Originally published in The American Prospect on January 5, 2015.
When public school districts hire teachers from Teach For America, they pay a greater upfront cost than if they hire traditional entry-level teachers. This is because TFA charges finder’s fees for every “corps member” they supply. In addition to the salary and benefits school districts pay each teacher, districts also must pay the national organization, typically between $2,000-$5,000 per corps member, per year. Though generally overlooked, these finder’s fees are salient to many of the key issues in the national debate over TFA’s harm and benefit to public education.
To put the finder’s fees in perspective: If one city’s TFA cohort, consisting of 200 corps members, comes with an annual finder’s fee of $4,250 for each teacher recruited from the organization—then that cohort’s two-year commitment will cost the district an additional $1,700,000 in dues to the organization. This is not a trivial sum for school districts experiencing massive budget shortfalls.
The TFA hiring contracts are generally non-refundable, even if a teacher turns out to be a serious problem or quits early. Takirra Winfield, the national spokesperson for TFA, says that while the organization has a “pretty clear” no-refund policy in its contracts, there have been some cases where TFA has made exceptions, such as providing a credit to the district for the upcoming year, or giving regional teams discretion as to whether to invoice districts for teachers who leave early.
Finding excellent teachers who are willing to stay and work in low-performing schools—typically located in high-poverty areas—has been a challenge for school districts across the nation. As a result, the teachers most frequently sent into high-poverty school districts are young novice instructors who are more likely than more seasoned teachers to leave their positions soon after their hiring. This creates a cycle of inequality for the most disadvantaged students; studies have shown that high teacher turnover itself leads to lower quality instruction and lower student achievement, as well as an inability for schools to build up their own institutional capacity.
The Alliance for Excellent Education, an education policy organization, found thatabout half a million teachers leave their schools each year, and only 16 percent of this attrition is due to retirement. The remaining 84 percent can be attributed to teacher transfers between schools (most often transferring into schools with higher-income students) or leaving the profession altogether.
TFA, which is built on a model of two-year teaching commitments, presents a challenge for schools that are looking to recruit teachers who will remain in their classrooms for the long haul. In 2007, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future determined that teacher turnover costs districts millions of dollars annually, and has been getting more expensive over time. Nearly half of all new urban teachers leave the profession after their first five years of teaching.Though studies show 60 percent of TFA teachers stay for a third year, after that their the numbers significantly drop, with a little more than a quarter of all corps members remaining in teaching after five years. (And about 85 percent of those TFA recruits who do keep teaching after four years transfer out of their original placement school.)
Teach For America reports that 90 percent of their corps members nationwide return for their second year. The American Prospect asked TFA for data on regional teacher retention, to get a better sense of what the story looks like in urban districts. TFA responded that they have only been tracking regional retention since 2012, which is surprising for a data-driven organization that is coming up on its 25th anniversary. Below is information based on the three years TFA was able to provide: