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Brown Center Chalkboard

Should Teach for America aim to increase its post-commitment retention?

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on U.S. News and World Report’s

Knowledge Bank

blog. 

A few weeks ago, Teach For America celebrated its 25th anniversary at a summit in Washington, D.C. As can be expected with this kind of jubilee, it also brought some of the organization’s critics out of the woodwork. 

Though the criticisms of Teach For America have varied over the years, low retention of its corps members tends to be one of the most common gripes lobbed against the organization. Yet recent empirical evidence on the effectiveness of retained corps members warrants a re-evaluation of the critics’ prescription of promoting corps member retention to promote student gains. Let’s look at the argument and the evidence.

Anyone familiar with Teach For America knows the organization recruits corps members from relatively selective undergraduate institutions or other professional backgrounds to place them in hard-to-staff teaching assignments for a two-year commitment period. The two-year commitment is commonly pitched in a way to appeal to young recruits’ service ethos, and after the service ends many corps members pack their bags.

This tendency for Teach For America teachers to leave the schools they have been recruited and placed into, critics argue, harms students by disrupting the continuity of instruction and undermining community investment in public schools. In addition, Teach For America teachers have demonstrated at least equivalent – and in several studies, even better – classroom performance in some subjects than similarly experienced teachers in their schools. If only Teach For America could encourage more of their corps members to stick around longer, so the logic goes, it could make an even deeper impression on schools and students.

In its defense, Teach For America counters that retention is not as low as many believe. Though post-commitment retention in the disadvantaged schools where corps members are originally placed has been shown to range from roughly 30 to nearly 50 percent, Teach For America emphasizes that many program alumni continue to teach, albeit in different schools and districts that most observers may not see.

To help bolster this argument, Teach For America released an analysis of its annual alumni survey last fall that focuses specifically on the length of alumni’s careers in teaching. The key finding from this data: A full two-thirds of Teach For America alumni teach for at least one year after the commitment period, with many teaching considerably longer. Also the authors find evidence of many alumni dynamically entering and exiting the teacher workforce over time, consistent with other career teachers and running counter to the two-and-out characterization.

Even with these modestly improved retention figures, though, the retention of teachers placed through Teach For America still lags considerably behind that of new teachers overall. Hence, the critics’ prescription for more retention for greater Teach For America impact stays in force. 

Recent findings from an analysis my former colleagues and I conducted, however, require us to add some nuance to the retain-for-impact strategy. In our work looking at Teach For America’s placement strategies in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, we examined whether corps members who are eventually retained as alumni in the district performed differently in the classroom during their two-year commitment period. We found Teach For America teachers who were retained were estimated to be more than twice as effective in math during these first two years than those who chose to leave the district. No significant differences in reading were detected between Teach For America teachers based on their post-commitment retention.

This finding is an unambiguously positive result for Teach For America: Though teachers from the organization are less likely to be retained, the strongest teachers appear to be the most likely to continue in the classroom. Though this exact question has not been addressed in other Teach For America studies, these findings square with other studies in the research literature demonstrating that relatively effective teachers are those most likely to stay in their initial placement schools and in the profession.

But here’s the rub. We don’t know what affects corps members’ classroom performance and how this interacts with their decision to stay in the classroom. And this is important because we don’t know exactly how strategies that may affect Teach For America retention will actually impact student learning.

For example, one interpretation of this finding could be that retention is a point of self-selection: Those good at teaching will likely stay and those not so great will likely choose to exit. If this story is true, and Teach For America was actually successful in encouraging those who were likely to leave to stick around, the marginal teachers would likely be those with weaker classroom performance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they have a small net benefit for the classroom and promote workforce stability. However, this would likely not yield much benefit over the status quo.

An alternative hypothesis that could explain these findings is based on commitment: Those committed to stay longer will perform better because they are more invested in the school and their teaching career. If this were the case, any strategy Teach For America undertakes to encourage greater commitment among its corps members could both increase corps members’ performance in the classroom and increase the retention of its alumni. It’s not clear which of these hypotheses is a more accurate description of reality, or if perhaps other stories are worth considering.

Would the schools and students served by Teach For America benefit if corps members were to stick around longer after their commitment period? The critics are right – the answer to this question in most cases would be a cautious yes. Yet until we have a better idea about the relationship between corps members’ performance and retention, we cannot say whether strategies to keep more Teach For America teachers in the classroom would represent marginal or wholesale improvements for these schools.

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

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