TFA Diversity and the Credibility Gap

As I’ve written, the available pool of black teachers is small because ed school can’t commit affirmative action and still produce teachers that can pass the licensure tests. This leads to a question that’s been plaguing me for a few months: how the hell can Teach for America have recruited around a thousand African Americans?1

Of course, to even raise the question is to offend with the premise. But then, that’s why I’m anonymous, to offend in the name of explanation. So let me be Vox:

Here’s 4 charts that explain everything you need to know about Ed’s perplexity:




What you see right away: most blacks are getting credentialed as elementary, special ed, or PE teachers.

The average math/reading scores of blacks passing the Praxis in these 20 states2 is 482/459. The average math/verbal scores for all elementary school teachers, regardless of race, are about 520/480, and for high school academic teachers about 580 in the related content section (math for math/science, reading for history/English) and around 560 in reading regardless of content. As the chart shows, the average SAT score for college graduates is about 542 on both tests, meaning that despite the rhetoric, high school teachers in academic subjects aren’t just above average on the SAT, but above the 50% mark for college graduates.

About 13% of African Americans scored above 550 on the math and reading sections of the SAT each year, give or take.

Most researchers wisely refrain from putting all these numbers in one place, the better to avoid drawing obvious conclusions. But considering all these numbers, and remembering that African Americans have many other occupations to choose from, most of which without a content knowledge test, one can perhaps see why I find TFA’s claim of 1000 black teachers to be worthy of inquiry.

I don’t doubt their numbers. Perhaps I should; lord knows Gary Rubinstein has ample evidence that TFA cooks its stats. But I accept the numbers at face value, and also accept that these numbers reflect corps members who have passed their credential tests.

Then how?

Well, as an obvious starting point: TFA is committing affirmative action. I know this partly because of the dog that didn’t bark. If black TFA corps members have ever had an average 3.6 GPA and a 1344 SAT (math and reading), then TFA would trumpet this fact on every brochure. I also know this because of the numbers I just provided–only 13% of African Americans are getting over 550 on any SAT section, and a smaller number is getting 550 over both (can’t tell how many, but it’s a percentage of a percentage, usually).

Besides, any time I see an article celebrating TFA’s high credential test passing rates, those passing rates aren’t 100%. Some TFAers are failing these supposedly simple tests. I imagine I know more about the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT than most and can score in the 98th percentile or higher on all of them. The elementary school credential tests in the linked articles present no challenge for anyone with a 1344 SAT.

So TFA commits affirmative action because the available pool of minority candidates simply doesn’t allow them to use the same criteria. Hence, lower SAT scores for blacks and Hispanics—except not too low, because of those same pesky credential tests.

Then what? How does TFA thread the needle to recruit African American can didates, given the tremendous opportunities in much better paying careers that exist for blacks with the cognitive skills necessary to pass the credential tests?

Here’s what I came up with.

  1. Find top-tier candidates with goals TFA can serve.
    Whites and Asians might take on teaching for a couple years to burnish their resume on the way to grad school, but black college graduates who can pass high school math and science credential tests are shoo-ins for law and med school. They don’t need TFA as a resume sweetener.

    But strong African Americans and Hispanics with “soft” degrees might see TFA as an obvious path to management that only requires a couple years in the classroom. I could also see TFA making a pitch on entrepreneurial grounds—teach for a couple years, then get in on the ground floor of an education business or consulting practice. Or management—black administrators outnumber black high school teachers, and that might be a great path to starting a charter, then maybe a chain, and build an empire.

    That’s a small number, I’m thinking, but it happens.

  2. Find blacks who have already passed the credential test.

    A while back, I noticed a big jump in already-credentialed teachers, aka education majors, getting accepted to TFA. In 2009, 3% of the TFA corps had education degrees; in 2014, education majors had more than tripled to 10% of a larger population.

    If a black education major has a credential, he or she has passed the necessary tests. Just make sure the candidate gets assigned to the same state and hey, presto. I can’t find any stats on the race of TFA’s ed major candidates, but certainly this would be a great way to increase the number of black candidates.

    But why, you might ask, would a black college graduate with a credential go to TFA? Yeah, geez, why would a black candidate sign up with the organization that brags about its demand for high SAT scores and excellent qualifications? I do believe the word is “signaling”.

  3. Hire second career folks who have already passed another demanding test.

    TFA has also started pushing hard for veterans, who worked for an organization that trains personnel based on cognitive ability. I imagine that TFAers know the link between ASVAB score and speciality, for example. Lawyers and accountants and other professionals who haven’t found the career advancement they expected—or who just wanted to give back to the community—might also be interested. Possibly related: a third of this year’s recruits are career changers. Five years ago, 2% of recruits were over 30. I wonder if the career changers are more likely to be black or Hispanic?

  4. Send black candidates to states with low cut scores on credential tests

    No doubt TFA has carefully reviewed the required cut scores by state for the Praxis tests , and observed that Alabama’s cut scores are remarkably low. This might be completely unrelated to why TFA established an Alabama presence in 2010 and doubled that presence in 3 years. (Why did it take TFA so long to move into Alabama anyway, given its demographics? Not suggesting nefarious motives, just wondering.)

I don’t have proof for any of this, and of course, people get very offended at the very idea that anything other than attrition explains the dearth of black teachers. For the reasons outlined, blacks who can pass the credential tests have many opportunities other than teaching, so it makes sense they’d have a lower tolerance and higher attrition. That said, I’m asserting, based on all available evidence, that it’s the tests keeping blacks out of teaching, and thus TFA’s claim of a 20% black teacher corps meeting the same selection standards needs…clarification.

I would love to be wrong. Proving me wrong would require TFA to provide racial breakdowns for SAT scores, college major, credential subject, and credential state. By all means, bring it on and I will happily recant if needed. If TFA provides hundreds of African American high school math teachers to California, I will gladly shout my wrongness from the rooftops. If the average African American SAT score for this year’s recruits is 1300, then I will paper Twitter with links announcing my error.

But suppose I’m right.

Someone’s surely going to ask, so what? So what if TFA is committing affirmative action and not using the same caliber test scores for blacks as whites? So what if they are recruiting blacks who already have teaching credentials? And why the hell do you have a problem with black veterans becoming teachers?

I have no problems with TFA recruiting veterans, career changers, credentialed teachers, and dedicated prospective teachers with lower test scores. But if black candidates make up a big chunk of these recruits, TFA should make this clear.

Because I get really tired of people like Michael Petrilli, Andrew Rotherham, Dana Goldstein, and all the other education folks praising TFA to the skies for its ability to be both selective and diverse. Whoo and hoo! TFA fixes both the major problems that our broken ed schools can’t be bothered with. Further evidence ed schools suck.

I can’t tell whether sheer ignorance or cunning disingenuousness drives these folks, but if reality disrupts that nonsensical narrative, so let it be done.

If TFA is bulking up its black and Hispanic candidates using the methods described, ed schools can’t compete and for more reasons than black credentialed teachers are counted twice.

Everyone tends to forget the one huge advantage TFA has over traditional credential methods. Corps members attend ed school—the same “broken” ed schools that credential traditional teachers. The difference lies in the practicum. Traditional teachers work for free as student teachers for six weeks to a year. TFA corp members’ “student teaching” is actual employment. They get seniority, resume experience, and best of all cash dollars for learning on students—and they do it without constant supervision.

So if you’re thinking of being a teacher but have bills to pay, would you rather take loans and go to ed school while working for free? or get a paid job in five weeks?

Not a tough call.

I’m a career changer who tried all sorts of ways to get into the classroom until I finally threw in the towel and went to ed school once my tutoring and test prep work allowed me to keep my “day job” while working for free as a student teacher. I considered TFA, but was told that the odds of getting in at my age were nil.

Ed schools can’t compete with any internship program that pays for classroom teaching time. Full stop. And before sneering about the marketplace, ask yourself how many people would pay for law school if they could easily practice law by taking a test and passing the bar exam.

But TFA is almost certainly not accepting all second career folk, and call me cynical, but I’ll bet they take black veterans and lawyers with mid-500 SAT scores over white career changers with high 700 SAT section scores but no PR value.

What TFA offers black candidates is the same that it offers white candidates—the imprimatur of a “select” organization, a chance to get a paying job more quickly. But if TFA is using different criteria to hire black candidates, then the selectivity is a lie. The black candidates are serving TFA’s purpose not by being “select”, but by being black, the better to shut down critics.

So the next time TFA trumpets its diversity, demand details.3

If I am wrong, if TFA is actually recruiting top-tier black talent away from law and medicine as opposed to just allowing reformers to pretend it is, that’s worth knowing.

Of course, if I’m not wrong, then everyone is forced to acknowledge the real reason we don’t have many black teachers.


1–I’ve been focusing on black teachers because there’s far more data. Everything I’m describing here holds for Hispanic diversity as well.

2–The largest states don’t use the Praxis and aren’t part of this report. CA has just 4% black teachers, and blacks have dismal passing rates on its credential tests. Texas has a low teacher diversity index, sixth to California’s first. New York had a fairly diverse teaching force. Except, have you heard? NY’s credential tests just got tougher. As you may have gathered, harder credential test = higher SAT scores needed = fewer black and Hispanic teachers New York’s change will lead to fewer black and Hispanic teachers.

3–I am both intrigued and puzzled by the enrollment decline in ed schools, although TFA’s decline makes more sense. But ed schools shouldn’t be seeing this dramatic a drop-off, and I’m unsure as to the cause. I’d really like to see the numbers by race. But I left both declines out of this analysis, for now.


About educationrealist

14 responses to “TFA Diversity and the Credibility Gap

  • James Thompson

    Thanks for your post. You identify an excellent reality checking procedure: if a group differs in ability from the norm (up or down) then there should be testable real-life consequences wherever there is a reliable measure in place: passing tough exams, winning chess competitions, getting entry to prestigious Academies and the like. If there is a discrepancy either the first measure of ability or the later measure of success must be wrong.

  • vijay

    A true interpretation of TFA is a stepping stone or PostDoc model, where students sppend two years (or more) comiling Extracurricular credits. The EC credits are for law, medicine or Ph.D [programs, or entrance into policy fellowships in government or Google/startups.
    If you accept the above model, the admission of minorities into TFA will become clear. BTW, the minoriity law and med schools aspirtants in TFA are not just looking for admissions, they are looking for admission into law/medical schools above what their MCAT/GPA (LSAT/GPA) fits them. The whole idea is to use a two year (army?Peace corps? like) rotation to slot into a higher psoition than what the college major/GPA allows them into.

    This is no joke, TFA into charter schools pay close to 50 K per year and fore non-stem majors, spending two/three/four years while paying off loans and applyiong for other jobs is a very good forward path.

    The GPA puzzle is not hard to figure out; TFA is like 40% White Aisan; 30% minority; 30% grads/other career. However, white/asian applcants, need to be close to 3.9 GPA in elite schools to be admitted; for minority pplicants they can go down to 2.8 gpa from any school. For carrer change applicants, they have alternate tests like GRE, etc whichg they use to opt in.

    • vijay

      The above rant does not make any of what Ed.R. said false. Simply, you need to look at TFA white and Asian is a signal for elites, not really comparable to Hispanics or Blacks.

      You can read college confidential or ask your nephew/niece to find the admission policies for TFA. They do not even reach below 3.8, and only in Ivy league/Duke/top state schools. Only a few ladies who have excellent essays get in at 3.6 or so.

      I actually pity the minority who enters the TFA; they do not understand or appreciate the complex signalling mechanism involved.

      There are several such elitist markers in US colleges. Ivy league (+other elite colleges like Duke) grads prefer the following in order: (1). Investment baks/Financial institutions in NY/Boston, (2) (Assured) startups, (3) More elitist grad schools, (4) TFA. getting into one facilitates ((later) entry into another. However, a minority TFA canditate from a lower level school is not even in this game.

      As one involved in recruiting for a couple of Fortune 500 companies, engineering companies in F-500 are essentially out at elite schools; we hire entirely from stat schools strong in Tech.

      • Lagertha

        I agree that STEM firms (F500 & start-ups) are just interested in the BEST coders, the most innovative thinkers, the craziest, wild-west, non-mainstream, non-elite school “near” geniuses (mostly guys) than giving a hoot about some kind of former TFA person, or even a graduate of an elite school with a liberal arts degree. Thank goodness STEM firms don’t really care about diversity or elite school degrees. Thank goodness, or the American economy would not be robust or constantly in the vanguard.

        When looking for summer work, my son was given all kinds of “puzzlers” and IQ tests by SV entrepreneurs – and some (1 who is a personal friend) told me that they may influence him enough to just drop-out of school…and…that am I gonna be ok with that! They were impressed that he had already created an app (a financial services app) in HS, and scored a job working tech at the World Cup in Rio after his freshmen year in university – (being a mom, I have to brag a little!)

        In fact, many SV firms are moving subsidiaries into the western mountain towns/states near those big state schools and tech schools Vijay refers to – the kids that are 18-22 right now, can’t afford SV-Bay Area/NYC rents, and, don’t want to leave their mountain biking/skiing/riding/rafting/rappelling/fishing lifestyle-tethered to craft breweries, simple food and cheap rents behind.

        Having gone to an elite university, I have always thought that the entire TFA premise is a fraud…and, that those hapless young people who decide to throw the dice to teach at a challenging public school, are really doing it for strictly selfish reasons, not because they feel any sort of commitment and desire to be an educator. Many are just completely rudderless after graduation with their lame LA degree, and, haven’t a clue to what they should do with themselves. And, if they are not good in math, aren’t the hottest looking thing, Wall Street and Bain are out.

        TFA seems to be just a stepping stone before going on to something better, cooler, more $$$, more serious – endeavors which pop into the life of these post-elite school grads. And, the TFA newbie won’t feel like such a loser at their 5th or 10th college reunion if after TFA, they scored a better venue, “real” job, or scored acceptance to a top grad school. The diversity of TFA or the test scores and racial make-up of the TFA teachers doesn’t matter…because the sheer idea of the TFA is just such BS that isn’t working to close any kind of achievement gaps.

        And, irony of ironies, the very existence of TFA broadcasts to the entire USA that well, do we really need universities with graduate schools in education if any B.A. graduate with no pedagogical experience can waltz into a teaching job in the hardest school systems with the most challenging students?!?! What really surprises me is that Columbia Teachers College has not made some sort of statement about the inanity of this: Because, yeah, the idea that “All teachers should be just like the TFA teachers…exclusively BA graduates, a highly diverse bunch, from the most prestigious/elite universities, blah, blah, blaaa” affirms, or just deep sixes the idea of pursuing a graduate degree from ‘high falutin’ Columbia. And, like why would someone who really does want to teach, does have high test scores from HS days, want to bother to go (pay for) to graduate school for education if a TFA teacher “cuts” in front of them with impunity? Sheesh.

      • Apollo

        As a former executive in a successful (acquired) tech startup, I have to say that while we did care primarily about demonstrated ability to create and be productive, we considered an elite degree (particularly in a substantive major) or current enrollment in an elite university to be significantly valuable markers of ability. We did not consider TFA experience to be in the same league at all, although I have no objection to the program per se.

      • anonymousskimmer


        “I agree that STEM firms (F500 & start-ups) are just interested in the BEST coders”

        This isn’t what Vijay wrote. Vijay said that they are interested in graduates of state schools currently strong in tech, which is its own signalling mechanism that probably hinders the hiring of students from regional comprehensives (etc…) or SLACs.

        From personal experience I know there are bars like this to employment. Interview questions are asked such as undergrad papers published, etc…, to which those from more research focused schools have better answers. And then of course there’s the behavioral-based interview questions which likely become implicitly biased toward the kinds of answers the interviewer expects, and the interviewer undoubtedly begins to expect answers which are typical of those who went to state schools strong in tech and research.

      • Apollo


        Good catch. Yes, it’s all about signaling.

        Maybe it’s not fair (no doubt Lagertha would say so) but it’s reality.

      • anonymousskimmer

        Hey Apollo,

        Do you know why the HYPSMC-level schools don’t use their endowments to expand the number of undergraduate spots available?

  • Jennifer (@PostJenn)

    This article and the accompanying links explain why Teach for America no longer has a training site in New York City, the largest public school district in the United States. Not only has the profession been run into the ground and fewer people are entering the field, but the licensure process in New York has been much more difficult.

    According to Newsday only 68% of students in the state passed all four required exams. The previous passage rate was 95%. I am sure a large percentage of black and Hispanic students didn’t pass.

    TFA didn’t want to have to explain why they couldn’t supply NYC with NAMs so first they said they were going to shrink the NYC corp (which had already shrunk) then they closed the NY training site. Even though 1000 pre-k teachers were hired in NY this year, TFA-NYC only had 22 early education recruits.

  • Kaiser Roll

    “California’s 21st century classrooms are not the socially and linguistically homogenous classrooms of yore, representing a society that had made a firm investment in its middle class.

    We live in a demographically-transformed state in which we need to educate a new kind of citizen to labour in a new kind of economy to create a new kind of society.”

    Of course, the left won’t admit the diversity is the cause of the problem.

  • Andrew

    “I am both intrigued and puzzled by the enrollment decline in ed schools”

    I am not puzzled at all about any decline in ed school enrollment. The deteriorating conditions and anti-teaching hysteria being whipped up by politicians and journalists over the past 5 years or so have made me question my decision to become a teacher, and I am in my 18th year in an urban district. I am amazed anyone in their right mind would enter the field of education, unless they intend to skip through teaching just to start up some lucrative consultancy firm or go work for Pearson.

    The more that The Powers That Be “reform” education, the worse it gets.

    I liken education to a lever; we teachers are an inch from the fulcrum and students are a yard away on the other side. Why is all the attention paid to the side with the least advantage? A small amount of corrective energy spent on the students’ end would yield far greater benefit than any amount of force applied on our side of the lever.

    Maybe they really DO know that nothing fixes stupid.

    • Andrew Stallard

      The pay and benefits for being a teacher are better than ever. This is the only reason I am pursuing education as a career.

      I do appreciate the issues raised by the EdWeek article. My classes are little more than a barrage of leftist propaganda to become “change agents.” It seems as though ed Schools think the real job of a teacher is to make sure your students grow up to vote Democrat. It is no wonder teachers find themselves at the center of so much controversy. I don’t want to get involved in “ideological cat fights” either.

      I am capable of keeping my mouth closed and head down, and dutifully parroting back the propaganda on whatever assignments my professors give me. Hopefully out in the real world I can simply stick to teaching science and ignore all of the political questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: