Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teach For America: Does High Turnover Hurt Student Achievement?

In a New Haven middle school, a Teach For America teacher is facing a dilemma that is likely familiar to many of her “corps” colleagues  — should she continue building on her early record of success reaching students, or give up an often-frustrating job when her two-year commitment ends in June?

The New Haven Independent’s Melissa Baily’s thoughtful profile of a young teacher at a professional crossroads highlights the challenges of working with high-need student populations, particularly in an era where educators face significant pressure to prove they are having a positive impact on their students.

Plenty has been written about the TFA model, which recruits recent college graduates to work in some of the nation’s neediest public schools. TFA corps members undergo intensive — albeit relatively brief — training in the summer before they start work, and also receive significant support in the form of mentoring and professional development once they are on the job.

When it comes to choosing its members, TFA is now as selective as the Ivy League. As Inside Higher Ed’s Libby Nelson points out in a recent story, amid the federal push to improve instructional quality is a suggestion by some advocacy groups that teacher preparation programs aren’t selective enough. TFA might very well be helping students by encouraging the “best and the brightest” to enter the field – even if for the vast majority of them it doesn’t end up being a lifetime career.  

Indeed, reports have found turnover to be high among TFA’s corps members, with few of them staying in the profession beyond six years.

University of Texas Prof. Julian Vasquez Heilig, who co-authored an assessment of TFA, told the New York Times that “these people could be superstars, but most leave before they master the teaching craft.”

However, there are plenty of examples of TFA alumni not only continuing in education but moving far up the administrative ladder. High-profile examples include Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, is a TFA alumnae, as John White, the superintendent of New Orleans’ Recovery School District. (The influence of TFA in Louisiana is a source of both debate and tension, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Andrew Vanacore reported.)

Whether TFA teacher of Kaitlyn Shorrock will be back at the front of a New Haven classroom in the fall remains to be seen. Stemming the turnover tide of promising young teachers is a problem for many schools – and not just those relying on TFA.



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