New Study Latest Proof That Criticism Aside, Teach for America Works

There’s hardly an education initiative that arouses stronger feelings than Teach for America. TFA seeks to address the problem of  shortage of quality teachers by putting the country’s brightest college graduates in the classroom. Although in the early years of the program its effectiveness was loudly questioned, a number of high profile recent studies show that not only do TFA fellows perform as well as their non-TFA peers, in some subjects – especially math – they perform better.

The tide started to turn for TFA with the release of a randomized Mathematica Policy Research report that compared the performance of TFA graduates with other teachers over the course of the 2001-02 and 2002-03 academic years. According to Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post, TFA fellows showed a marked advantage over other teachers in mathematics and performed at least no worse than traditional peers when it came to teaching reading.

A more in-depth analysis of the same data showed that students of all abilities did better under TFA teachers in math — not only the top performers — proving that the program can make a real difference to students who have traditionally underachieved in the subject.

That consensus was bolstered in a big way Tuesday by the release of a new Mathematica evaluation of both TFA and the Teaching Fellows program, which runs highly selective, city-specific teacher placement programs somewhat akin to TFA but targeted at both kids just out of college and at professionals looking for a career change…

The report, which was sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, compares TFA and Teaching Fellow participants teaching secondary math (that is, math at both the middle and high school levels) to their peer teachers, who either came in through traditional routes or through a less selective alternative program.

The Teaching Fellow math teachers were no more or less effective than the comparison group, but the TFA teachers produced gains “equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.”

This Mathematica study looked at more than 130 teachers instructing nearly 4,600 students in 45 schools in 8 states. Although the sample was a fairly representative cross-section of students and teachers, no charter schools were included because they tended to be smaller and typically only had one teacher teaching any one subject at a single grade-level. Either way, the results were unambiguous. Not only did TFA teachers beat those with full teaching credentials, they also beat those with teaching credentials and years of experience.

Critics could still argue that this could mean TFA teachers are just better at “teaching to the test,” rather than teaching real math skills. But as the Mathematica researchers note, this concern is misplaced. ”At the middle school level, we measured performance on state math tests, high stakes tests. We knew they were taking them seriously,” Clark explains. “But the flip side is that they might have been teaching to the test. At the high school level, since students are assessed at every grade level, we instead administered a test which was subject-specific, for algebra I and algebra II, geometry, and general high school math. The teachers had never seen it before and could not have been teaching to the test, and we also found effects at the high school level.” Indeed, the effects at the high school level are stronger than at the middle-school level. If TFA teachers were teaching to the test, they weren’t doing a great job of it.