Study: Students Learn More Math With Teach for America Teachers

The results of a two-year, 4,573-student study by the U.S. Department of Education
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How effective are Teach for America teachers? It’s a question that the organization’s critics and fans alike have been trying to answer for years. The Teach for America website points to studies of school districts in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee, which all found that “corps members often help their students achieve academic gains at rates equal to or larger than those for students of more veteran teachers.” (Emphasis mine.) TFA skeptics cite a range of other studies that show students with traditionally certified teachers achieving higher gains.

A new study by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (a part of the United States Department of Education) will encourage TFA supporters. The first large-scale random assignment study of TFA secondary math teachers, it found that the TFA teachers were more effective than other instructors at their schools.

“By providing rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of secondary math teachers from TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs, the study can shed light on potential approaches for improving teacher effectiveness in hard-to-staff schools and subjects,” the authors wrote.

The study included 4,573 students at middle and high schools across the country. In the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, researchers randomly assigned the students in each school to similar math courses--some were taught by TFA teachers, and others or by teachers who entered teaching through traditional or other, less selective alternative programs. The students with TFA teachers performed better on end-of-year exams than their peers in similar courses taught by other teachers. The bump in their test scores is equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.

The study also seemed to disprove the common criticism that, because TFA teachers only sign on for two years of teaching, they do not gain the experience necessary to become effective teachers. The study found that TFA teachers were more effective than both novice and experienced teachers from other certification programs. Students of TFA teachers in their first three years of teaching scored 0.08 standard deviations higher than students of other teachers in their first three years of teaching and 0.07 standard deviations higher than students of other teachers with more than three years of experience teaching.

However, the study pointed out that the results do not necessarily reflect the effectiveness of the TFA training itself, as the organization attracts a different applicant pool than traditional or other, less selective certification programs. The authors point out that both TFA and Teaching Fellows, another competitive teaching program, have “unique procedures for recruiting and selecting individuals” and look for characteristics they believe are “associated with effectiveness in the classroom.”

Only 23 percent of teachers from traditional or less-selective certification programs graduated from a selective college or university, while 81 percent of TFA teachers did. And although the TFA teachers were less likely to have majored or minored in math, they scored significantly higher on a test of math knowledge than their teacher counterparts. 

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Julia Ryan is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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