Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Teach For America's aspect dominance*

From a pretty good Slate article by Jessica Huseman [emphasis added]:

In the current parlance of Vegas schools, teachers are now “superheroes.” Beginning in January of this year, the city embarked on a rambunctious teacher-recruitment campaign titled “Calling All Heroes” that aimed to bring about 2,600 new teachers to the district. The effort—which could be considered creative, desperate, or desperately creative, depending on your point of view—featured the superintendent of the Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth-largest, zip-lining down Vegas’ famous Fremont Street. Last winter, Vegas school officials enlisted volunteers in Boston to spell out the district’s website address into a Boston snow bank. And in a district-created Web video, two elementary school–aged news anchors announced: “Breaking news! Turns out that we are in crisis, as we have a severe hero teacher shortage!”


As baby boomers retire and applications drop to both traditional education schools and alternative programs like Teach for America, a growing number of school districts are expected to face teacher shortages comparable to Vegas’. But Sin City’s attempted remedies might be most instructive in teaching us what not to do when scrambling to fill teacher vacancies nationally. The emphasis has been on using glitzy, if mostly inexpensive, strategies to get teachers in the door with far less focus on holding onto veterans who are already there.

This is followed by quotes from two new teachers: Jayne Gray, a veteran from Los Angeles and Jessica Recarey a first-year Teach for America recruit. You might assume that TFA supplied a significant share of the applicants. You'd be wrong.

I don't want to single out Huseman on this. Most stories that mention the program give the impression that it's fairly large and many suggest that it's cost effective. Neither is the case.

From Wikipedia:

Year# of Applicants# of Incoming Corps Members# of RegionsOperating Budget

TFA is a big deal in terms of influence and fund-raising but, in terms of boots on the ground, it is a fairly minor player. It is widely perceived as being much larger than it is partly because the people behind the organization are so good at managing the media (you can be almost certain that Huseman didn't just happen on a TFA recruit when looking for new teachers to interview).

We can go back and forth on the role of TFA in education reform in general, but if we're talking about ways to address a teacher shortage, the table above makes it difficult to treat the program as more than a footnote.

* "Aspect dominance in forest ecology typically refers to the plant life embedded within an ecosystem community that is most apparent or obvious. This generally will be the plant life that is tallest and most readily observed. However, this approach ignores the life existing on ground level, which may have a greater biomass. This is illustrated in biology by the “Daisy Field” metaphor. Imagine that you are walking through a meadow and you come upon an area covered in daisies in full bloom. Because the daisies rise above the groundcover to form a canopy, it is human nature to assume that daisies are the dominant species and to refer to the area as a daisy field. However, the reality is that grass may in fact be the dominant species, it just may be the eye is drawn to the daisies.

From What You See is not Always What You Get:Aspect Dominance as a Confounding Factor in the Determination of Fishing Dependent Communities
Steve Jacob, Michael Jepson, and Frank L. Farmer

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