely from top universities, including many from Ivies. TfAers come from around the country. Teaching Fellows are far more likely to be from New York or the greater metropolitan area.

The NYCTF gets its participants Masters degrees in 2 years (sometimes slips to 3). Not enough Teaching Fellows stay in teaching past their masters. But many of them do. And it is possible to convince more to stay.

Teach for America looks for a two year commitment to teaching.  Two years and out is the rule. TfA discourages its members from staying in teaching past 2 years [update:  discouragement may be implicit, not explicit]. It is training leaders, not teachers, giving them a ground-level view of the system they are being trained to run. In their own words:

We believe that the best hope for ending educational inequity is to build a massive force of leaders in all fields who have the perspective and conviction that come from teaching successfully in low-income communities.

…Beyond these two years, Teach For America alumni bring strong leadership to all levels of the school system and every professional sector, addressing the extra challenges facing children growing up in low-income communities, building the capacity of schools and districts, and changing the prevailing ideology through their examples and advocacy.

It’s like the once upon a time story of the rich guy sending his kid to work a year in the factory before running it; or the British Lord sending his son to India for a few years before managing the family fortune.

Now, some TfAers do stay in teaching. [But they are actively discouraged from doing so – may not be accurate] . And those that stay are fairly likely to bounce around, to move to charters, etc. Once they are in, it is worth trying to convince them to stay. But it is far harder than with Teaching Fellows, as they remain part of an organization that pushes them to be leaders, not teachers.

—   —   —   —   —

Why is this bad?

In New York City, we have enough applicants for teaching positions. But keeping teachers is tough. Retention is a far greater challenge than recruitment. Getting a few hundred TfA bodies into schools in September is a help, but not a huge help. However, having a few hundred TfAers leave each June is a drag on the system.

Teach for America works to increase teacher turnover, to keep the poorest kids in classes run by the least experienced teachers, to deny neighborhoods a small piece of attainable stability. It increases training costs to the system, and decreases collegiality. It also, incidentally, decreases the chance that students are taught by Black or Hispanic teachers, and decreases the chance that they are taught by New Yorkers.

The amount of resource that goes into training new teachers is huge. It is not only university classes (in fact, they are a small part), but administrator time, effort from colleagues, etc. The cost of high turnover is real, and should not be ignored.

Poor communities pay a higher cost. Schools can offer some stability, some continuity in the lives of children. But Teach for America actively denies them that stability by trickling in temporary teachers, teachers who will not develop relationships or bonds that will last past two school years. When a parent returns to school with their second kid, shouldn’t they already know the school personnel?

And how can school culture grow positively and be transmitted with high staff turnover? It is a constant struggle in bad schools. Should we make it worse by hiring teachers we know in advance will not last? An advantage of small schools is that a group of adults really gets to know a group of kids. TfA destroys that. There are internal relationships, shared habits, that grow as a team works together. TfA disrupts them.

Teachers improve with experience. Poor schools should not be saddled with a program designed to deny them experienced teachers.

Stop Recruiting TfA

This year New York City did not need recruit through TfA. We should not next year, either. Between the New York City Teaching Fellows and traditionally trained teachers there are enough new teachers to meet our needs. Also, recall that there are teachers already in the system who may need placement.

We should work hard on keeping Fellows teaching past their initial commitment. What about TfAers who are already in the system? Of course we should work hard on keeping them teaching past their two-year commitment as well.

Stability, shared culture, relationships, experience

We all benefit — children, schools, colleagues, parents, neighborhoods — when schools are stable, familiar places. And experienced teachers are better teachers. Improving teacher retention is good for all involved.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. hmmm permalink
    July 20, 2009 pm31 11:31 pm 11:31 pm

    Now I hope most intelligent people can read between the quality of an analysis that includes terms like “most”, “some”, and very misleading snippets and analysis of quotes.

    Full disclosure- I am a recent TFA alumni who taught in Atlanta.

    Now onto the fun stuff…
    “Teach for America works to increase teacher turnover, to keep the poorest kids in classes run by the least experienced teachers, to deny neighborhoods a small piece of attainable stability.”
    – this may be a matter of semantics here but “stability” if defined is a consistancy or the same thing- unfortunately “stability” all to often for our countries poorest children is consistantly bad education the less than 49% graduation rate in the district that I taught in is evidence of not just one but cycles of consistancy of bad things.

    “It increases training costs to the system, and decreases collegiality. ”
    Decreases collegiality? What does that mean? Does that mean teachers get upset who went through traditional means of certification with he “new kids in town”…that’s silly and if institutional teachers unions ideas about TFA are different that real corps member relationships. I can also attest that many corps members end up joining those same unions. Of course I still don’t understand what this means…

    Training “costs to the system” are often quid pro quo for the systems in which they work in. TFA teachers often provide (if they are in school sites/colleagues that are receptive) a data driven perspective, in the summer institutes that they are placed in they provide instruction immediately in their specialized areas. The data within TFA and outside the circle shows that TFA teachers perform no worse and in some cases better than a teacher armed with an education major, master’s degree and in his/her first year.

    It also, incidentally, decreases the chance that students are taught by Black or Hispanic teachers, and decreases the chance that they are taught by New Yorkers.
    Disclosure- I am a black TFA teacher

    Yes, I’ll agree this may make a difference- but as a teacher who also taught in a majority black school with TFA non black teachers, the kids don’t really care! They especially don’t care when they know that a teacher will work their butt off to learn best practices, deliver better lessons, give feedback, and an occasional hug, and come watch their games. This makes arguement also makes the assumption that only black teachers should be teaching black students. At some point I was of this mindset, until I saw that there were black teachers who displayed the best and worst of teaching. Education in this country is an S.O.S. an all “hands on deck” situation for ALL of those who are willing to plug away at the issue of making education excellent in this country.

  2. July 21, 2009 am31 7:42 am 7:42 am

    To Hmmm: When you say that the kids don’t care about whether they have black and/or Hispanic teachers, you are not being totally truthful. The kids don’t want to have only white and/or Asian teachers; they want to have a diversity of teachers in which a few teachers look just like them. They also want a few teachers who come from the same neighborhoods and communities from which they come.

    • hmmm permalink
      August 3, 2009 am31 2:17 am 2:17 am

      I think you didn’t read my whole post. I am a woman of color who taught to other future women of color. I agree it matters, but not to the extent of providing the basis of a solid education. Being Black or hispanic and not teaching well (not because of knowing how but more importantly out of lack of will) isn’t going to cut it. The point I stated was I’ve seen black teachers who brought the best out in their students and teachers who barely taught. If my students next year get a fully capable and involved white male as a teacher (and most of them actually will) then race is a non-issue. Children need do need people who teach and an ear to listen to them. From MY experience, the color of that ear doesn’t matter so much as the other qualities that make up a good teacher.

  3. July 21, 2009 am31 10:00 am 10:00 am

    I strongly disagree that TFA alumni are “actively discouraged” from staying on in their teaching positions. I finished my two year commitment in 2007 and was never once discouraged from continuing teaching (I am still working in my placement school). Yes, I recieved emails from outside organizations about other opportunities and yes TFA held “What’s Next” job fairs and forums but I was NEVER discouraged from teaching and I think it is a False stament to say so. I don’t have the statistics on hand mut I know that many TFA alums stay on in teaching past the second year. Yes, part of the TFA mission is to send teachers out into many fields that affect education as a whole, that is true, but when you say that teachers are “actively discouraged” from teaching that is just not true.

    • jd2718 permalink*
      July 21, 2009 am31 10:59 am 10:59 am

      I was under the impression that they regularly contacted corps members who stayed past their commitment, suggesting alternatives to continuing to teach. Perhaps I was wrong? You’d certainly know better.

      But you provide me an opportunity to underline two points.

      1. There are some amazing teachers who come out of Teach for America, who become invested in their kids and schools. I know a few. And once they are in the classroom, they are teachers, and deserve all the collegiality, all the support, all the help that we should be providing to all new teachers.

      2. The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard issued a study last Spring of what factors are associated with greater tenure of TfAers. Incidentally, the researcher collected longevity stats. The full paper is a bit much to read. A summary is here. Indeed, more TfAers stay than I thought, but over half leave after 2 years, and close to 90% are gone by the 5th year.

      If we found numbers for NYCTF and for traditionally-trained teachers, their retention would be far, far higher.

      There is an unacceptably high likelihood that a teacher entering a NYC Public School as a TfAer will have to be replaced in short order, leading to more poor kids having more first year beginning teachers than their peers in middle class neighborhoods.

      • NYC Teacher permalink
        July 21, 2009 pm31 12:08 pm 12:08 pm

        According to the New York City Council Investigation Division, among new teachers (1-5 years experience), 19-25% of new teachers leave the system within one year of being hired. While that number does comprise Teach For America corps members, it is also inclusive of Teaching Fellows and traditionally certified teachers. What is striking, however, is that the retention rate for Teach For America teachers in the same demographic is ~33%, which is greater than the citywide average. If the statistic about new teachers leaving isn’t startling enough, the UFT reports that 42% leave within three years.

        What would give you the impression that Teach For America regularly contacted members to leave the teaching profession? Surely, that would undercut the grandest mission of Teach For America, which is for it not to have to exist in the first place.

        Also, retention rates are not the singular metric by which teachers, schools, outside organizations, or educational success should be predicated on. Some of the Teach For America corps members leave the profession because they are not good teachers. it is foolhardy to think that just because an individual was accepted by Teach For America that they will certainly be fit for the classroom. You have no idea what you’re in for until you walk into that room. No amount of interview, intensive training, or explanation can prepare you for that. To assume that belittles the unimaginable amount of work successful teachers do.

        We should not add a narrative to a statistic just because that narrative is popularized in the media or on message boards. If someone knows they should be in law school because they’re going to do fantastic things for low-income communities, they might serve the public better there. Leaving the teaching profession does not necessarily mean its being traded for the corporate world. But people with the knowledge acquired by being exposed to the tremendous bureaucracy that is the Department of Education, the care developed by working with these children firsthand, and the understanding honed by grasping the problem more holistically should be running NGOs, pursuing law degrees and MBAs, and attending medical school. Without their help, many of the exceptional programs and funding that go into many classrooms would be impossible.

        Some of them, undoubtedly humbled by the challenges of the teaching profession, leave with an untold appreciation for what seasoned veterans do on a daily basis and can move forward to help education down the road.

        But don’t point fingers at Teach For America. The system was broken which was why Teach For America formed in the first place. The majority of Teach For America people I have worked with (and there have been many) have been among the most dedicated, passionate, loving, thoughtful, and intelligent individuals I have had the pleasure of working with in my long teaching career. They do not take “no” for an answer, they refuse to let bureaucracies stand in the way of results, and they are constantly looking to learn from veterans….really anyone.

        And so what if TFA-ers come from Ivies? Alright. They probably got good educations. Fantastic. Coming from an Ivy is not a monolithic identifier, and it should not be used as such. And don’t say things like “Should we be paying for teachers who we know in advance will not last?” That’s an absurd notion. No one knows who will stay, and who will go. I know traditionally trained teachers who left after four months, and non-traditionals who stayed 10 years.

        Teach For America does far more good than harm by several orders of magnitude.

        • July 21, 2009 pm31 2:36 pm 2:36 pm

          NYC Teacher, you argue both ways.

          First you claim that TfA retention rates are comparable to other new teachers. You mix stats from multiple sources to back this up. The line of reasoning and the conclusion are both wrong.

          Then you say it is important for future leaders to have experience in a classroom (sort of saying that 2 years and out is a good thing). But no one should be gaining at the expense of the kids.

          Finally, no one, certainly not me, have pointed fingers at TfA. I just don’t think we should be taking them into the public school system in NYC.

  4. jd2718 permalink*
    July 21, 2009 pm31 2:32 pm 2:32 pm

    My contention is

    1. greater teacher retention benefits all – that is, to schools, to kids, to neighborhoods, to colleagues.
    2. recruitment is not a major problem in NYC; there are more than enough traditional path teachers and Teaching Fellows.
    3. Teach for America has very high turnover. At some level (and I am sorry that I may have exaggerated out of ignorance) but still, at some level the high turnover is by design.

    I am convinced that recruiting via TfA leads to higher turnover, and is therefore less desirable. The failure to recruit TfA will not lead to a teacher shortage.

  5. Tonya permalink
    July 24, 2009 am31 11:35 am 11:35 am

    I agree I know of a school that hires alot of Teaching for America members as a way to control young graduates just out of school and avoid having to hire tenured teachers who know the rights that have according to the contract…Its union busting, and the UFT needs monitor the hiring practices of these new schools’ principal alot more.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    July 29, 2009 pm31 4:59 pm 4:59 pm

    How can you possibly contend that recruitment is not a major problem when the vast majority of math teachers know next to nothing about mathematics? I’d prefer to have teachers who know their subject area than “education” majors who at best proved a few tautologies in a forgotten linear algebra course.

    And where is your data that TFA retention rates are any lower than new teacher retention rates? Or that this differential, if it exists, is “at some level … by design”? All the teachers I know who have participated in such programs are idealists seeking to work against an unjust school system, and of those who left, all did so after battling school administrations with messed-up priorities. They did not “gain [experience] … at the expense of the kids”, but instead gave their students a better education than the students would have otherwise received, while concluding that they could better serve the interest of social justice in other capacities.

  7. July 30, 2009 am31 12:35 am 12:35 am

    “the vast majority of math teachers know next to nothing about mathematics”

    Yeah, you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Sorry.

    Partly because of the success of the NYC Teaching Fellows, in far smaller part because of Math for America, the critical shortage of math recruits in NYC is a thing of the past.

    I don’t need data on TfA retention rates being lower than other new teachers. It’s widely recognized, widely accepted. You could Google it, but I won’t do your work for you. (Actually, I did, a little bit; there’s a link in the comments above.)

    It’s probably not a good idea to respond to personal anecdotes, without detail, from an anonymous commenter. However, when you write “All the teachers I know who have participated in such programs” you may be missing something. This post is not about “such programs” – it is specifically and exclusively about Teach for America.

  8. August 3, 2009 pm31 5:03 pm 5:03 pm

    To Hmmm: You misunderstood and obviously didn’t read my entire post as well. I never once said or even suggested that incompetent teachers should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Obviously, at the end of the day, any individual who is placed in the classroom should be capable and talented, which actually has nothing to do with race or ethnicity since no one group has a monopoly on talents and skills. And as far as being a woman of color: Yeah, I am that too. However, that really isn’t relevant because basically it appears that you, as a woman of color, take, as a whole, a very dim view of the talents and teaching capabilities of other people of color, which is actually very disturbing if this is the attitude and mindset that you pass on to your students.

  9. ldorazio1 permalink
    September 23, 2009 pm30 10:18 pm 10:18 pm

    Wow, a great, cogent piece on the need to drop TFA for the sake of retention. Well done!

    Makes my diatribe–which you commented on (many thanks)–look like the rantings of a lunatic. But that’s my style, I guess.

    Here’s that diatribe again:

    Mr. D

  10. mixed feelings... permalink
    September 25, 2009 pm30 3:38 pm 3:38 pm

    i am….arguably…confused about how i feel about teach for america.

    and i am an alum….who left…after her two year commitment.

    I was very close to staying and looping with my students to the next grade, but after being ill for the better part of the year, having no health insurance for a long while because of the incompetence of certain administrative workers in the district, having several students with emotional disturbances so traumatic that 3 of them are now enrolled in “alternative” schools as demanded by CPS, never once seeing an IEP for my special needs students, and having to teach 32 in a classroom built to fit 15–I realized that I–ME PERSONALLY–would do better for myself and all of the people around me if I finished out the year as strong as possible and bowed out–still working for the kids, but not teaching.

    You see, teaching is a 24/7 calling–and if you’re not ready for it, I’d much rather see you leave than stay and pass out worksheets for years.

    Because for plenty of the teachers we are retaining–that’s all they do.

    When we look at overall retention numbers, the negative figure (teachers who stay) aren’t necessarily effective teachers. In other words, retention numbers include a range of teachers, from the disgustingly incompetent to the highly transformative and everyone in between.

    Now–I come from a family of educators and have GREAT respect for the veteran teachers of which I am born and many of those with whom I taught–they are truly an inspiration and blessing to children. BUT…the school districts that TFAers enter are failing–period. Otherwise districts wouldn’t lobby for them to come to the region. So clearly some of the retained ones should be on their way out anyway…lest we fail some more.

    My point is this: plain old retention numbers are misleading and useless. Tell me how many EFFECTIVE teachers we are retaining and how many EFFECTIVE teachers we are losing–and we can have a real debate.

    Is it important to retain teachers and provide consistency for children? Absolutely. Would it be nice to retain more teachers? Absolutely! Especially Teach For America teachers, who have a proven record of driving students to success. (

    But here in lies the rub: Teach For America teachers are often successful because of their motivation to succeed at EVERYTHING; that’s why they excelled academically and as campus leaders and made it into TFA in the first place. And because teaching is no longer the vaulted, respected position it once was (and it REALLY, TRULY SHOULD BE!) it makes perfect sense that the very thing that gets TFAers into the classroom MAKES them successful teachers…and then motivates them to do other things–succeed in another field, or in another facet of education.

    What’s more is that when we look at national retention numbers, the negative figure (teachers who stay) aren’t necessarily effective. Now–I come from a family of educators and have GREAT respect for the veteran teachers of which I am born and many of those with whom I taught–they are truly an inspiration and blessing to children. BUT…the school districts that TFAers enter are failing–period. Otherwise districts wouldn’t lobby for them to come to the region.

    My point is this: plain old retention numbers are misleading and useless. Tell me how many EFFECTIVE teachers we are retaining and how many EFFECTIVE teachers we are losing–and we can have a real debate.

    alright. my rant is now done. ;)

  11. anna permalink
    May 12, 2011 pm31 1:02 pm 1:02 pm

    Kudos to NYC!!!! In Nashville I have known 2nd year, fully licensed teachers who went to college with the sole purpose of being a teacher until retirement – not renewed in order to make room for TFA bodies. Nashville also bemoans the fact that their 5 year retention is under 30% – but they haven’t realized what NYC apparently has. That TFA will LOWER the overall quality of their faculty.

    Statistics show that the first year is the least productive one for a new teacher, whereas the 3rd-5th years show a sharp increase in performance level (as the new teacher has gotten a grasp on classroom management, and can now focus on refining their techniques in teaching content)… Statistics also show that the 5th-15th years are generally the highest and/or plateau of performance. Statistics also show that 50% of STEM area teachers leave the field prior to their 3rd year – why have TFA make these statistics even higher?

    Let’s look at passion. If a person has the passion to dream of teaching throughout a 4 year college program, then realize their dream in the classroom, strive to continually improve throughout a 20+ year career, and finally retire and go into a leadership role within education – aren’t they going to be much better leaders than people who never had a passion to MASTER the ART of teaching? In a mere two years, a teacher barely has his/her feet underneith them – much less mastering the art. And if there’s no deep passion to really make a change/or CREATE a change in methodology – then many great strategies and methodologies will never be learned or explored.

    Again, I applaud NYC and hope other urban districts will wake up to the truth about TFA

  12. Anonymous permalink
    October 16, 2011 pm31 7:41 pm 7:41 pm

    teacher retention article.

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