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Commencement Marshal Morgaen Donaldson: Teacher Retention in America

Today, as Morgaen Donaldson, Ed.M.'97, Ed.D.'08, prepares for the Ed School commencement, she jokes that her recently completed dissertation -- the first and only nationwide longitudinal study of Teach For America (TFA) corps members' voluntary career decisions - was, in fact, her second HGSE dissertation. Her first came as a toddler when she pulled up a chair next to her father, Gordon, Ed.D.'76, who was completing his own Ed School dissertation.

Commencement signifies the end of a long journey for Donaldson, who was selected as a marshal by fellow doctoral students. "It's exciting," she says. "I remember when I wrote my qualifying paper and couldn't conceive of being here. I couldn't foresee what it'd be like to be at this point. I learned a lot in the process and got a lot out of the dissertation."

Working as a research assistant at the Ed School's Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, directed by Professor Susan Moore Johnson, Donaldson focused her dissertation on TFA teacher retention rates. TFA is a national program that places high-achieving college graduates as teachers in some of the nation's most challenging schools and requires them to teach for at least two years. Since 2007, TFA applications have increased by approximately 39 percent and the program will place 3,700 new TFA teachers into classrooms this fall.

Prior to coming to the Ed School, Donaldson admits that she never thought about studying TFA, but, considering her experience as a former teacher and her sister's participation in TFA, she became more curious about retention rates among graduates of the organization

Despite TFA's growth, there are many critics of the organization. Donaldson says that TFA is often looked at like a "volunteer experience for upper, middle-class college graduates at the expense of working class children." The critics allege that TFA volunteers quickly leave the classroom when their two-year commitment concludes.

However, Donaldson's research - which included a survey of all TFA corps members who entered the classroom between 2000 and 2002, and garnered a 62 percent response rate and a sample of 2029 individuals - calls this criticism into question. Her study showed that almost 44 percent of TFA corps members voluntarily remained in their initial low-income placement schools for more than two years, and that almost 15 percent stayed in those placements for more than four years. Additionally, 60 percent voluntarily remained in the teaching profession for more than two years, and 36 percent stayed in teaching for more than four years.

"This says to me that some TFA teachers are actually developing long-term careers from this experience," Donaldson says. "Some are using TFA to get into teaching." The study also revealed that African American and Latino corps members stayed in teaching longer than their Asian or White counterparts. "The fact that African American and Latino corps members tend to stay in teaching longer than their White counterparts is very important, given the nation's shortage of teachers of color and increasing numbers of children of color in our schools," Donaldson said.

Donaldson plans to continue this research as she takes a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education this fall. As Donaldson finishes her final days at HGSE, she is reflecting on her experience and praising faculty members like Johnson, who she says always treated her as a colleague. Donaldson is equally excited and proud to stand before her classmates -- who she says shaped her experience at HGSE. "Part of the reason I came here is [to experience the knowledge of] the other students, because in so many ways you learn from your peers," she says. "HGSE draws such talented, hard-working students. I've benefitted from them tremendously."


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