How A New Teach For America Study Validates Supporters…And Naysayers

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There’s a new Mathematica study out today about the effectiveness of Teach For America elementary school teachers, and it says exactly what you expect. That’s because the sharper a controversy gets, the more polarized a debate becomes, the easier it gets to filter new information into weapons that suit your team’s trench. And since TFA occupies some of the most sharply contested turf in education politics, this new study probably won’t shock you, no matter what your prior beliefs about TFA happen to be.

So: ready to be unsurprised? Five years ago, TFA received a federal grant to rapidly grow its number of teachers—this new research was conducted as part of that expansion. Here’s the topline finding: The study found that “for both math and reading, TFA teachers were equally as effective as traditionally certified comparison teachers (including both novices and veterans).”

Which, if you’re a TFA critic, should come as no surprise. Of course young, inexperienced kids don’t perform better than teachers who went through traditional teacher prep. TFA’s training is five weeks long, and it happens just weeks before corps members start in their own classrooms in the fall. And your takeaways will be reasonably clear: If TFA teachers don’t outperform non-TFA teachers, there’s no reason to have the program in the first place. Especially because 87.5 percent of the TFA teachers planned to leave the classroom at some point.

But if you’re sympathetic to TFA, the study is precisely what you’d expect. It shows that the traditional training programs don’t outperform TFA, even though the non-TFA teachers in the study had far more classroom experience (an average of nearly 14 years). And what’s more, the study captures the first two years of a rapid growth period for TFA. That’s not an easy time to keep a focus on quality. Your takeaways will be equally clear. The TFA teachers in the study averaged 1.7 years of classroom experience—just think how much better they’ll be as they continue to develop as instructors. And they’ll note that while many of these teachers will leave the classroom, only 43 percent plan to leave education entirely.

Critics will revel in the fact that the study “did not find that TFA teachers were more effective than their colleagues in teaching math,” as some earlier research found. Supporters will note that TFA teachers in PreK to second-grade classrooms were more effective than non-TFA teachers at teaching reading. Critics will explain the results by noting that TFA is drawing from a more selective series of colleges (76 percent of TFA teachers came from selective colleges v. 40 percent of non-TFA teachers). Supporters will respond that yes, that’s the point: TFA is tapping a pool of human capital that wasn’t considering teaching as a field in the first place.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2005, I joined TFA and became a first-grade teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Back then, the reaction from family, friends, mentors and even strangers was uniform: equal parts excited and encouraging. And months later, when I shared vignettes of my students’ struggles and triumphs, folks were surprisingly patient.

In other words, the organization’s mission wasn’t controversial. TFA took idealists who cared about educational inequity in the United States and dared them to walk the walk. It mimicked the Peace Corps and other programs that aim to harness young graduates’ energy to face extraordinary public problems. What could be problematic about getting inspired, hard-working folks to teach in some of the country’s most difficult classrooms?

With a few minor tweaks, that’s still pretty much TFA’s theory of action, but it turns out there’s plenty controversial about it. Its project is under severe attack. I’ve spoken with a number of TFA corps members—some still teaching, some who’ve left the classroom—who tell me that they’ve drafted a version of their resume that doesn’t mention TFA.

Want to read the whole Mathematica study? Knock yourself out. There’s lots more interesting information in there—even if none of it will come as a surprise.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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