Study: Teach for America Results Match Veteran Teachers

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A Mathematica Policy Research study, Impacts of the Teach for America Investing in Innovation Scale-Up, has compared test scores among elementary school students who had Teach for America (TFA) instructors to those who had other teachers, finding that the two groups performed roughly the same.

Teach for America is an organization that recruits graduates from selective universities and places them in classrooms after several weeks of training. Leaders of TFA are happy with these results since the “traditional” teachers had an average of 13.6 years of teaching experience, while TFA teachers had just 1.7 years of experience, writes Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post.

The training schedule for TFA recruits has been lengthened, and older people are beginning to populate the organization. Still, Teach for America has taken center stage in the debate over whether or not the existing education system and teacher certifications are doing enough to prepare teachers in a meaningful way for the classroom.

One of the takeaways from the research is that improving the quality of instruction is, apparently, not enough to make a difference in students’ test scores. But, there is research that shows that a year in a gifted and talented teacher’s classroom can profoundly effect a child’s career prospects, although identifying those teachers is difficult – and so is getting them to stay in a career with weaker compensation.

Previously, it was found that TFA teachers gave their students an advantage on math tests over other students who had traditionally-trained teachers. Melissa Clark, one of the study’s authors, says that may have more to do with other teachers, and less to do with TFA teachers. If TFA teachers are assigned to impoverished schools, they might have an advantage over regular teachers, but TFA teachers are beginning to be placed in less disadvantaged schools, so their impact on test scores might not be as dramatic.

Clark suggested that teachers outside of TFA seem to be more qualified and experienced than in the past. At the same time, 76% of the TFA staff graduated from a selective college or university, while 40% of regular teachers had as strong an educational pedigree. Also, 84% of TFA teachers had majored in a field outside of education, while just 26% of regular staff did.

Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matthew Kramer, Teach for America’s CEOs, are aware that the organization needs to do more to help its teachers.

“During their training, we’re giving corps members more classroom time in settings that more closely match where they’ll be teaching in the fall,” they wrote. “We’ve also strengthened our real-time coaching for corps members, giving them another avenue of support for the always-difficult early years of teaching.”

It was found that TFA early-childhood teachers – those who taught second grade and younger students – had pupils who did better on reading tests than children in regular teachers’ classes. Early-childhood programs, added in 2006, are relatively new to Teach for America and have not been studied as thoroughly as other programs. Overall, however, the findings suggest that Teach for America staff, in and of themselves, cannot overcome the barriers their students face.

The New York Times calls this study “bad news for Teach for America.” Not only did the TFA teachers not surpass the test scores of regular teachers’ students, but they also felt worse about their jobs than teachers who were not affiliated with Teach for America. The writers borrow a statement from Wonkblog:

Teach for America’s teachers were also much less likely to say they felt prepared for their first job and were less likely to describe their training as useful in response to a survey.

The editors pulled from Wonkblog again by pointing to the fact that the new research showed that in a comparison of regular teachers and Teach for America teachers, the Teach for America staff members were less likely to feel camaraderie with their colleagues; likely to rate the administration of their schools and the professional caliber of the other staff less favorably; and more likely to say their work offered no prestige, intellectual challenge, or opportunities for advancement. By and large, they were not planning to continue in teaching for their entire careers, as opposed to 25% of the regular staff.

The Christian Science Monitor’s James Joyner prefers to see the glass half-full. This is not a new debate, he says, because even though requirements for teaching vary from state to state, those who major in education tend to be among the weakest students on campus, proven by standardized test scores and core curricula performance. He adds that Teach for America “newbies” should not stand out in a field of veteran teachers, and the fact that they do is “a damning indictment” to teachers with longevity and experience.

He continues by stating that for 20 years he has argued that schools of education have poor academic records and emphasize rote memorization and conformity to orthodoxy.