TFA and Cleveland's demographic problem

Cleveland’s teachers union is in a fit over the district’s increased utilization of Teach For America (TFA) to fill teaching positions. Instead of griping, the labor union should think instead of the larger human-resource crisis the district faces. The district has a myriad of human-resource struggles and, as we’ll see, one of them is its aging workforce.

The backstory, in brief, is the following. For Fall 2014, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has approved the hiring of forty new TFA teachers. This more than doubles the nineteen TFA corps members that the district hired for the 2013-14 school year. TFA is a highly regarded organization that recruits and trains talented young people to teach in high-need schools across the nation.

But, as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported recently, the teachers union doesn’t seem to be on board—and that’s too bad. In light of its opposition, here’s a fact the union should chew on.

In 2012-13, CMSD had the highest percentage of teachers with more than ten years of experience of all districts in Ohio. Indeed, 89 percent of its teaching force had more than ten years of experience.[1] As a reference point, the statewide average for districts was just 59 percent. Somewhat similar to Cleveland, the other urban-eight districts also had above-average percentages of experienced teachers. Toledo, the next highest urban district, came in at 84 percent; Canton, at 60 percent, came in lowest among the urban eight.

In other words, CMSD may have the oldest teaching force in the state.

(It’s worth noting at this point that teacher experience isn’t generally associated with effectiveness—teachers’ impact on student achievement tends to plateau after year five.)

A competitive human-resource strategy strikes a balance across key dimensions, such as the workforce’s know-how, educational backgrounds, and demographics. I’m not saying that Cleveland doesn’t need a stable of experienced teachers, but rather that the large skew in its workforce doesn’t bode well for its future success. The district needs a better blend of young, go-getter teachers and veterans who can help new ones learn the ropes. At the same time, a mix of higher-cost veterans and lower-cost young teachers could also improve the district’s financial position. An injection of youth sure wouldn’t hurt Cleveland.

Whether CMSD can turn around decades of weak performance will hinge on how the district manages its human resources. Expanding TFA is but one promising strand in the district’s ongoing overhaul of its human-resource policies, which also encompass how teachers are evaluated, paid, and (if necessary) fired. TFA provides the district with more young talented teachers; meantime, the TFA initiative isn’t just youth for the sake of youth, either. Studies have reported very impressive results regarding TFA teachers’ impact on achievement. People in Cleveland should embrace, not frustrate, promising initiatives aimed at reshaping the district’s workforce.

[1] This isn’t a one-year fluke: CMSD was also the top-ranked district in 2011-12, by the percent of teachers with ten or more years of experience (85 percent of teachers had ten-plus years of experience).


Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.