June 18, 2019

Teach For America Is Our Largest Provider of New Teachers… And Likely Our Best!

There’s lots of talk today about this ProPublica story on Teach For America. To put it bluntly, I don’t think it’s a very fair or nuanced piece of journalism, and it’s missing two major pieces of context.

One, Teach For America is probably the largest provider of new teachers in the U.S.

This is hard to prove definitively given our fragmented data systems, but I’m quite confident it’s true. Consider our largest teacher preparation programs, in terms of total graduates. I pulled the latest data on all 2016-17 graduates with a bachelor’s or Master’s degree in education. The list of the largest teacher preparation programs may surprise some people, but here’s the top ten:


Institution Total Education Graduates (2016-17)
Grand Canyon University 5037
Western Governors University 4009
Concordia University-Portland 2320
Walden University 2202
Liberty University 2081
Ashford University 2066
National University 1821
University of Phoenix-Arizona 1580
University of Central Florida 1522
Ball State University 1272

These are big numbers, but they reflect graduates, not teachers, let alone new teachers. These are important distinctions. We know based on state and national numbers that many graduates with education degrees do not actually become teachers. Depending on the year and region, 25-40 percent of people who earn degrees in education never use that degree as a teacher.

Moreover, these numbers include bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. it’s impossible to know from the data, but it’s likely that the totals are padded by active teachers pursuing a Master’s degree to boost their salaries.

Let’s use Grand Canyon University as an example. It granted the most bachelor’s and the most Master’s degrees in education, but only 1,564 of those were bachelor’s degrees. If we assume that only those attaining a bachelor’s were truly new, and those graduates went on to teach at the national averages, Grand Canyon might have been responsible for somewhere around 1,000 new teachers that year.

The Cal State system provides another example. While no single institution made the list above, the Cal State system as a whole produced about 2,100 bachelor’s degrees and about 3,100 Master’s degrees in education that year. But in order for those teachers to qualify for a full-time license, California requires teachers to go through their preparation program after completing their bachelor’s degree. So again, these totals are deceptively high in terms of the total new teachers placed by the Cal State system.

In contrast, Teach For America currently has about 7,000 corps members, and they regularly churn out cohorts of 3,000 to 4,000 teachers.* Granted, TFA corps members are spread out all across the country, so it may not be the largest provider in any one state or region, but, collectively, TFA is larger than any other provider of new teachers.

Two, Teach For America may be the best teacher preparation program in the country.

Again, this is a hard statement to prove definitively, but TFA is certainly the most studied, and it reliably produces results that are at least as good if not better than its peers. TFA corps members outperform other incoming teachers in states like North Carolina and Tennessee and they even perform as well as other veteran teachers working in their same schools. TFA teachers do have higher turnover rates than other new teachers, but, on balance, students are still better off. This research mainly focuses on student growth in terms of achievement scores, but TFA teachers may also help boost student attendance

However, there’s a much larger difference across TFA corps members than between TFA and other preparation programs. (If you want to see what this looks like visually, Figures 2-3 here illustrate that point nicely.) That finding alone should make us stop and pause.

In fact, this variance issue plagues much of the journalism about TFA. Given the enormous size of TFA and the wide variety of outcomes of its teachers, it’s easy to find corps members who fit whatever narrative you might want to apply to it.

So I get why TFA is such a lightning rod. It’s huge, and it provides a stark contrast to the traditional teacher preparation programs. But I don’t find the politics around TFA all that interesting or illuminating. I’m much more interested in how this enormous, diffuse, short-term training program manages to produce new teachers who are still roughly on par with their peers.

*TFA often partners with higher education institutions, and when their corps members complete a degree, those completions would be counted toward the host college or university, not TFA. 

Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with TFA in the past. 

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Latest Edu-Reads

Go broad or go deep? I’m on the record suggesting the education field is tilting too far in the direction of specialization. If you’re interested in this question, I strongly recommend this podcast conversation between Patrick O’Shaughnessy and David Epstein. Epstein’s new book Range also looks promising.

Make sure to read Lauren Camera’s deep dive on the Census, and how including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census would affect schools.

Over at The Line, Andy Rotherham writes about America’s “crisis of purpose,” and what we can reasonably ask schools to do to resolve some of society’s thorniest problems.

Max Marchitello on a wonky but important story out of West Virginia. The state’s pension system is massively under-funded, biting into education budgets and teacher paychecks, and yet the state’s efforts to reform its pension plan didn’t go well. Max dives into what happened and what we can learn from it.

Smarter than the average ____? This is an interesting article on the intelligence of bears.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 10, 2019

Better Schools Won’t Fix America… But They Sure Would Help!

Wow, this piece by Nick Hanauer in The Atlantic is one-third correct and two-thirds completely and totally wrong. I’d be happy to see more education funders like Hanauer realize that education alone won’t fix America’s social problems, but, gosh, there’s still a lot more that schools could do to improve our society.

There’s a lot to unpack, but these sentences in particular made me want to scream:

In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow.

No, no, no! First, I don’t know of any study on the sequence that Hanauer is talking about here, while we do have research on how education leads to improvements in individual lives and in broader societies. The education route may not be as fast as Hanauer might prefer, but it’s certainly not zero.

Second, it seems like Hanauer may be defining “great schools” in terms of achievement levels, but that’s the wrong way to look at things. We should define “great schools” as schools that significantly improve the trajectories of the students in their care. Judged that way, education may not be the sole solution to all of America’s social problems, but funders shouldn’t discard it as one lever to improve the outcomes for our most disadvantaged children.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 6, 2019

Weekend Edu-Reads

There’s a new cohort of inspiring Pahara-Aspan Education Fellows.

“Put simply, LAUSD needs to stop spending more than it receives from the state and federal government,” warns the Los Angeles County of Education in the wake of a failed parcel tax. Reminder: This is the long-term fiscal picture LAUSD is facing.

We already knew there were large teacher quality gaps. On average, disadvantaged students get the worst teachers, no matter how you define “quality” or “disadvantage.” A new paper from Jason Grissom, Brendan Bartanen, and Hajime Mitani finds similar gaps in principal quality. They conclude that, “by virtually every quality measure, we find that schools serving larger fractions of low-income students, students of color, and low-achieving students are led by less qualified, less effective principals.”

When states give low ratings to early childhood programs, parents respond by voting with their feet, and the programs respond by making improvements. That’s exactly how things are supposed to work, yet we’re still debating whether “summative ratings” are a good idea or not.

This EdNext piece digging into the data on summer learning loss is really worth your time. Paul von Hippel found that the common narrative about summer learning loss is based on a test administered to 883 Baltimore first graders in 1982. Needless to say, things have changed since then, and newer, better tests don’t show the same summer slide.

In case anyone is curious, no one in my unscientific poll thought Joe Biden had the “the most energetically liberal presidential agenda in American history.” See here for context.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 4, 2019

How Teacher Pension Plans Work

Andy Rotherham and I have a new “explainer” deck out today on teacher pensions. Read it here. But “why pensions?” you might ask. Well, if you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that pensions are affecting your work, whether you want them to or not.
Pensions intersect with issues around teacher recruitment and retention, school funding inequities, charter schools, and a whole lot more. I’ve personally been working on pension issues for 10 years now, and here’s what keeps me going:
  • Pension costs are rising rapidly, and they’re driving out funds that could be going toward teacher salaries, textbooks, pre-k or arts programs, or anything else we might value in education.
  • Despite their overall cost, the plans are not that great for the typical teacher. Depending on the state, the plans really only provide a decent benefit to teachers who remain in one state for their entire career. The rest will leave their years of teaching with no pension at all, or a meager one.
  • The plans are also inequitable. The biggest winners under the current systems are districts with high salaries and low employee turnover–aka the exact group that doesn’t need an extra subsidy from the state. Meanwhile, poor schools with higher employee turnover lose out.

The deck has a lot more, including examples of states that have been able to offer retirement plans that are better for both teachers and taxpayers. Read it here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

June 3, 2019

Weekend Edu-Reads

“Be cautious of the long-run benefits from $6 solutions.” That’s University of Pittsburgh researcher Lindsay Page talking about “nudges” designed to help high school students make better decisions about college.

Over at TeacherPensions.org, I have a piece looking at what age most teachers enter the profession, including some state-level breakdowns.

Don’t read Conor Williams unless you want to be depressed.

Rick Hess calls Joe Biden’s education platform “the most energetically liberal presidential agenda in American history.” Really? That seems a bit hyperbolic. Or maybe Rick is just defining the field narrowly? One could argue that many of our most “energetically liberal” federal education policies came during Republican administrations.

On K-12 education policy alone, I think I’d rank the presidents something like this, from most to least energetically liberal:

1. George W. Bush

2. LBJ

3. Ike

4. Carter

5. George H.W. Bush

6. Clinton

7. Obama

45. Trump

I’d put Biden’s platform, which essentially boils down to “more money and more resources without any new accountability,” somewhere after Obama on this list. But I’d love to read your rankings and justifications in the comments.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

May 29, 2019

“What Works” in Education Is Not Merely A Question of Effect Sizes

Here’s a pet peeve: A champion of some particular education intervention will point to some research study showing Intervention X led to positive outcomes for participating students. Ok, great. Assuming it’s a good study, we now have evidence that Intervention X “worked” in a given Situation Y.

That does not mean Intervention X will easily replicate to new Situation Z.

Anytime you hear someone attach the phrase “high-quality” in front of some intervention, they’re talking about this problem.  These caveats pop up frequently in debates over particular reforms:

  • The small school reform effort produced long-term gains for students, but their backers largely abandoned them.
  • School integration efforts produced large gains for black students (with no harm to white students), but formal integration programs were and remain relatively small.
  • “High-performing” charter schools produce large gains for students, but there is wide variation in those results.
  • Teacher evaluation reforms produced gains in some cities, but the effects were smaller or non-existent when similar reforms were spread more broadly.

Some of these reflect implementation challenges. Others are more about politics (which is itself a particular type of implementation challenge). I am by no means the first person to make this point, but we can’t just say something “works” or “doesn’t work” without giving some consideration to where the policy worked, for whom it worked, what outcomes changed, and by how much it changed the status quo.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

May 24, 2019

Weekend Edu-Reads

“…any movement serious about improving education for low-income, rural, and minority students has to look outside of cities — especially in the South, where a majority of students live outside of city centers.” That’s Kelly Robson about the need for philanthropies to invest beyond urban areas.

“…the children of Perry Preschool participants — most of whom are now in their mid-20s — were less likely to be suspended from school, more likely to complete high school, and more likely to be employed full-time with some college experience. Children of participants were also more likely to be employed and to not be involved with the criminal justice system.” Read Marnie Kaplan on the latest research on the Perry Preschool project, which suggests the program had inter-generational effects.

California has been requiring prospective teachers to take a reading test with “no evidence that it contributes to more effective instruction.” Oh, and this same test is disproportionately keeping out black and Hispanic teachers. I suppose it’s good the state is considering dropping it now, but why did California start using this test in the first place?

“There is usually more variation in earnings results between programs within colleges than between colleges.” That’s Kevin Carey on what we can learn and do with program-level outcome data.

David Leonhardt and Sunil Choy partnered with the Urban Institute on this cool data visualization project on college dropouts.

The Pension Pac-Man must be fed.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

Posted on May 24, 2019 @ 11:01am

May 22, 2019

Absolute Versus Relative School Segregation

“Everyone knows” school segregation is getting worse, right? Well, no. That narrative has been fueled by a partial misread of the data.

It is true that absolute measures of school segregation are getting worse, but that’s mainly due to our diversifying country. In relative terms–how racially isolated are our schools compared to the underlying student population–segregation has not been nearly as dramatic. Here’s Brian Kisida and Olivia Piontek in a new piece over at Education Next:

In contrast, relative measures of segregation take into account the underlying composition of students, making them more comparable across locations and over time. They are also conceptually different in that they measure how evenly a given population of students is distributed across an entire school system. This makes intuitive sense, as segregation implies that some students are segregated from other students—relative to some underlying pool of students a school could enroll.

This issue with measuring segregation is well-known in the academic community, and there is ample scholarly evidence using relative measures of segregation that adjust for the underlying composition of students in school systems. Using these more sophisticated relative measures, such as the dissimilarity index and the variance-ratio index, examinations of trends find that segregation has been flat or modestly decreased over the past 20 years. In summary, massive resegregation is not occurring, and students are roughly just as evenly distributed across school systems as they were 20 years ago.

To be clear, segregation and racial isolation are serious problems in America and far more common than they should be, and efforts to shed a light on these problems are commendable. At every point in time between the Brown decision in 1954 and 2019, millions of American children have been educated in separate and unequal schools. This is an outrage that demands serious attention and action. But as we devise strategies and search for solutions, it is imperative that we are motivated by a complete picture of the problem we are trying to address. Segregation is a serious enough problem that it shouldn’t need to be worsening to be alarming. It’s bad enough as is.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

Posted on May 22, 2019 @ 11:52am

Education in the American South

My Bellwether colleagues Kelly Robson, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Justin Trinidad have a new report out today on education in the American South. It’s a (long-ish) deck that provides a detailed analysis of academic outcomes in Southern states, placing them in historical, economic, and political context.

Read it here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman