Future of Schools

As Teach For America marks 10 years in Memphis, contract with Shelby County Schools faces scrutiny under tight budget

PHOTO: Laura Kebede
Emily Abeles, a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School in Memphis, teaches one of her small groups. Abeles is an alumna of the city's first Teach For America cohort.

Emily Abeles says she probably wouldn’t have gotten into teaching had she not signed up with Teach For America as part of the organization’s first cohort in Memphis in 2006.

A Knoxville native, she’s stayed in Memphis ever since and works today as a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School, operated by the state-run Achievement School District in the Frayser community.

Marking its 10th year in Memphis, Teach For America is one of a handful of alternative teacher training programs that help feed the pipeline of educators into schools operated by Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District and charter schools authorized by the local district.

The nonprofit organization, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, has 293 recruits working in Memphis this school year, compared with 48 its first year. And the training has evolved to meet the needs of the city’s challenging teaching environment.

“We focused on mostly academic goals at first,” Abeles said of the first cohort’s efforts. “Now I’m seeing first years with much larger and more ambitious visions for their students. They’re thinking more holistically with their students.”

The number of Memphis recruits is down from the organization’s peak of 340 in 2014, a decrease that leaders attribute to the economy’s recovery and college students finding more lucrative job offers upon graduation.

The recruiting organization expects about 260 new teachers next school year, about half of whom will teach in Shelby County Schools if the school board votes Tuesday night to approve a contract to pay the organization up to $650,000, or $5,000 for each teacher placed.

Since 2009, the cost was covered by the $90 million grant awarded to the local Memphis district from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for teacher effectiveness initiatives. This year, as the grant money dries up and the district faces an estimated shortfall of more than $70 million, its funding is less certain.

With the Gates money, “it was easy because that money was earmarked” for teacher effectiveness efforts, said school board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, adding that TFA recruits provide a “great value” and fill hard-to-staff positions. But facing a budget deficit, “we’re approving something without knowing what we’ll have to give up to have it,” she said.

Board member Stephanie Love notes that the school district is struggling to care for its own hires and create a balanced budget. “We have a (staff) shortage, that’s true,” Love said. “I just really think we should lift our morale in house and we may not have to worry about contracting with an organization to bring in more teachers as we are now.”

Teach For America has long faced criticism for fast-tracking young idealists into the classroom, giving them a summer of intensive preparation rather than the years of coursework that teachers who graduate from education schools typically take.

But traditional teacher colleges have not supplied the number of educators that districts like Shelby County Schools need, while alternative programs have become more mainstream nationally to feed districts that serve high-need students.

In Memphis, TFA’s track record includes a number of high-profile alumni.

Of the original 48-member cohort, 10 TFA recruits still work in the city, including Tim Ware, executive director of ASD-operated Achievement Schools, and Athena Turner, who now oversees TFA in Memphis. In addition, Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools and a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet, was the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis.

“There’s an undying desire to make Memphis the absolute best place to live in the world,” Ware said of why he stayed. “There’s a lot of energy that I love to be a part of.”

Ware was one of only three black teachers in the inaugural cohort and the only one who was not straight out of college. Since then, the organization has sought to attract recruits that are more diverse in ethnicity and background, as well as provide more training on understanding the culture of its students.

Ware cites the professional development he received through TFA for putting him on the fast track to a leadership role. “The non-stop training and development TFA provided me, it really sharpened my sword and really quickened my pace more than I’ve seen in other contexts,” he said.

Turner says the percentage of recruits continuing to teach in Memphis after their two-year commitment has steadily grown. About 64 percent of teachers from the 2013 cohort stayed on for this year, she said.

 

Across Tennessee, about 9 percent of teachers trained in Tennessee last year came from alternative programs similar to TFA.

voucher verdict

Do vouchers help students get to college? Two new studies come to different answers

PHOTO: Micaela Watts

The debate around school vouchers has exploded in the last year with the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That also means recent studies showing that student achievement drops, at least initially, when students use public dollars to attend private schools have gotten a lot of attention.

But supporters have countered that test scores only say so much about student performance. The real test is how students do over the long term.

Two studies out Friday offer new answers — and some ammunition for both sides.

The research looks at how students from Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. fared after using a voucher to attend private school. It found students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to attend four-colleges, but not necessarily more likely to actually graduate. In D.C., voucher recipients were no more likely to enroll in college.

Here’s what else the studies tell us.

Disappointing results for D.C. voucher program

The D.C. analysis, conducted by Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute, found that 43 percent of students who won a voucher enrolled in college within two years of graduating high school. That’s 3 percentage points lower than similar students who lost the lottery, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The research relied on that random lottery for allocating vouchers in the first two years of the program. This meant the study could confidently show that any difference between lottery winners and losers was caused by the program, which was created in 2004 and has been a source of controversy ever since.

The study notes that because the sample size of students is fairly small, it can’t rule out the possibility that the program either boosted or hurt college attendance to some degree.

The results are surprising in light of past evidence that the first groups of D.C. voucher participants were more likely to graduate high school and scored higher on reading tests. (A more recent study on the program, focusing on students who participated in later years, found that it caused substantial drops in math test scores.)

Milwaukee voucher recipients more likely to attend — but not necessarily graduate — college

The Milwaukee study offers a more positive story for voucher advocates.

Voucher students were generally more likely to enroll in college, particularly four-year universities, than students with similar test scores from the same neighborhood who were not participating in the program in 2006. For instance, among students who used a voucher in elementary or middle school, 47 percent enrolled in college, compared to 43 percent of similar students.

When it came to actually completing college, though, the results were less clear. The researchers estimated that voucher recipients had a small edge — 1 or 2 percentage points — but the difference was not statistically significant.

MPCP is the Milwaukee voucher program; MPS is Milwaukee Public Schools

In contrast to the D.C. study, the Milwaukee researchers — Patrick Wolf, John Witte, and Brian Kisida — weren’t able to use a random lottery, meaning the results are less definitive. And although the researchers try to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the estimates may be skewed if more motivated families, or students who were struggling in public schools, used a voucher.

The latest results are consistent with a previous Milwaukee study by some of the same researchers. It’s also similar to a recent Florida study suggesting that vouchers led to increases in two-year college enrollment, but had little or no effect on whether students earned a degree.

(Both the Milwaukee and D.C. studies were funded by a number of groups that support school choice, including the Oberndorf Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Walton is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

What we still don’t know

Like the research before it, these studies won’t come close to ending the debate about school vouchers. Opponents will likely highlight the results in D.C. and the inconsistent impact on college completion in Milwaukee. School choice advocates will point to other parts of the Milwaukee study, and the fact that the D.C. voucher programs appeared to keep pace with public schools while spending less per student.

Meanwhile, these studies tell us most about these programs as they existed more than a decade ago. That’s the disadvantage of studies like these of longer-run effects, even as they provide more information about metrics more important to most policymakers and parents than test scores.

“The problem with these long-term studies is that these are the right outcomes to look at, but by the time we know it, it’s of more questionable relevance,” Chingos said.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.