So NOT Amazing! Teach For America Corps Members’ Evaluation of the First Semester of Their Teacher Preparation Program
by Heather Carter, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley & Cory Cooper Hansen - 2011
Background: Much of the research related to Teach For America (TFA) is related to the concerns surrounding whether such teachers should assume primary teaching responsibility and whether alternatively certified teachers are effective in the classroom. This research study takes a different approach and moves the conversation into a new domain of evaluating the coursework that TFA teachers undertake to meet state-mandated certification requirements. Based on initial course evaluations at a college of education, TFA students rated their university courses and instructors more critically than did non-TFA students.
Purpose of Study: The purposes of this study were (1) to explore the aforementioned differences in quality ratings of courses and instructors and (2) to examine what items on the student evaluation instrument could be used to identify salient constructs that are most necessary to meet the needs of TFA students.
Setting: This research was conducted at a college of education at a Research I university involved with a TFA partnership through which TFA students earn master’s and certification while teaching in high-needs schools.
Participants: Participants in this study were TFA students who were teaching on an alternative teaching certificate, as compared with traditional students who were enrolled in the same methods courses with the same instructors. Both sets of students were enrolled in their first year of their teacher preparation program.
Research Design: The researchers analyzed the numerical differences between student evaluation scores posted for the same instructors by different groups of students (TFA and traditional students enrolled in the same methods coursework). The researchers also analyzed survey (Likert-type and open-ended) data to evidence and explain differences.
Findings/Results: (1) TFA students did in fact rate their courses and instructors significantly lower than did their non-TFA peers; (2) TFA students, as practicing teachers in charge of real-time classrooms, were more critical consumers, critical in the sense that they needed—or, more appropriately, felt that they needed—coursework that provided just-in-time knowledge; and (3) TFA students did not feel as if they were treated like master’s students. They wanted instructors who modeled practical teaching strategies and did not dumb down course activities, many of which they believed were irrelevant and a waste of time given their immediate needs.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Issues related to certification coursework are highlighted, and included are specific and immediate course improvement recommendations and a call to reexamine educational policies related to alternative teacher certification.
Teach For America (TFA) was established as a nonprofit program by a Princeton graduate in 1990 and recruits top college graduates to teach for 2 years in public schools that are difficult to staff (Dillon, 2008). Since its inception, educational researchers have examined the effectiveness of these teachers, more broadly the effectiveness of under- and alternatively certified teachers regarding student achievement. Much of the national peer-reviewed research published in academic journals has focused on this issue. Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Veilig (2005) and Laczko-Kerr & Berliner (2002) are two notable, often-cited articles that examine this issue; both compare the effectiveness of various types of certified and noncertified/ undercertified teachers.
Beyond academia, the effectiveness of TFA has been sensationalized by the popular press. Newsweek, Time, Business Week, and The New York Times are just a few of the popular news outlets that regularly sing the praises of TFA as part of the solution to fill empty classrooms with highly dedicated individuals. The New York Times published an article praising the recruitment efforts of TFA, citing a press release announcing that TFA would place 3,700 new teachers in high-needs classrooms in the fall of 2008 (Dillon, 2008). Two days later, the editorial board followed with a statement extolling TFA and dismissing traditional teacher preparation programs as merely diploma mills (Teach for America, 2008). National conversations surrounding TFA are regenerated every school year as new corps members enter high-needs classrooms across the country, and conversations typically focus on whether TFA should be placing teachers into classrooms at all.
Although the praises and cautionary talk are valuable, neither rhetoric addresses the immediate need of how to best support these first-year teachers who begin teaching children in some of the neediest schools in the country. Using The New York Times articles statistics (Dillon, 2008), the 3,700 teachers are there in classrooms as first-year teachers. It is imperative that academia begin looking at the training that TFA teachers receive, both from TFA and colleges of education, and move beyond questioning whether they should be there at all.
Prior to beginning formal certification training within a college of education, TFA starts preparing corps members to enter the classroom and continues during their 2-year tenure. TFA claims to spend more than $19,000 per corps member in professional development and training, which includes a 5-week summer training program in which corps members complete a modified student teaching experience. This program is followed by a 2-year program of continuing support, during which corps members are observed and engaged in dialogue with TFA program directors (Mikuta & Wise, 2008).
Shortcomings of the TFA corps member training were the focus of a dedicated issue of Phi Delta Kappan (June 2008). A TFA alumna and doctoral student argued to change the 2-year structure of the teaching commitment to include a year of teacher-in-residence, with the idea of providing corps members with a type of student teaching experience before they assumed full teaching responsibilities (Hopkins, 2008). Several colleges of education deans spoke to this by putting forth explanations about how universities might partner at a deeper level with TFA to provide more support to corps members but stopped short of suggesting any other changes to TFA itself (Koerner, Lynch, & Shane, 2008). Darling-Hammond (2008) also interjected by citing the research surrounding the idea of the extended teacher-in-residence.
But still, as this debate ensues, TFA continues to place nontraditionally prepared teachers into classrooms across the country to take on primary teaching responsibilities, and support during that all-important first year is typically received though the collaborative efforts of colleges of education, TFA, and the employing school districts. Most states require corps members to enroll in some form of teacher preparation program to supplement the professional development offered by TFA. Such is the case at the crux of this study. The purpose of this study was to undertake a critical evaluation of a restructured masters program designed for TFA first-year corps members.
In the state where this study took place, a college of education at a Research I university restructured a masters and certification program to align with the state requirements for an alternative path to teacher certification. While teaching, TFA corps members enroll in one of the three teacher preparation programs offered: elementary education, secondary education, or special education. Although corps members ultimately receive a masters degree plus certification, they enter the classroom on an intern certificate that is valid for 2 years and is dependent on fingerprint clearance, passing a content exam demonstrating subject expertise, employment by a school district, and simultaneous enrollment in one of the universitys state-approved teacher preparation programs. As a teacher on an intern certificate, the teacher is classified as highly qualified according to No Child Left Behind (2002) guidelines.
The program at the center of this study was based on an initial teacher preparation program designed originally to certify graduate noneducation majors as K12 teachers. In an attempt to tailor the program to the needs of intern teachers, the courses were spread out over a 2-year period (as per state requirements), and classes were scheduled one night a week for 5 hours at a time. No classes were scheduled on weekends or during summer school. In addition, university instructors who taught the methods courses joined their TFA students in their elementary classrooms during the teaching day to observe and provide feedback. This was done in hopes of making the university preparation courses more reflective of what was happening in the field. This was also done so that university instructors might have more intimate knowledge of the context in which their TFA students were teaching so that they could tailor their coursework requirements to better meet TFA students needs.
In the fall of 2007, the first semester that the program was offered, 180 corps members enrolled. At the end of the semester, despite program personnels best intentions, program leaders discovered that the content of the courses offered, and the course instructors, may not have met the immediate and critical needs of the first cohort of TFA teachers. Through the teacher preparation programs standard student evaluation process, it was discovered that first-semester TFA students rated their courses and instructors at statistically significant lower levels than did their traditional undergraduate and graduate student peers. There was such a marked difference in overall and by-factor means that program researchers decided to further explore this phenomenon.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
As stated, much research focuses on the existence and effectiveness of the TFA project and its corps members. However, it is easy to miss a key implication in Darling-Hammond et al.s (2005) research when caught up in the debates surrounding TFA. In a press release from Stanford News Service featuring the Darling-Hammond et al. (2005) study, Trei (2005) quoted Linda Darling-Hammonds response to TFAs reaction to the original article, stating, The finding is that it makes a difference for all teachers, including TFA teachers, to be certified. The major policy implication of the study is that training does matter.
Following this logic, and with this as an impetus for reviewing the effectiveness of this particular program, it became time to critically review the coursework that corps members received while teaching in the classroom. The goal of this study was to be reflective in order to improve both coursework and instructor delivery within the TFA teacher preparation program. The ultimate goal was to improve the program to best meet the needs of the high-needs students they were teaching.
Specifically, researchers conducted this study (1) to explore the aforementioned differences in quality ratings of courses and instructors during the TFA and traditional students first semester, and (2) to examine what items on the student evaluation instrument could be used to identify salient constructs most necessary to meet the needs of these unique graduate students.
Alternative certification programs have reached critical mass over the past 25 years, with approximately 1 in 5 teachers entering the classroom as an alternatively certified teacher each year (Spellings & Manning, 2006). Most states boast alternative routes to certification. Requirements range from simply passing a series of tests, to passing a test or tests and taking a limited number of education courses, to passing a test or tests and enrolling in an accredited, full-blown teacher preparation program (Walsh & Jacobs, 2007).
What is an alternative path to certification? Alternative paths to certification are as varied as the states offering them. Using the most general definition, an alternative path to certification is anything other than a traditional teacher preparation program. In 2003, the National Association for Alternative Certification (NAAC) established a clearinghouse for information to collect and disseminate data related to nontraditional paths to certification.1 According to the NAAC, no two states share the same requirements for alternatively certifying teachers; however, typical candidates who follow an alternative path to certification hold a bachelors degree outside of education and then decide to become teachers. What makes these paths unique is that there typically is no student teaching requirement in the traditional sense; these candidates assume full teaching responsibility on day one, with little, or in some cases no, preservice training. Demographics beyond that vary by the type of program in candidates they enroll.
TFA is usually identified as an alternative path to teaching, yet TFA is not a path to certification. Each state certifies teachers based on specific and unique guidelines, and TFA is responsible for the recruiting, selecting, and placing of teachersnot the certifying of teachers. This is a fundamental difference. In states where TFA teachers are placed, corps members enter the classroom through some form of an alternative path to certification. Once a person is selected by TFA, the journey toward certification begins. Fewer than 10% of corps members have completed a teacher preparation program, and most hold undergraduate degrees in other areas such as psychology, business, and engineering. The majority of 2006 corps members, for example, had degrees in social sciences (28%), followed by government and public policy (17%), language and literature (17%), math, science, and engineering (16%), business (6%), humanities (4%), art and architecture (3%), education (2%), and other (6%) (Lipka, 2007).
As noneducation graduates, each corps member must meet the corresponding state requirement for alternative certification to be eligible to enter the classroom as the teacher of record. This must be done before entering TFAs professional development, which includes a 5-week preservice experience completed in a summer school training site, followed by a 2-year period during which TFA staff observe and provide feedback to corps members in line with the TFA mission and philosophy. The focus of this training is on student achievement. Ongoing professional development includes activities such as formal observations and dialogue around student achievement, and various meetings and seminars designed to coach corps members over the course of the 2-year commitment (Mikuta & Wise, 2008).
TFA also partners with local education agencies, including schools and colleges of education, to provide support above and beyond what TFA provides. Sometimes this support is in the realm of mere certification requirements, and sometimes corps members are enrolled in masters degrees in education programs (Mikuta & Wise, 2008). According to deans from several colleges of education, programs undergo diligent review to tailor teacher preparation to meet the unique needs of TFA teachers (Koerner et al., 2008). Customizations include increased mentoring and supervision of corps members in their K12 classrooms, hiring teacher practitioners to teach classes, and sequencing courses to best meet the already demanding schedules of first-year teachers.
Upon first read, one might assume that enrolling in an alternative teacher preparation program would provide the much-needed support for these novice teachers, who have little preservice experience. However, in a recent report sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Walsh and Jacobs (2007) argued that alternative paths to certification are nothing more than restructured traditional paths and have, thus far, missed the opportunity to fundamentally change the routes through which teachers become certified. Most times, the coursework is the same as traditional programs, offered in a traditional format and schedule. One requirement that often sets alternative programs apart from traditional programs is the conventional student teaching experience prior to being recognized as the teacher of record.
Regardless, teachers who choose alternative routes express more dissatisfaction with their preparation programs than those who follow traditional programs. Darling-Hammond, Chung, and Frelow (2002) reported that alternatively prepared teachers, including TFA students, rated their preparation more poorly than did traditional undergraduate and graduate students. Alternatively trained teachers also reported less self-confidence and sense of efficacy than their traditionally prepared peers. Yet, no systemic data exist to help explain why this is the case. What is known is that reducing certification requirements is the least of alternatively certified teachers worries (Rochkind, Ott, Immerwahr, Doble, & Johnson, 2007).
The question becomes, then, as formal teacher preparation program educators, what do we do to support new teachers who have entered the classroom with little formal teacher training? Rather than removing teacher preparation course components from certification requirements because of low satisfaction ratings, one solution is to critically evaluate existing programs and find opportunities to improve the teaching experience for new, alternatively certified teachers. Critical evaluation of the existing TFA program within this research study helped to determine the extent to which, and why it was that, TFA corps members evaluated their courses and instructors significantly more critically than did their traditional undergraduate and graduate student peers.
Data for the study came from two sources: the fall 2007 student evaluation results and a follow-up survey questionnaire developed to investigate differences between TFA and traditional students in the spring of 2008. Tracking these students was feasible because the TFA students proceed through their courses in cohorts.
FALL 2007 STUDENT EVALUATIONS
First, researchers looked at the data from the fall 2007 semester student evaluations across all 37 TFA course sections. Course evaluations are administered as per board of regents requirements at the end of each semester to help administrators evaluate course quality and instructional effectiveness and to help instructors improve their courses and instructional methods. The courses evaluated during this semester included instruction in content methods, lesson planning, classroom management, and literacy theory and strategies.
A pattern emerged indicating that TFA students were distinctly more critical than their peers enrolled in the traditional teacher program. To explore this phenomenon further, researchers sought comparable sets of student evaluation data about instructors who taught the same course to both TFA and traditional graduate and undergraduate teacher preparation students during the same semester.
Based on those criteria, 4 instructors were identified as eligible participants in the study. One instructor had a PhD in her content area, and the other 3 instructors had masters degrees in education. The instructor with the PhD had 10 years of experience teaching at the college level. The instructors with masters degrees were recognized as outstanding educators with over 10 years of K12 teaching experiences but had limited experience teaching at the college level. One of these instructors taught two different cohorts of TFA students, yielding a total of five comparable data sets that could be used for this analysis. All 4 instructors agreed to participate and release their TFA and traditional student evaluation data for their five comparable sets of classes (n = 237 students).
The TFA students were either elementary or secondary first-year teachers in low-income schools and were teaching on an alternative teaching certificate. The traditional students were enrolled in comparable undergraduate and graduate courses within the traditional teacher preparation program. Both sets of students were part of their respective elementary and secondary cohorts, enrolled in their first year of their teacher preparation program, and, specific to this study, enrolled in two complementary sections of a secondary general instruction/classroom management course and three complementary sections of an elementary literacy methods course. Because these data are confidential, specific demographic data could not be culled to test whether significant differences beyond this existed between respondents that may have biased their ratings further.
Although the sample size for the class unit seems small, these were the only comparable data that could be culled from the larger data set and analyzed to determine whether faculty perceptions that their TFA students were more severe in their ratings were indeed true, signaling to researchers that further exploration was warranted. Results were not expected to generalize given the small sample. Results simply indicated that further exploration was justifiable and sound, even given the potential differences between instructors and student groups, which may have compromised levels of reliability and validity.
SPRING 2008 STUDENT SURVEY QUESTIONNAIRE
Once this marked difference was observed, researchers surveyed the same TFA students who evaluated their courses and instructors during the previous semester. Again, this was easily done because all TFA students going through the program proceeded in cohorts.
Researchers constructed a 35-item student survey questionnaire (see the appendix) framed largely by the colleges current five-factor (overall score, overall course content, overall instructor, overall testing, and overall affective; see Table 1 for within-factor items), 28-item student evaluation form (the instrument on which both TFA and traditional students rated their courses and instructors) to investigate why it was that TFA students graded their courses and instructors more critically.
Again, researchers had their thoughts on this but wanted to gather empirical data to test their assumptions and, more specifically, to determine (a) what course/instructor qualities mattered most to these students in terms of learning how to be an effective teacher, (b) some of their more global values about teaching and expectations of their courses and instructors, and (c) why they thought their traditional peers graded the same courses and instructors so differently, and more favorably. A total of 37 TFA students (separate from this study) pilot tested the survey instrument, after which revisions were made before distribution to the complete sample of first-year TFA students.
Researchers administered the questionnaire to each cohort during one of their spring 2008 face-to-face classes. Laptops were brought in for those without laptops, and all students completed the survey questionnaire online. Of the 109 TFA students who were enrolled in the five comparable classes and contributed to the first semesters evaluation results, 88 completed the online survey questionnaire (response rate = 81%).
Coefficient-alpha estimates of internal consistency reliability (Cronbach, 1951) were computed for each of the five factors included in the survey instrument and are reported in Table 1. As illustrated, each factor is at an acceptable alpha level. Values below 0.70 are often considered unacceptable (Nunnally, 1978). This instruments alpha levels warrant the use of this survey instrument for the purposes of this study.
Table 1. Survey Instrument Coefficient Alpha Estimates of Internal Consistency Reliability
METHODS OF DATA ANALYSIS
To determine if the differences between TFA students and their traditional peers who scored the same courses taught by the same instructors at the end of their first semester were actually significant, t tests for differences between two independent means were used to examine differences using group means, group standard deviations, and the total number of students who evaluated their courses/instructors (non-TFA n = 133; TFA n = 104). Differences that were statistically significant at a p value ≤ 0.01 (two tailed) are noted. To control for Type I error, researchers used Bonferroni’s approach and divided the significant p value p ≤ 0.05 by the number of factors included on the Likert-type section of the survey instrument (five). Thus, the value of p ≤ 0.01 was used as the cutoff for statistical significance. Actual p values are reported.
For effect sizes, researchers calculated Cohen’s d using independent group means and standard deviations for all factor scores. Some educational statisticians believe that only statistically significant effect sizes should be included in calculations of average effect sizes (Robinson & Levin, 1997), whereas others criticize this position on the basis that it can lead to misinterpretations of overall results. Members of this second camp believe that all effect sizes should be reported and averaged regardless of statistical significance (Thompson, 2006). As such, effect sizes for all statistically significant p values and all p values regardless of statistical significance were averaged, yielding two mean effects.
In addition, participant responses to the open-ended, free-response questions included on the student evaluation instrument were read, coded, and reread to categorize into bins (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Once bins became focused and mutually exclusive in nature, the items were collapsed into categories, quantified, and labeled.
Researchers then presented the working themes to a sample of 7 TFA student participants invited to participate in a follow-up focus group because of their expressed and active interest in improving the program. Thereafter, working themes were left intact, edited for accuracy, or left alone without additions or deletions.
To capture which of the items included on the student evaluation form mattered most, TFA students were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed that each coursework component mattered in terms of them becoming an effective teacher. Students responded to a 4-point Likert-type scale series per item (strongly agree = 4, agree = 3, disagree = 2, strongly disagree = 1); student responses were averaged, standard deviations were calculated, and means were ordered highest to lowest, illustrating which course/instructor items mattered most to least. Overall means were correlated with standard deviations to determine participant levels of intergroup agreement as related to the items that students thought mattered.
Participant responses to the open-ended, free-response items included on the survey instrument also underwent qualitative data analysis (see preceding discussion).
FALL 2007 STUDENT EVALUATIONS
To reiterate, when the instructors who taught the same courses to both traditional and TFA students noticed that TFA students scored their course content and instructional effectiveness substantially lower, researchers explored differences across the fall 2007 student evaluations. TFA students were more critical consumers, critical in the sense that they neededor, more appropriately, felt that they neededjust-in-time knowledge as practicing teachers in charge of real-time classrooms. If instructors did not deliver what the TFA students thought they needed to meet the everyday challenges in their high-needs schools, they graded their instructors down.
As stated, 4 instructors taught the same classes to two different sections of students during the same semester (one instructor taught three sections: two TFA and one traditional). Student evaluation is broken into five factorsoverall score, overall course content, overall instructor, overall testing, and overall affectivewhich yielded a total of 25 sets of different scores to be tested for statistical significance. To test whether instructors received lower scores from their TFA students, the researchers gathered all sets of student evaluation data and analyzed empirically whether this was the case. It was.
Out of the 25 total comparisons, 16 t tests (64%) yielded statistically significant differences (p ≤ 0.01), 100% of which illustrated that TFA students did in fact rate their courses and instructors more harshly than did their non-TFA peers (see Table 2). The average mean difference illustrates that instructors teaching TFA students were graded one quarter of a category lower (-0.25 on a Likert-type scale, 14 with 4 being outstanding) than they were in their seemingly identical content courses teaching traditional education students. Including only statistically significant effect sizes, the mean effect was 0.43, which might be interpreted as a medium effect. Including all effect sizes, the mean effect was 0.23, which might be interpreted as a small effect.
Table 2. Statistically Significant Differences Between Non-TFA and TFA Student Ratings and Effect Sizes
Note. For fall 2007, please see the numbers of students who evaluated their instructors per class (n), instructors mean scores per course evaluation factor (with 4.0 being most desirable score), standard deviations per instructor and factor (SD), mean differences per instructors teaching non-TFA versus TFA students, p values (which are noted if levels of statistical significance p ≤ .01), and Cohen’s d effect sizes.
* indicates that mean difference is significant at p ≤ .01.
Again, these were the only comparable data that could be culled from the larger data set and analyzed to determine whether faculty perceptions were indeed accurate. Results from this section are not expected to generalize given the small sample size. Results simply indicated that further exploration was justifiable and sound.
And whether these results were due to a halo effect (students form a favorable view of their instructor and respond to specific items with this positive holistic impression) on the part of the traditional education students or due to a severity error (inversely related to a halo effect; students form an unfavorable view of their instructor and respond to specific items with this negative holistic impression) on the part of the TFA students warranted further inquiry. Why was it that TFA students graded their instructors in a different and more critical way? To further explore this, researchers analyzed the qualitative comments included on the student evaluation, by groups and instructor, to help make sense of the quantitative data.
The first round of analysis explored the ratings of students who did not include any comments in the open-ended, free-response section on the evaluation instrument. Only 20% of traditional students completed the evaluation without writing any qualifying comments, whereas more than twice as many TFA students (42.6%) chose to let their numerical evaluations stand without further detail. In other words, TFA students were twice as likely to consider the evaluation complete without sharing personal feedback about the quality, or lack thereof, of coursework and/or instruction. The ratings of all students who did not include comments were then analyzed to determine if a correlation between no comments and high or low scores could be established. It could not. The lowest evaluation score for all instructors was 1.6, from a student in a traditional program, and 17% of TFA students awarded perfect 4s, compared with 50% of traditional students.
The next step was to look at the evaluations that included comments. More than half of all evaluations (68%) included comments that provided insight into how students perceived the quality of their instructor and the required course. About half of the evaluations that included comments were positive. Traditional students were more likely to write a positive comment than were the TFA students. Within positive comments, traditional students shared their appreciation for their instructors who were knowledgeable and taught with enthusiasm and relevancy, and from a practical perspective. Traditional students also appreciated the content of the course itself. Superlatives such as amazing, awesome, and fantastic were used 50% less often by TFA students than traditional students to describe the same instructor.
In contrast, TFA students positive comments focused more on the personal qualities of the instructor, praising helpfulness, organization, and preparedness. Instructors who rocked, according to several TFA students, were those who demonstrated personal interest in them, their roles as teachers of record, and the children in their classrooms. Being available for help outside of class was another indicator of an effective TFA instructor. TFA students were also much less apt to comment on the quality of the course (TFA at 6% and traditional at 21%) and were less likely to note their level of satisfaction with how much they learned from the course (TFA at 4% and traditional at 18%).
Traditional students were twice as likely to present any critical comments about the instructor or course by beginning with something they liked and then sharing a concern. For example, one traditional student wrote:
Jacob is very motivational and a positive role model for future teachers. The only feedback I have for his instructional method is to do more demonstrations to class on how to do certain tasks and to have a syllabus updated as things change. Todays college students, regardless of level, require strict structure concerning due dates, expectations, etc. Thanks.
TFA students were less cordial: I think some of the activities were busy work or seemed below us. We understand the value of practice but we are also educated adults.
Instruction not geared to personal grade levels or grade-level preferences was critiqued sharply by students from both programs. Students also critiqued issues with scheduling. Meeting less often and meeting for shorter periods were common suggestions. Misuse of valuable time was noted often by TFA students, and traditional students voiced displeasure with unclear assignments and lack of variety in teaching methods.
SPRING 2008 STUDENT SURVEY QUESTIONNAIRE
A 35-item student survey instrument, part of which was aligned with the actual student evaluation instrument on which TFA students scored their courses/instructors lower, was administered online to discover what it was that TFA students found lacking in their coursework and what they desired from their instructors. Researchers used this instrument to probe more deeply into TFA students perceptions and expectations.
When TFA students were asked to rate the extent to which the course and instructor qualities mattered in terms of their learning how to be an effective teacher, students collectively agreed that more traditional instructional practices and course qualities mattered most. Averages illustrating what mattered most correlated with standard deviations at a statistically significant, high level (r = -0.89; p ≤ 0.01). The higher the mean evaluation factor, or the more the factor mattered, the lower the standard deviation.
In other words, students responded in more homogeneous ways to the items they collectively believed mattered most in terms of their professional teacher preparation. Students thought that traditional items related to course content (whether course material was helpful, whether the class was well organized, and whether assignments were clear) and traditional items related to the instructor (whether the instructor was organized and prepared for class, clarified difficult points, and gave clear presentations) were more important than items related to tests and homework assignments, the fairness of the grading system, and whether the instructor created a friendly atmosphere or congratulated students when they did well. Course content and instructor factors outweighed all other factors for these students (see Table 3).
Table 3. Descriptive Statistics Illustrating What Mattered to TFA Students
Note. Descriptive statistics derived from the 28 items that TFA students were asked to rate, given the extent to which the course and instructor qualities taken from the current student evaluation form (see the appendix) mattered in terms of their learning how to be an effective teacher.
This verified the researchers initial hypothesis that TFA students wanted (what they perceived to be) critical knowledge on a just-in-time basis. This also verified the researchers hypothesis that TFA students believed that their ability to capture (again, what they perceived to be) critical knowledge was largely due to the practicality of course content and the timely, organized, and clear way in which practical content was delivered.
Next, TFA students were asked what course qualities they valued most or thought would help them become effective teachers. If students responded to this question with a response related to instructor quality (e.g., a knowledgeable instructor), their responses were removed from the analysis and composite results. The 88 student participants provided 260 values within their free responses to this question. These are presented in aggregate form here.
TFA students indicated most often that they valued course qualities typical of students under pressurethat is, completing coursework and teaching in high-needs schools at the same time. A plurality of student respondents stated that they valued course activities, assignments, strategies (mentioned 5 times more often than instructional methods or teaching techniques), and resources that served their immediate needs. TFA students also valued courses in which methods and resources could be practically applied and made sense or were relevant to real-time teaching. Last, they valued courses that were reasonable, defined by TFA students as courses that included light amounts of work, little to no homework, manageable assignments, and assignments that were not too challenging, overwhelming, or distracting given their full-time jobs in the field. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
Stuff I can use NOW, TOMORROW, NEXT WEEK
ApplicabilityCan I put this into MY CLASS? I dont want resources for the future. I can find those when I need them. I want what I NEED NOW. Getting resources and advice I can use TOMORROW.
Learning anything that will help my students learn IMMEDIATELY.
A second, much smaller set of TFA student responses indicated that they valued course qualities more similar to what their instructors might have hoped they would note. These students responded that they valued courses in which they learned research-based methods and best practices that would help them become more professional teachers. They valued challenging and demanding courses that they felt illustrated traditional masters courses; courses with positive atmospheres; opportunities to interact and collaborate with peers; and climates that were conducive to their learning, in that order. One student stated that courses should be fun.
Next, TFA students were asked what instructor qualities they valued most or thought would help them learn to become effective teachers. If students responded to this question with a response related to course quality (e.g., a class with little homework), their responses were removed from the analysis and composite results. The 88 student participants provided 294 values within their free responses to this question. These are presented in aggregate form here.
TFA students indicated most often that they valued instructor qualities typical of students who needed content directly related to their teaching responsibilities. A plurality of these students stated that instructors should not waste their time. They also valued instructors who understood their lives as real-time teachers in high-needs schools, and their struggles when attempting to balance their working-in-school and learning-in-college time. They valued instructors with experience, particularly in sharing practical strategies that they could apply immediately, just-in-time, the next day. They valued instructors who they perceived were knowledgeable and markedly intelligent. Last, they valued instructors who were organized and prepared, clear and clarified difficult points, and were accessible, available, and approachable. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
That they are understanding of our unique situation and create a class that supports, not interferes with our schedules as teachers.
An instructor who respects our situation as first-year TFA memberswe are stressed to the nth degree and sometimes professors do not seem to care that TFA adds all this pressure to you.
I want an instructor who understands where Im coming from. My education is secondary, and since we are actually teaching real students, I would appreciate an instructor that understands that and can cater to my needs.
An instructor that doesnt make us do the corny teaching things (like jigsaws).
Provides meaningful learning activities rather than fluff (creating posters and other time fillers).
OrganizationCan I tell from the get go what I have to do? Give me bulleted lists of the elements of assignments.
A second, much smaller set of TFA student responses indicated that they valued the instructors affective characteristics. These students responded that they valued instructors who were engaging and dynamic; rigorous and challenging; honest, positive, humorous, fair, and professional; open-minded and reflective; friendly and respectful; and strong and confident; who built a strong classroom community; and who were student-focused, in that order.
Next, students were asked about their expectations for their TFA masters-level course. The 88 student participants expressed 279 expectations. A plurality of these students stated that they expected that their courses would be more practical or applied. Students also wanted relevant coursework that could be immediately applied. These responses complement and validate the results presented earlier, when students were asked what course qualities mattered most.
In response to this question, however, students were much more vocal and wrote significantly lengthier responses. This might serve as an indication that they were frustrated that what they expected was not what was delivered. Students expressed that they felt that much of the coursework was worthless busy work, especially if some of the course activities took place online. Students wanted more challenging and intellectually stimulating coursework, and some believed that required readings, quizzes, tests, midterms, class projects, and case studies were a waste of time. They wanted less fluff and cognitive stuff and more nitty-gritty. Students wanted increased opportunities to engage in discussions and debates and share ideas with their peers, and coursework that was reasonable and manageable. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
My expectations are skewed because of our circumstances. Nothing will ever seem as rigorous as actually teaching everyday. Its like being thrown into war daily and complaining that our evening shooting practice doesnt feel real enough.
Busy work, exams, projects that I couldnt use in my classroom, etc. is frustratingI teach 5060 hours a week and to spend time on something that I cant use is annoying.
My expectations are that [the university] will respect our time and make sure their [sic] is no fluff in the course.
Students also stated that they wanted courses to help them expand their knowledge about teaching and education in general; some stated that they thought their courses were light on research and theory and thought that coursework should be based on the TFA standards. One student disagreed, charging that the TFA standards were limited.
Next, students were asked about expectations for their TFA masters-level instructors. The 88 student participants expressed 291 expectations. A plurality of these students stated that they expected that their instructors would be more experienced as teachers in the classroom and more likely to draw on these experiences in practical ways. Students also expected knowledgeable and intelligent instructors; a fraction of these students expected instructors with PhDs. Students also expected instructors who would be more understanding of their situations and be reasonable and flexible in response. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
They [should be] clear, prepared, to the point, have taught (or are at least up to date on the subject matter) and most importantly, REALIZE THAT WE ARE CURRENTLY TEACHING. I feel that some professors talk down to us or dont realize that we are teaching and have figured out a lot of things on our own. Teaching us how to teach counting is ridiculous. I figured that one out in August.
I dont expect special treatment, but I do expect my instructors to know that I am currently teaching 100 students on a daily basis, that I am giving my life to help my kids out. When I come to class for 5 hours, I want my instructor to at least fill it with practical, useful content.
These complement and validate the results presented earlier, when students were asked what instructor qualities mattered most. But in response to this question, again, students were much more vocal and wrote significantly lengthier responses, serving again as an indication that they were frustrated that what they expected was not what they received. Students expressed that they felt like they were not treated like masters students and not respected given their academic histories; a fraction of these students were especially frustrated by instructors no-laptop policies. These students felt like this policy in particular was an indication of disrespect. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
We are adults and should be treated as such (ie: dont nag me, let me make my own decisions, I am able to multi-task and Im a grown-up! Some professors do not treat us like adults and thats INCREDIBLY annoying.)
The instructor should teach us at the level we should be learning and treat us at that level. We are masters students that have come to this program through another program that weeds out unqualified people. Therefore, we are all intelligent, capable people, and we are not being treated as such.
In terms of instruction, TFA students expected their instructors to be organized, prepared, clear, and to the point. Some students wanted fewer, better lectures, and a fraction were frustrated by instructors who used others previously created PowerPoint presentations. Some of these students expected instructors to model teaching practices more often and suggested that instructors actually practice what they preach; yet others stated that was a bad idea. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
A teacher who just sits there and feeds me powerpoints about irrelevant information or makes me do assignments that have no bearing whatsoever on my teaching is not what I expect. I expect a teacher who can level with me, who understands where I am coming from, and who tailors instruction according to that.
Were told to teach high up on Blooms, yet we are being taught to on a very low level. This is infuriating.
I expect instructors to be able to engage me, and willing to move into a meta level of conversation where they can question their own expectations, assumptions, and practice as well as challenge me to examine mine. Currently, it seems like many instructors see themselves as conduits of information, and not so much as active agents willing to negotiate about knowledge.
Otherwise, students expected their instructors to be accessible and helpful, engaging and dynamic, rigorous and challenging, efficient, open-minded and reflective, friendly and respectful, and caring, in that order.
Next, students were reminded that during the fall 2007 semester, many TFA students complained that what they were receiving was not masters-level work, nor what they expected from a masters-level course. So students were asked whether this reflected what they thought in order to determine if the sentiments of some of their classmates generalized across their peers. If they felt this way, they were asked to respond why.
All 88 student participants replied to this question. A majority of students agreed with these comments, about 1 in 3 disagreed, and fewer were unsure as to whether this was the way they perceived their courses. As qualifiers, the 88 student respondents expressed 193 explanations.
For those who wrote that they agreed, students stated that their courses were too easy, that their courses were not challenging enough, and that the things they learned were irrelevant. These students also expressed that they would have felt more challenged if they had been given more opportunities to think critically about research-based practices. On a similar note, they felt that too much of their courses consisted of busy work, especially when disconnected assignments, readings, discussion boards, and quizzes/tests were given online outside of class. They expressed that they felt that the preceding were due to instructional quality (instructors without PhDs) and instructional methods; that their instructors did not respect them as exceptional graduate students and tailor instruction to their learning needs; and that, because their instructors were not as knowledgeable as expected, they filled their classroom instruction with fluff. One student felt that (s)he already learned everything at the premasters institute, so what the coursework offered was a waste of time; another felt that if class sizes were smaller, students might be more able to learn more pertinent and relevant information. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
Yes, this reflects what I think. Courses so far were either not engaging or were taught almost haphazardlyas though it did not matter whether we completed them successfully or not. I do not expect an instructor to tell me that my assignments dont matter, that I just need to complete SOMETHING to meet minimum requirements and pass. If a masters course doesnt expect me to challenge myself and exceed, then what is its purpose? I dont mind doing a lot of work if it is clearly relevant and I understand how it will improve my teaching.
Yes. It was a joke. I couldnt tell you right now what I learned from the fall semester besides a few random points here and there. I know that ELL stands for English Language Learner and that SEI stands for Sheltered English Instruction. Thats about it. I do not know what masters level work is suppose to be, but what I have experienced so far is a bunch of busy work that stresses me out mixed with a bunch of useless assignments that I could have done in high school.
On the flip side, TFA students who wrote that they disagreed or were unsure did not feel like they were masters students in this program, but they attributed this to working full time as nonrepresentative masters students. These students noted that the masters degree program fit well within their situations as classroom teachers and really did not want more, given that they knew they could not handle more.
These students also expressed that their answers to this question depended on their individual classes. Many did not know what to expect of a masters class, particularly a masters class in the field of education, so they were hesitant to judge the programs quality. A large number of students expressed that they did not know what all of the fuss was about and were more worried than anything that because of their peers complaints, they might get more work if program administrators took what the critical students had to say seriously. A student response illustrating this includes the following:
Point blank, I will get out of these classes what I put in, and I am not putting in much, so I have not been getting much out of it. Never in my life have I had to choose between my own education and something else. At this time, that something else, teaching, comes first before everything. I have put teaching over my physical and mental health (an unintelligent idea) and my own education. I come last.
Next, students were informed that they were much more critical than their peers enrolled in the same classes in the traditional teacher education program. TFA students were more critical consumers of the course content delivered and more critical of their instructors, so they students were asked why they thought their responses were more severe.
All 88 student participants replied to this question, with 184 explanations. Students felt that they were more critical because they were collectively more intelligent, were Ivy Leaguers who graduated from some of the top universities in the country, and were raised in these institutions to be critical thinkers and more reflective and outspoken than their peers. TFA students also felt that they were more critical because they were in a state of emergency, teaching in hyper-pressure environments, in high-needs schools, in sometimes unsafe neighborhoods.
Some students were ultracritical if what they were learning in their courses was wasting their extremely precious time or not serving their immediate needs. On a similar note, students thought that they were hypercritical because they were tired, super-stressed, annoyed, bitter, irritable, moody, mean, angry, hostile, and disgruntled. Students also felt that because they were overachievers with higher expectations than students in traditional education courses, they did not want to just get by and cruise through their coursework.
TFA students also felt that they responded in more valid ways because they better understood why feedback was important, given that they were being evaluated as teachers of record in their schools. In addition, they were more likely to think their opinions mattered and they perceived that the university was willing to listen to what they had to say. Another set believed that they were more critical because they did not sign up for a masters degree, yet were being forced, through this particular program, to pay for it. Student responses illustrating this include the following:
Most of all, I really think that students were just generally unhappy with their lives and the pressures between our district requirements, [university] requirements, TFA requirements, having a new job, living in a new city, etc. Also, I think we are busy and tired and want our time used really well. We were probably more likely to get annoyed more quickly.
TFA teachers have seen whether or not the coursework was actually practical. Theory does not seem useful at this point. They also have higher expectations for the rigor. Most TFA teachers are also used to more difficult coursework than probably most average masters and undergrad students.
1. We are critical thinkers and we criticize everything! 2. We come from great schools across the country and were used to a very high level of instruction and challenge. 3. Were overwhelmed with our job and look at [the university] through a negative lens as a burden we have to get through so we criticize it.
Another small set of students were more critical of their peers. Some students thought that their peers were more critical because they think they are generally amazing, theyre too good for everything, and they are on a high horse from college, are elitist, hoity-toity, have a sense of entitlement, think the university owes them something, are overly self involved, are chronic whiners, and are overly critical of everything. These students noted they were sometimes embarrassed because of this.
Last, the TFA students were asked if they had anything else to add. Of the 88 student participants, 57 students responded with the following: Most vented their final words of disappointment and dissatisfaction by reemphasizing the themes already discussed; some blessed the program for the most part; some expressed their appreciation and thanks for using this survey research study to gather their opinions and use their feedback to make programmatic adjustments; fewer suggested that elementary cohorts should be grouped into higher and lower elementary levels and content courses should be delivered in the first semester; and others made positive or negative remarks about individual instructors. One student expressed thanks for offering a masters degree with in-state tuition, and another expressed that TFA should more clearly explain the expectations of this program so that students are aware of what they sign up for.
Teacher preparation programs and TFA have managed to coexist in spite of the rhetoric surrounding the effectiveness of both. As outlined in the introduction, most peer-reviewed academic research has examined issues related to teacher effectiveness. In this new work, the authors expand the conversation to a different domain, undertaking research to critically evaluate the teacher preparation coursework of TFA teachers who are alternatively certified. This is no easy task.
A partnership exists between two organizations with separate and distinct philosophies, and yet they must work together to support TFAs first-year teachers. The support of these teachers is comingled with multiple variables, including TFA support, district-level professional development, and the academic coursework and supervision from the university. However, colleges only have influence in one arenacoursework and supervision. As teacher educators and researchers, it is time to look critically within colleges of education to determine how to shape teacher preparation programs to meet the challenging needs of TFA teachers. This analysis begins with immediate examination of coursework and continues with shaping long-term philosophical understandings of how TFA and universities can partner to best serve the needs of first-year teachers in some of the neediest schools in the country.
Issues identified in this study highlight key components of teacher preparation programs coursework that need to be rethought, according to these alternatively certified students. Issues surrounding university instructors actions and course organizational structure seem to rise to the forefront of conversations surrounding the quality of these programs. Whether these issues emerged because TFA students are simply dissimilar from their peers enrolled in traditional teacher programs (e.g., by educational backgrounds, capabilities, and expectations.) or because TFA students have substantially different expectations as practicing teachers of record has yet to be determined.
In the future, research might be conducted to compare three sets of teachersstudents enrolled in the colleges traditional education programs, students enrolled in the colleges TFA partnership program, and students enrolled in another alternative certification programto sort out these variables. Conducting further research in this area might be easier as alternative paths continue to surface and universities explore how to best meet the needs of these alternative students.
But for the short term, there are simple solutions to some of these concerns. These include looking at issues of professional development for university instructors and allowing them to design courses in a manner that best meets the needs of full-time teachers who are simultaneously graduate students. A teacher preparation program would benefit from professional development to help instructors make the leap from working with students who have the luxury of time to learn how to teach, to working with adult learners in the throes of the job today. This is an important consideration because results indicate a disconnect between treating the students like masters students, and simply modeling practical teaching strategies and dumbing down course content.
In addition, concrete changes in cohort structures are easy changes to make, such as grouping students by grade level and content level where appropriate. In other words, a class full of preservice elementary teachers learning about teaching third, fourth, or fifth grade because they do not know what grade they will end up teaching will not serve the teacher teaching first grade today. These first-year teachers need strategies for teaching first grade, not a future sixth-grade class that may never come to fruition.
Finally, in-class or online activities should be viewed as relevant to the immediate needs of first-year teachers. Organizing class activities around real-world teaching responsibilities is an easy changefor example, giving credit for daily teaching activities such as maintaining a grade book, writing a lesson plan, or creating a classroom operating manual. These are simple changes to make, ones that take nothing more than time and professional development on the part of the teacher preparation program.
Questioning the deeper structure of the traditional teacher preparation program and asking if this is what first-year teachers immersed in the realities of day-to-day teaching really need is the genuine challenge. As mentioned by Walsh and Jacobs (2007), most certification programs designed for alternative candidates are nothing more than reformatted traditional programs. Such is the case with this program studied; it was a program built off of an existing state-approved program. This was done deliberately to fill an immediate need for certifying large numbers of teacher candidates. There was no time, so to speak, to build a differentiated program.
Perhaps that is where the real problem lies: Universities are trying to fit a square peg of traditional teacher preparation courses into a round hole of alternatively certified needs, and it just does not fit. Designing a program tailor made for alternatively certified teachers could take up to 2 years for internal university approval. However, the problem is bigger than any one teacher preparation program or any one college of education. Even if a university undertook such a challenge, there are still required state mandates placed on teacher preparation programs that must be included for certification.
This is a fundamental flaw in the larger policy and system of teacher certification. Until there are major changes undertaken at the state level to address the unique needs of alternatively certified teachers (such as TFA corps members), each college of education is restricted by the constraints of the state-mandated certification system. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work when preparing and supporting two different populations of teachersthose learning to teach before teaching, and those teaching while learning to teach.
Another interesting area worthy of further exploration is the history between TFA and colleges of education. Specifically, as mentioned, TFA and colleges of education have an extended history, as highlighted in the feature section of the June 2008 edition of Phi Delta Kappan (Smith, 2008). Perhaps some of that struggle is manifesting itself in the student evaluations. Although this partnership was built on a strong foundation of mutual benefit, the dual professional development programs (TFA and the university curriculum) could be contributing to the stress of the corps members. Corps members are engaged in full-time graduate work and ongoing, extensive training from TFA. Often, researchers only focus on the initial 5-week training afforded corps members; but looking far beyond that, there are elaborate internal systems in place for corps member support.
All this training is in addition to any professional development provided by the employing school district, which is variable based on the district in which the corps member is placed. Considering the national push for teacher mentoring and induction programs, the corps member is often immersed in a district-based training program during the entire first year of teaching. As a result, the first-year teacher ends up serving many mastersthe employing district, TFA, and the university partner. Each master requires artifacts, evidence, and/or assignments as demonstration of skills. In other words, during any given week, the TFA teachers may have three assignments due, all equally important, in addition to the demanding responsibilities of everyday teaching.
For example, in October, a midterm assignment may be due for the masters program, TFA may ask for student achievement data, and first-quarter grades may be due for the school district. Even to a veteran, this would be a challenging situation. At the very time that a person is undertaking an extremely stressful new job with little training, he or she is trying to meet the expectations of TFA, the school district, the university, and, not to be forgotten, personal goals. Perhaps there is such a thing as too much help, and what the corps members need as first-year teachers is one unified commitment to professional development and support.
Given that 3,800 new TFA corps members entered classrooms in 2008, perhaps it would be wise for the three entities to engage in deep conversations about how to work together, rather than in competition, to support first-year teachers. This would be an improvement over the current environment, given that students in this study often viewed university coursework as nothing more than another hoop through which they were forced to jump. The real challenge would be for each organization to recognize the areas in which they could collaborate, and in doing so, give a bit in terms of individual agendas for the good of the group. One entity cannot take priority over another.
Only through self-reflection and the willingness to consider honest feedback can an organization improve. This was the purpose of this studyto delve into the salient constructs of an existing teacher preparation program to best support minimally trained teachers in high-needs classrooms. It was found that TFA corps members rated their instructors more critically than did non-TFA students taking the same courses, from the same instructors. Not only did TFA students rate the instructors lower, but they also provided a more variable rating of specific course characteristics than did non-TFA students. This is interesting because of the constructs that bring about these differencesthe differences in setting or differences in students that were explored herein. Most of the findings include concerns surrounding instructor actions in the teacher preparation program, such as designing relevant classroom assignments, making valuable use of class time, and having the instructors express value for these unique first-year teachers. In the opinion of TFA students, course content needed to provide just-in-time strategies and require less busy work or fewer online activities.
The major implications of this study can be summarized in one statement: Traditional teacher preparation programs do not necessarily work for TFA corps members serving as first- year teachers in hard-to-staff schools. This message first resonated across the student evaluation data collected as part of the standard university protocol for evaluating courses and instructors, and it became even clearer when students responded to survey questions about their instructors and course content. The researchers better understood TFA student needs by probing into why this unique subset of nontraditional students rated their instructors lower than their traditional peers did and what might be done to address program shortcomings. The answers lie in a myriad of solutions, some of which include tinkering with existing programs, reevaluating entire teacher certification policies at state levels, and creating collaborative partnerships across all stakeholders in the process.
In reality, the easiest way to address the findings presented herein is to simply adjust the existing programs in such a way that TFA first-year teachers value required coursework in colleges of education while working toward certification. However, if the effort stops short of simultaneously looking at larger policy issues surrounding teacher certification requirements and creating meaningful partnerships between organizations, then this research would have been conducted in vain. Results might be used for nothing more than attempts to improve one program, versus the greater goal of improving teacher preparation for alternatively certified teachers working in some of the highest needs schools across the country.
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Student Survey Questionnaire
To explore why there is a difference between TFA and traditional students on how they respond on the college student course evaluation instrument.
Through participation in this study, you will have the opportunity to shape the future of the colleges programs. Your opinions are of the utmost value as the college continues to adjust and modify its programs to more closely meet TFA students needs.
This survey should take approximately 15 minutes to complete.
As always, your participation is voluntary. If you choose not to participate or to withdraw from the survey at any time, there will be no penalty. Your participation in this study will in no way impact your grade in any course or your progress towards degree completion.
31. What are your expectations for a TFA masters-level course?
32. What are your expectations for a TFA masters-level instructor?
33. In many of the course evaluations and/or surveys conducted during the fall of 2007, TFA students reported that this is not masters-level work or this is not what I expected from a masters course. Does this reflect what you think? If so, why?
The College has been reviewing the existing student evaluation instrument in hopes of creating a more valid and reliable measure of teaching effectiveness. In general, it seems that both our undergraduate students and our graduate students do not differentiate between the various items measured by the instrument.
34. Why do you think TFA students were more critical of their courses?
35. If there is anything else you would like to add, please do so here.