Teach for Awhile in Denver

Did you know that Denver Public Schools (DPS) pays Teach for America (TFA) a finder’s fee of $2500 to $3500 per teacher, or Corps Members (CM) as they are called, per year for a total of $5000 to $7000 per recruit?


Did you know that over the past three years Denver taxpayers have paid TFA $520,600 for 232 CMs at traditional schools and over $800,000 for 267 recruits at charter schools. (The charter school number is a low dollar guestimate because TFA has not provided me with the same amount of detail the Denver Public Schools Human Resources Office and the Communications Office have provided me.)  Money spent on outsourced services is money not reaching the classroom.


Did you know that central DPS administration does not have information about how much public money is spent by charter schools on hiring TFA Corps Members?


Did you know that in TFA-speak one becomes “highly qualified” by earning a Bachelor’s degree or exhibiting mastery of a subject which is determined by a state developed test. Mastering the ability to teach is nowhere in the mix.   Five weeks of summer training has historically allowed you to become “highly qualified.”


When I started researching TFA in Denver, I thought my conclusions about its impact would be, “TFA is not only NOT the solution for teacher excellence, it is in fact the problem.” However, in all honesty I have not found that to be the case. The number of core members is very small, and the impact of these CMs in classrooms has been negligible. One real threat TFA poses in Denver Public Schools appears to be in the leadership roles TFA recruits are assuming in the District. TFA CMs are rising rapidly to principal positions with little educational or leadership experience. (Information for the 2014-15 school year shows TFA has supplied DPS with 7 traditional school principals or assistants, 2 innovation principals, and 12 charter school leaders, 5 of whom are in the STRIVE network. Any relation between the TFA trained leaders and declining academic performance in the STRIVE network?) Another real threat posed by TFA is what effect these CMs are having on overall teacher morale. But here again, TFA is not solely to blame for the rift between professional teachers and alternatively licensed teachers.  DPS has found other organizations to provide cheap, non-professional teachers.


One positive outcome from my TFA inquiry is the level of detail the DPS central administration gave me regarding this outsourcing. It responded with clarity and timeliness. One negative outcome from my inquiry has been more confirmation that charters are only public schools when they want taxpayer money. The DPS administration does not have charter school/TFA information because in reality, charters operate as private schools. Charters have their own boards, their own budgets, their own operating methods, and while taxpayers are funding most of these operating expenses, the central public school administration does not have access to this information. Or at least it has not shared it. To get the charter school information in general, TFA information specifically, a person has two options: 1) call each charter school or the Charter Management Organization (CMO).  Denver has close to 60 charter schools and while twenty belong to two CMOs that still left leaves close to forty calls; or 2) call the organization in question, in this case TFA. I chose the option number 2.


At the beginning of February I had a pleasant meeting with the TFA Colorado State Director who regaled me with data and success rates of TFA in Colorado. We even had several pleasant email exchanges as I tried to dig deeper and get more information. Then something happened. After being assured I would get my requested information – how many teachers were currently at each TFA serviced school – our communication went from a pleasant “Let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns,…” to “I am not able to prioritize this right now” leaving me without several important pieces of data. What changed ? I believe it is the request for accountability. TFA seems unable to produce evidence that it is really making a difference, that its CMs are really getting better results. When asked to substantiate data and deliver real accountability, not just spin and talking points, TFA like most “reform” organizations is unable to “show me the money.”


There has been much ado about Teach for America in the past few months as it reached its 25th anniversary: Former TFA members criticizing what TFA has become; a second story here; a front page New York Times article describing recruiting difficulties; an article in the NATION magazine describing to what extremes TFA will go to spin the story it is the teaching solution for public education. Much of the hand-wringing is due in large part to the real and perceived change in the organization.  It has gone from an idealistic service organization to an organization that is being used to push out professional educators.  The reality in Denver, Colorado: TFA has made little difference. Where there are 3 or more TFAs in traditional schools 3 have shown slight academic gains, 7 have shown losses. For charters 5 have gained slightly, 7 have lost.


Data-driven reform relies on data only when it can be spun to its advantage. My request that was stonewalled seemed pretty innocuous to me: how many TFAs are currently at each school? By the time I sent it, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that TFA is neither fish nor fowl. In Denver at least, CMs were making little difference. My request seemed like a reasonable one if you want to know what if any impact this organization, touted to be a savior of public education, was actually making regarding student achievement. But there was that accountability measure, I guess, a measure which while demanding it of teachers most “reformers” run from.


I have disaggregated the data as to CM placements.  (There are two tabs – one charter, one traditional). At the start of the 2014-15 school year there were 68 CMs in traditional schools, 89 in charter schools for a total of 157 out of approximately 5500 teachers in the District. And while the number 400 is bandied about by the Colorado’s TFA head, it is difficult to confirm that number since it is not a priority to disclose to the public how many TFAs are currently still teaching in DPS, neither is it a priority to provide the hard data showing academic progress being made by TFAs.   I asked the Colorado State Director this question,

“Has TFA seen demonstrable positive change regarding the narrowing of the achievement gap with its CMs? If so, where and how?” He answered, “this is difficult to answer, as the studies…are not consistent on TFA. What I tell people frequently is that our corps members (those in the first two-year commitment) likely have the same impact to significantly more impact (as that is what the data say per the studies).”


So, where is that data for Denver? Why is this not a priority, since that is the data around which objective conclusions can be reached. Providing this information may not be a priority for the State TFA Director, but without it, one can only remain skeptical about TFA’s impact. In addition, since DPS pays a up to $1.3 half a million dollars for three years Denver’s taxpayers deserve to know how these CMs are performing.  Again, money taken from the classroom.


Given all of this, here is possibly the worst consequence of TFA’s presence in Denver today:  TFA in DPS is contributing to the constant teacher churn. TFA as currently structured, will hardly be the savior of delivering a “reform” top tenet: A GREAT TEACHER IN EVERY CLASSROOM.  And as long as this nation refuses to address the affects of poverty on our students, no one “reform” organization, nor for that matter will “reform” itself,  make any significant impact on academic achievement or really the more important goal – providing a world class, well rounded education for all!


CODA:  As I sat in a community meeting last night listening to the back and forth about testing, I suddenly connected a couple of dots, dots that should have been connected long ago.  I now believe that in addition to the enormous amounts of money being made from testing and the enormous amount of pressure being placed on teachers based on test scores, one real reason standardized national tests are being used to assess and evaluate everyone and everything but the real people in charge is because these very new and alternatively trained “educators” do not know how to produce meaningful assessments and evaluations (not that Common Core, PARCC Smarter Balance do!).  “Reformers” can’t trust their outsourced non-professional educators to develop their own tests, lesson plans. individualized education plans. Proscribed, national curricula and tests are their answer.


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