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How do we tell if a program or policy “works”?  It’s no easy task, for several reasons.  First, programs often have ambiguous or multiple goals, and hence a program may “work” with respect to some, but not all, of these goals.  Second, judging whether a program is meeting a particular goal is not simply a technical judgment, but also a political one; it frequently involves asking the question, “compared to what?”

I illustrate these points using a recent study of Teach For America (TFA) by sociologists Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt.  TFA, as anybody not living in a cave knows, is a program that recruits college graduates to teach for two years in urban and rural schools serving high-needs students.  This year, 7,300 young adults are serving in the TFA corps, and the program numbers about 17,000 alumni.  (By comparison, there were about 3.3 million people holding jobs as elementary and secondary teachers in the U.S. in 2008.)

How might we decide if TFA “works”?  A first step is determining what the goals of the program are.  This is complicated, as the program has evolved over two decades in ways that make some goals more salient at some points in time than others.  For example, as the recruitment of corps members has grown more elaborate, and the training and support provided to them more refined, the program may well be concerned more with the classroom performance of corps members today than was the case in the early 1990s.

Recent studies suggest that TFA teachers do at least as well as other novice teachers in the same district in promoting standardized test performance, and in some instances produce higher scores.  Conversely, the sharp increase in the supply of K-12 teachers associated with alternative routes to teacher certification – such as “teaching fellows” programs – has likely lessened the importance of the program’s goal of reducing the number of high-needs students taught by teachers who do not meet a state’s basic criteria for teacher certification.

One goal that remains central to the TFA program, based on its website and the writings and speeches of its founder Wendy Kopp, is the desire to cultivate a new generation of leaders who, by virtue of their TFA service, view educational inequality as a solvable problem and devote their energies to reducing it.  It’s this last goal that was the focus of McAdam and Brandt’s study, published in the December 2009 issue of Social Forces.  These scholars sought to see if participation in TFA had the same kind of long-term effects on political activism that McAdam had observed in his earlier research on participants in the 1964 social movement Freedom Summer, which had sought to advance the civil rights of African Americans in Mississippi.  Comparing TFA graduates, dropouts and accepted applicants who chose not to participate, McAdam and Brandt found that TFA graduates had stronger beliefs about the value of civic participation than those who were accepted to the program but did not participate, but lower levels of actual civic participation than non-matriculants at the time of the study.

In a January New York Times article on the McAdam-Brandt study by Amanda Fairbanks – apparently the Times couldn’t find someone other than a TFA alum to write it – Kopp cried foul.  “Unfortunately,” she said, “it doesn’t seem as if this study looked at Teach for America’s core mission, by evaluating whether we are producing more leaders who believe educational inequity is a solvable problem, who have a deep understanding of the causes and solutions, and who are taking steps to address it in fundamental and lasting ways.”  She’s right, in a narrow sense; and there are some high-profile TFA alumni, such as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who have become influential in education policy circles.

But the study did ask TFA graduates, dropouts and non-matriculants to list all of the voluntary and service activities in which they’d been involved since serving in or applying to TFA, including those directly associated with TFA; those related to public education, but not officially connected with TFA; and all other voluntary and service activities.  McAdam and Brandt found that 82 percent of non-matriculants had engaged in any kind of service, which was significantly higher than the 73 percent of TFA graduates who had done so.  (Exclusive of TFA service, 59 percent of TFA graduates had participated in education-related or other service.)  The rate of public service among TFA alumni is very high – this is certainly an engaged population – but the fact that the rate is significantly higher among non-matriculants calls into question claims that TFA produces high levels of civic engagement.  An alternative explanation is that the TFA recruitment and selection process identifies individuals who are likely to be engaged in civic service whether or not they become members of the TFA corps.

So McAdam and Brandt, who take pains to note that they are not passing judgment on the educational outcomes that TFA produces, say that TFA falls short on the civic participation goal, and Wendy Kopp says that they’re not looking at the right goal.  Who’s to say?  Why, me, of course.  And you.  No one has an exclusive claim to stating the goals of a program.  Rather, we should all look at the context and elements of a program and figure out for ourselves which goals seem reasonable.  Debating and defending discrepant interpretations of a program’s goals are healthy features of public policy.

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