Where Teachers Come From

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After all the blah-blah about reform and spending, education comes down to teachers and what goes on in their classrooms 180 days a year. So it's troubling that some of the most effective young teachers are also the most likely to leave the profession.

A new study by the Tennessee State Board of Education measures the effectiveness or "T-Value" of 41 of the state's teacher preparation programs. The T-Value can be statistically insignificant, positive, or negative, based on how well students perform — and how much improvement they make — on standardized tests.

Teach For America (TFA), the widely publicized program that came to Memphis five years ago and to Nashville two years ago, got the best scores in math, reading, science, and social studies. But TFA and Vanderbilt University also had the lowest retention rate, losing the majority of their teachers after their second or third year.

The colleges and universities that produce the most Tennessee teachers are the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The majority of their education graduates who went to work in 2006 were still teaching after four years. For TFA and Vandy, the number is under 10 percent.

Athena Turner, executive director of TFA in Memphis, said retention rates have been improving since the first "corps" of 45 teachers came to Memphis. It doubled in the second year of the program, but that still means that a large majority of TFA teachers left the classroom after serving their two-year hitch. Turner said nearly two-thirds of them, however, are still working with children in disadvantaged areas in some capacity including nonprofits and social service agencies. More than 250 TFA teachers have taught or are teaching in Memphis.

As someone who taught for five years after graduating from college, I would say there is a big difference between teaching in a large public school and working indirectly with children or teaching in a small charter school with a low student-teacher ratio. Somebody has to face those classrooms of 20-30 kids in Memphis City Schools on Monday morning, and my sympathies and respect are with the teachers who do that year after year.

One interesting detail of the study is that almost nobody fails the state licensing exam on professional knowledge and content areas. The pass rate for every school was over 90 percent, and several schools made a 100. Maybe the test is too easy.

Here is a sampling of the schools included in the study, using the class of 2006-2007.

Teach For America: 9% of 45 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive all areas.
University of Memphis: 53% of 527 teachers stayed four years. T-Value insignificant or negative
Vanderbilt: 7% of 129 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive in math and social studies.
UT-Knoxville: 55% of 303 teachers stayed four years. T-Value insignificant or negative.
UT-Martin: 55% of 119 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative.
UT-Chattanooga: 35% of 185 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive in social studies.
Middle Tennessee State: 63% of 333 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative.
Austin Peay: 54% of 147 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative or insignificant.
Victory University: 41% of 29 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative.
Union University: 56% of 132 teachers stayed four years. T-Value insignificant or negative.
Christian Brothers: 36% of 73 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive in math, negative in reading and social studies.
LeMoyne Owen: 71% of 14 teachers stayed four years. Insignificant data.

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