Thursday, September 25, 2014

TFA Founder Challenges Critics with Misleading "Facts"

Wendy Kopp, founder and Chair of the Board of Teach For America (TFA), recently penned a piece in response to the growing tide of critique/criticism her organization faces.  Concluding that this criticism is misplaced and “toxic,” she attempts to silence her critics with the “facts.”
Kopp’s undergraduate thesis (B.A. in public and international affairs from Princeton) was the genesis of her national corps of teachers that turned into TFA.  The preface of that thesis notes that her organization was founded on the assumption that one of the major problems in schools was the “lack of qualified teachers” (Kopp, 1989, p. i).  Ultimately, Kopp laid out a plan for developing a cadre of alternatively certified teachers in an effort to ameliorate the teacher shortage of the late 1980s.  In fact, Kopp asserted that,

[TFA] would bill itself as an emergency response to a shortage of experienced, qualified teachers and would therefore not be telling the nation that its inexperienced members were preferable to, or as qualified as, experienced teachers. Kopp, 1989, p. 50.

This initial “billing” of TFA has radically shifted as TFA now claims that its corps members compete even-handedly with traditionally certified teachers for openings and, as Kopp asserts in her piece, TFA has explicitly transformed itself into an organization that proclaims its inexperienced members are preferable to experienced teachers.
Beyond the classroom, Kopp points out that alumni of the organization “have started and work in education nonprofits and help shape policy in districts and state education departments.”  Yet, Kopp fails to consider the types of policies (pro-charter, pro-alternative certification, pro-voucher, anti-teacher union, anti-teacher tenure) that her alums (like Michelle Rhee and John White) fervently cheerlead.  And, as a recent article concluded, TFA alumni who do become engaged in policymaking “incorporate significantly more messages aligned with TFA.”  Given TFA’s brand of education reform and a favoring of high-stakes testing, alumni who have had little introduction into teaching and pedagogy will likely continue to mimic TFA’s brand of reform (see here and here for examples).
Kopp, much like co-CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard, repeats the usual “we’re open to criticism” mantra.  However, in a forthcoming article (Brewer & Wallis, in press), we show that TFA largely ignores online critique/criticism and, instead, creates a digital echo chamber of allies.  And while Kopp’s recent piece suggests that critique of her organization is largely “toxic” given that critics don’t “consider the facts” about the organization, Kopp then goes on to provide her readers with those “facts.”  Namely, that TFA provides an “intensive program of pre-service and ongoing professional development” for its teachers.  However, she fails to point out that this “intensive” pre-service training is limited to 145 hours of training where 18 of those hours are spent in front of students.  By comparison, given that it requires 1,500 hours in Illinois to become a licensed cosmetologist, 18 hours of practice would hardly qualify as “intensive.” 
Another “fact” presented by Kopp – in a continued effort to promote its corps members as explicitly better than traditionally certified teachers – is a recent study conducted by the Mathematica Policy Institute.  That study concluded that TFA corps members who taught high school math in a public school provided their students with an additional 2.6 months of learning.  However, there are numerous issues with the Mathematica study that Kopp cites.  The sample of corps members in the Mathematica study are not representative of TFA as the majority of them were White, taught high school, and taught mathematics.  What is more, “even if the Mathematica findings are taken at face value, investments in smaller class sizes may close the gap in student achievement far more cost-effectively than TFA.  Not to mention, measuring learning by the metric of days/months of learning requires the acceptance of numerous assumptions about learning and, from a mathematical perspective, the reported 2.6 additional months of learning has been challenged here, here, here, and here.
Another of Kopp’s “facts” suggests that of the 47,000 alumni, 86% remain in education or in jobs improving lives.  This is a troublesome statistic considering: (a) the lumping together of multiple categories appears to be an attempt to inflate the actual numbers; and, (b) the data for this is gathered through TFA’s well-guarded annual alumni survey (most recently released on September 22, 2014).  In that email, co-CEO Matt Kramer notes that 23,000 alumni participated in last year’s survey.  As is such, Kopp’s numbers simply don’t add up.  At the very least, claiming that any percentages of its 47,000 alumni are engaged in any activity when the response rate is less than half of its alumni is exceedingly problematic.  That is, it is misleading for Kopp to write that 86% of her 47,000 alumni are doing anything when the organization only knows what 23,000 of them are doing.  Moreover, other TFA statistics on their alumni impact also exceed what is possible to know when only 23,000 participated in the survey – not to mention, creates an inconsistent message about the organization’s history and impact.  Accordingly, this site claims that there are 32,000 people involved in the TFA alumni network while this one claims that alumni numbers are 37,000 strong. It is important to note that TFA has been called out on reporting exaggerated  numbers in the past.

In sum, Kopp’s attempt to respond to the growing tide of criticism that her organization faces has likely done little to quell dissent and has equally provided her critics with another example of TFA-spin as Kopp exaggerates what the organization knows about its alumni in an attempt to distance the organization from the perception that its teachers abandon education after their two year commitment expires.

by T. Jameson Brewer (@tjamesonbrewer)

Brewer, T. J., & Wallis, M. (in press). #TFA: The Intersection of Social Media and Education Reform. Critical Education.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Federal stimulus funds under the ARRA did not protect state student financial aid, further eroding higher education affordability.

Today greater effort is required for families to send a student to college in the U.S. than ever before. College is both more expensive and a larger burden for the average American family today than at any point in the previous four decades. In 1984, at public four-year colleges and universities, average tuition (the instructional price charged to students) was 5.5 percent of median family income and the average cost of attendance  was16.4 percent of median family income. By 2011 these had increased to 15.4 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively. Between 1982-83 and 2012-13, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased by 357 percent.  Institutions of higher education are also becoming more reliant on tuition dollars, compared to federal funding. In 1987, total educational revenues were $11,085 per full time equivalent (FTE) student, with tuition accounting for approximately 23 percent of the total. In 2012, total educational revenues were also $11,085, but tuition revenues accounted for approximately 47 percent of the total.

In recent research, I examine the role of the Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in reversing the trend of falling affordability of higher education. I find that while the federal matching of state funds did not lead to states cutting their general appropriations for higher education, many states cut student aid, on average, by 12 cents for every dollar received in federal stimulus.

State student financial aid is intended to increase affordability, by providing students with funds that can be used toward tuition and fee prices. Although overall dollars spent on state student aid programs have gone up, increases in state student aid have not kept pace with increases in tuition levels, leading to a decline in purchasing power for students and families. State grants per FTE increased from $598 in 2000-2001 to $660 in 2010-11– an increase of approximately 10 percent. These trends have shifted the balance between tuition and aid, such that higher education has become less affordable.

In recent years, few policies have reversed or tempered the trend of declining affordability for higher education. One exception is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Under ARRA law, federal funds were provided to incentivize state spending on higher education. ARRA contained a “maintenance of effort provision” that required states to maintain certain levels of spending such that federal funds would not be substituted for state funds. With ARRA funds, governors were instructed “to provide, in each of fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011, the amount of funds to public institutions of higher education in the State that is needed to restore State support for such institutions (excluding tuition and fees paid by students) to the greater of the fiscal year 2008 or fiscal year 2009 level”. Although little has been written on ARRA to date, some claim that federal stimulus funds with the “maintenance of effort provision” have tempered the severity of cuts to public higher education in the states, and, as a result, have promoted college affordability. On average, states spent $21.4 million dollars of federal ARRA funds on higher education between 2009 and 2011.

I aimed to answer two questions. First, did ARRA help to maintain state spending on general appropriations for higher education? Second, did ARRA help to maintain state spending on student financial aid – a category of state spending not specifically mentioned in the “maintenance of effort provision” of ARRA? To investigate, I compiled a dataset spanning 2003-2011, a period that includes six years prior to ARRA and all three years of ARRA spending (2009-2011). With 9 years and 50 states, the dataset includes 450 observations and four different measures of state spending on higher education.

My results indicate that federal matching funds through ARRA worked as intended. States respected the maintenance of effort provision and did not cut general appropriations to higher education beyond the requirements in the law. On the other hand, states appear to have reduced student aid — a category of spending not specified in the legislation. My results show that for every dollar received in federal stimulus funds, states reduced spending on student financial aid by approximately 12 cents, on average. This finding suggests that state investment in institutions was protected through ARRA funds, but students were not protected as seen in the reductions in student financial aid. More investigation of this finding and other potential unintended consequences is needed as more data on ARRA become available.

Although federal matching funds are a promising policy approach for incentivizing state support of higher education, the details of how the matching funds are shaped are important. Recent Congressional testimony asked for “maintenance of effort provisions” in new legislation, suggesting that at least some national higher education organizations recognize that the “maintenance of effort provision” served to temper state cuts to higher education. This also indicates concern about the U.S. states’ ability to continue to support higher education without federal incentives. Future federal matching fund programs should consider all types of state spending for higher education if these programs are going to work to promote affordability in higher education. Policy levers for improving college affordability are too often considered separately by policymakers. In fact, the most meaningful improvements in college affordability will likely be derived when state general appropriations, student financial aid, tuition, and changes in median family income are considered simultaneously. 

This article is based on the paper The Role of State Policy in Promoting College Affordability’, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.