Thursday, June 10, 2010

Teach For America: A False Promise


The full report is here: Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence, on the web at:

A Review of the Evidence

Julian Vasquez Heilig

University of Texas at Austin

Su Jin Jez, Ph.D.

California State University, Sacramento

June 2010


Decker, Mayer and Glazerman12 conducted a study for Mathematica Inc. that examined the student achievement results for 41 Teach For America teachers and 57 beginning and experienced comparison teachers, all teaching grades 1-5 in the same schools across 6 districts… Whereas 100% of the TFA teachers had had some student teaching experience before entering classrooms, only 47% of other novice teachers and only 71% of the overall comparison group had prior classroom experience…. Compared with this underprepared group, overall TFA teachers’ students showed gains similar to those of comparison teachers in reading and better in mathematics, though students’ scores remained low overall, hovering around the 15th percentile for both groups of teachers. However, the positive impact was found only for TFA teachers who had obtained training and certification in their second and later years in the classroom. First-year TFA teachers did not have a positive impact in either mathematics or reading; a negative coefficient in reading was not statistically significant….

In an Arizona study, Laczko-Kerr and Berliner13 compared the achievement test scores of primary school students taught by 110 matched pairs of recently hired under-certified and certified teachers in five low-income school districts.They found that students of certified teachers out-performed students of uncertified teachers, including TFA teachers, in reading, mathematics and language arts.

Using value-added models, Boyd, et al.14 examined the effectiveness of 3,766 new teachers who entered teaching in grades 4-8 through different pathways in New York City. The study found that, compared with the students of new teachers who graduated from teacher education programs, students of new TFA recruits scored significantly lower in reading/language arts and about the same in mathematics (worse in grades 4-5 and better in grades 6-8)…

TFA teachers’ effectiveness generally improved as they became more prepared. By the second year, when most were certified, negative effects disappeared for elementary math and middle school reading.However, TFA teachers continued to exert a significant negative influence on their students’ reading scores in the elementary grades. By their third year, the effect was still negative, but not statistically significant. Students taught by TFA teachers with more than three years of experience did show a significant increase in math achievement. However, the authors observed that achievement results for TFA beyond the third year “should be interpreted with caution due to small sample sizes.”15

Using the same New York City database, Kane, Rockoff and Staiger compared entrants into New York City schools by different categories of initial

pathway and certification status. … this study found that, in math and reading, students of first-year teachers from TFA,

the NYC Teaching Fellows, and other uncertified teachers did worse than those of first-year teachers who were “regularly certified.” They also found that the negative effects were generally reduced or eliminated in math as teachers finished their training and certification and gained experience.However, TFA teachers continued to have a negative effect on reading for two of three years, and the other uncertified

groups (Teaching Fellows and others) continued to have a negative effect on reading for all three years.

Another large-scale achievement study analyzed data from Houston, Texas, representing more than 132,000 students and 4,400 teachers in grades 3-5 over six years. ….This study compared TFA with non-TFA teachers and controlled for experience and certification status. Using both ordinary least squares regression and multi-level modeling, the authors found “no instance where uncertified Teach For America teachers performed as well as standard certified teachers of comparable experience levels teaching in similar settings.”18 …

Generally, the studies reviewed found that TFA teachers usually showed a positive impact on student achievement in mathematics relative to the comparison group only when they had obtained training and certification in their second and later years in the classroom. They rarely had a positive impact on reading achievement, and four peer-reviewed studies found novice TFA recruits to have significant negative effects on elementary students’ reading achievement compared with fully prepared teachers. These negative effects for TFA beginners extended to mathematics in three of the studies….

While the debate about the impact of TFA teachers on student achievement continues, there is little disagreement across the research literature regarding the attrition of TFA teachers. Reporting on TFA’s longitudinal national survey of alumni, Miner30 suggests that “all one can say with certainty is that in 2007, at least 16.6 percent of those recruited by Teach For America were teaching in a K-12 setting beyond their two-year commitment.”…

In a New York City study, teachers from traditional college teacher education program teachers were found to have the lowest short-term and long-term

turnover rates, followed by temporarily licensed teachers; attrition was “substantially” higher for TFA members.31 …By the fourth year, 85% of

TFA teachers had left the district, compared to 37% attrition for the traditionally educated teachers—alternatively phrased, only 15% of TFA teachers remained, while 67% of the college educated teachers stayed…..

Between 2000 and 2008, TFA’s operating expenditures increased from $10 million to $114.5 million. Of those expenditures, TFA annual reports show

that about a third of operating costs are currently borne by the public (See Table 3). Notably, TFA launched a campaign for a direct allocation of $50 million in federal support for 2011.44 If such an allocation were made, and if TFA’s operating expenditures in 2011 were similar to 2008, a large majority of TFA’s funding would be from the federal government and other taxpayer sources…..

As result of the TFA model, a participating district has to pay twice for new teachers—the outsourced costs of teacher recruitment and training by TFA,

costing thousands of dollars per teacher, along with the fixed costs of in-house provision of human resources for all other teachers in the district. These costs are exacerbated by the high turnover of TFA teachers, leading districts to have to replace nearly all TFA teachers after three years of service. As a result, the actual costs of TFA to the public are higher than the direct local, state, and federal allocations…


Based on these findings, it is recommended that policymakers and districts:

Support TFA staffing only when the alternative hiring pool consists of

uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes.

Consider the significant recurring costs of TFA, estimated at over

$70,000 per recruit, and press for a five-year commitment to improve

achievement and reduce re-staffing.

Invest strategically in evidence-based educational reform options that

build long-term capacity in schools.

Teach For America: A False Promise
June 9, 2010

Alternative teacher training program yields costly turnover while doing little to improve student achievement

Contact: Teri Battaglieri (517) 203-2940;
Julian Vasquez Heilig (512) 471-7551;

EAST LANSING, Mi., June 9, 2010 -- Teach For America has generated glowing press reports, but the evidence regarding whether this alternative teacher-training program works is very unclear, according to a policy brief released today by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The brief, Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence, is written by professor Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas at Austin, and professor Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento. It offers a comprehensive overview of research on the Teach For America (TFA) program, which recruits graduates of elite colleges to teach for two years in hard-to-staff low-income rural and urban schools.

Overall, Jez and Heilig argue, the impact of TFA teachers on student achievement is decidedly mixed and dependent upon the experience level of the TFA teachers and the group of teachers with whom they are compared.

Studies show that TFA teachers perform fairly well when compared with one segment of the teaching population: other teachers in the same hard-to-staff schools, who are less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared. Compared with that specific group of teachers, TFA teachers "perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores," the brief's authors write.

Conversely, studies which compare TFA teachers with credentialed non-TFA teachers find that "the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers," Heilig and Jez write. And in a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers' certification status, standard certified teachers consistently outperformed uncertified TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings.

The evidence suggests that TFA teachers do get better—if they stay long enough to become fully credentialed. Those experienced, fully credentialed TFA teachers "appear to do about as well as other, similarly experienced, credentialed teachers in teaching reading ... [and] as well as, and sometimes better than, that comparison group in teaching mathematics," Heilig and Jez write.

However, more than half of TFA teachers leave after two years, and more than 80 percent after three. So it's impossible to know whether those who remain have improved because of additional training and experience—or simply because of "selection bias:" they were more effective than the four out of five TFA teachers who left. The authors note that this high turnover of TFA teachers also results in significant recurring expenses for recruiting and training replacements.

Heilig and Jez urge schools and districts to devote resources to a number of proven remedies for improving achievement, including mentoring programs that pair novice and expert teachers, universal pre-school and reduction in early grade class size.

The authors conclude, "Policymakers and stakeholders should consider TFA teachers for what they are – a slightly better alternative when the hiring pool is comprised primarily of uncertified and emergency teachers – and continue to consider a broad range of solutions to reshape our system of education to ensure that all students are completing schools with the education they need to be successful."

Find the policy brief, Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence, on the web at:

This policy brief was produced by the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

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