Education

The Intercept Guns for Kim Olson

The online publication doesn't seem to understand Teach for America.

First, let’s meet the players, shall we? Kim Olson is a retired Air Force colonel who is in a July Democratic runoff with Candace Valenzuela to represent the state’s 24th Congressional District (swath of Mid Cities, with DFW Airport at its center); the winner faces former Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne, a Republican who went on to work in the Trump administration’s HUD department.

The Intercept is an online publication that has published a lot of classified documents revealing the extent of the United States’ surveillance operations. You might recall that Barrett Brown won a National Magazine Award for a column that was published by The Intercept.

Over the weekend, The Intercept published a story about Olson that got one important thing very wrong. After first noting that Olson got herself in trouble in the Air Force, the piece digs into her time as the HR director for DISD. This was from 2007 to 2009, a period that saw a huge budget shortfall due to overhiring. The story lays much of the blame at her feet and says she dodged blame. I won’t take issue with any of that.

What I will criticize is The Intercept’s suggestion that another black mark on Olson’s record is her role in bringing Teach for America to Dallas. TFA is the national organization that recruits recent college grads to teach for two-year terms. The old guard, those who fight for the status quo (the Dallas teachers’ union, in other words) doesn’t like TFA because, ostensibly, those teachers stick around for only two years. That’s what they say publicly, anyway.

Here’s the deal, though: data show that TFA teachers produce good results. Have a look at this study SMU published last year. Wait. It’s 44 pages. I get it. You’re at home right now, taking a break from helping your sixth-grader with her math assignment. You don’t have time for 44 pages. Here’s the summary:

A synthesis of 699 underlying analyses that combined grade levels, content areas, and academic years showed that the average probability of passing STAAR within the academic year that a student was with a TFA-affiliated teacher was 39.3% compared to a matched sample of students with non-TFA-affiliated teachers which was a 36.8% probability. There is variability within these overall trends, and each are summarized below and in the full report. However, based on the metaanalysis, the takeaway is that students of TFA-affiliated teachers are overall, slightly more likely to pass STAAR in the academic year in which they had the TFA corps member or alumni teacher.

TFA teachers do a good job. Do some of them leave after two years? Sure. But some of them stick around. And even the ones who leave after two years take with them an experience that can have long-ranging positive effects on society. Like, say a needed bond issue comes up for a vote. You can bet TFA alumni will vote yes. You can also bet that those alumni understand well the huge challenges an urban district like DISD faces.

Again, though, the bottom line is that students of TFA teachers do well. Kim Olson should be given credit for role with TFA, not knocked for it.

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