Teach for America: More effective in NC

Teach for America teachers are significantly more effective than non-TFA teachers in North Carolina high schools, researchers concluded last year. Now they’ve expanded and refined the study, reports Inside School Research’s Debbie Viadero.

In answer to the critics, researchers Zeyu Wu, Jane Hannaway, and Colin Taylor . . . added data for 32 teachers and more than 2,000 students, and re-ran the numbers so that they could do more “apples to apples” comparisons. The results were the same: Across the eight subjects tested, the students of TFA teachers racked up bigger learning gains than their non-TFA counterparts.

The TFA teachers were also found to be more effective than teachers who had graduated from a fully accredited North Carolina teacher-training program and those who were licensed in the subjects they taught. The overall TFA boost, in fact, was bigger than the size of the learning improvement that students normally get from having a teacher who’s been on the job for three years or more.

That is, it’s better to have an inexperienced TFA teacher than an experienced non-TFA teacher. The effect is strongest for science teachers. (The study is at the Calder site.)

The results may not hold for elementary school, where teaching skill is more important than subject-matter knowledge, notes Viadero.

Update: Viadero cites a 2004 Mathematica study that found TFA-taught elementary students made larger gains in math than students taught by non-TFA teachers.

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  1. Either I’m reading the data charts wrong, or what you’re reporting is incorrect. If you look at page 34 of the report, it appears that the number of students with superior or at mastery level is LESS for TFA teachers. And the numbers with insufficient or inconsistent mastery are GREATER for TFA teachers, at least in the sciences (in most cases). The traditional teachers definitely out-performed the TFAs, and the less-experienced teachers were about where the TFAs were.

  2. Even if the data is right, I’m not sure this is such surprising news.

    My understanding is that TFA teachers are highly motivated individuals who want to give their time and talent to low-income urban and rural schools. It’s a selective process to be admitted, and if you’re a TFA, you’re eligible for AmeriCorps education awards (including almost $10,000 for future educational expenses or to pay student loans, and student loan forbearance while you are a TFA).

    Is it surprising that when you compare these individuals to “normal” teachers in low-income schools they get better results? Having taught in low-income rural schools, I can safely say that many “normal” teachers work there because that’s the only job they could get–they aren’t usually the best teachers available. The best ones often choose to work at better schools with better pay.

    It’s too difficult to compare teacher effectiveness by just looking at test data. Despite their effort to compare apples to apples, it’s still not an equal comparison.

  3. Unfortunately the link from the EdWeek article to the full text of the study is broken. By other means I found this:



    Since the link was broken I’m not sure I’m looking at the same report as you. Page 34 of of the report I linked above does not contain charts representing the information you mentioned.

    So I’m going to guess that the data you were looking at was absolute achievement data and not gains in achievement. I think that’s a reasonable guess as the chart on page 33 of the report I linked shows that the students of TFA teachers have lower achievement scores than the students of traditional teachers. However the claims were about gains and not absolute achievement.

    However page 33 of the report I linked has some other interesting data about the students of TFA teachers. The TFA teachers have a significantly higher percentage of black students. About twice the percentage of the traditional teachers. And the parent education outcomes for TFA teachers were significantly lower as well. TFA teachers taught students whose parents were about half as likely to have graduated from college. I wondered how this could be if the attempt is to make an apples to apples comparison. Then I noticed that the heading of the chart on page 33 says that the scope of the apples to apples comparison was the district and not the school. So it looks like TFA teachers are teaching at significantly different schools than the comparison traditional teachers. Did the researchers normalize for this factor and only compare teachers with similar students? Since the claim is about gains, one naturally asks which students are in a better position to make gains. For now I’m going to assume that the report normalized for those factors because I don’t have the time to research it in detail.

  4. Researchers found that TFA teachers were assigned students who started with significantly lower scores than the non-TFA teachers’ students. They also were more likely to be black, had less educated parents, etc. I think that’s the data you’re looking at — not the results data.

    The researchers did their best to account for the difference in students at the start in order to compare the progress of TFA-taught students with non-TFA-taught students.

  5. I remember this study from last year, the researchers used a grand total of 67 TFAers and compared them to experienced teachers. Now they’ve upped the ante by adding in 32 more?

    Of course, if it comes from a conservative think tank like the Urban Institute you can bet they used the highest standards in data selection and interpretation (wink, wink). I’m sure their data has been fact checked and peer reviewed.

    I would like to see the original study, but as someone commented the link from the article does not work. Strangely enough, the study itself is not on the Urban Institute website. The original is as a (cough, cough) “working paper” which means no peer review and only published where they select it to be published.

  6. Oh and here’s a different study, that reaches the following conclusion:

    “and found that students of TFA teachers grow academically about 20 percent less per year than do students of teachers with regular certification”


    Notice this is an actual peer reviewed study, not a “working paper”

  7. @Greg

    “Is it surprising that when you compare these individuals to “normal” teachers in low-income schools they get better results? Having taught in low-income rural schools, I can safely say that many “normal” teachers work there because that’s the only job they could get–they aren’t usually the best teachers available. The best ones often choose to work at better schools with better pay.”

    I agree with your comments. This isn’t particularly surprising. I am a TFA alum from NC during the period of this study. Unfortunately, the “normal” teachers at my school were too often the proverbial left-overs from wealthier districts around us. In my department of seven, three of us were TFA, two were high quality veterans, and two others were veteran teachers who’d been removed from their home school districts and were now forced to commute to our district to find employment.

    TFA is in the fortunate position of getting to choose from the best-of-the-best to populate the program. I think this year they’re accepting somewhere around 3,200 corps members from a predicted 40,000 applicants? If impoverished schools had the same luxury in selecting their teacher pool, it’d be a different situation.

  8. What I found interesting was that the quote was nowhere to be found in the article you linked. You sure you aren’t trying to pass off a conclusion reached in a union editorial about this study were you?

    Of course the tip-off that this is propaganda masquerading as scholarship is in the authorship: David C. Berliner.

    Since common sense indicates a teaching certificate is more a market-exclusion mechanism then a means of determining qualifications there being no pay differential for graduates of highly-rated teaching programs versus graduates of lesser programs it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that there’s evidence in support:

    “This evidence suggests that classroom performance during the first two years, rather than certification status, is a more reliable indicator of a teacher’s future effectiveness.”


    Oh, and my quote *can* be found in the paper I linked.

  9. Allen,

    Then you read less than one page, b/c the statement is in the abstract:

    In reading, mathematics, and language, the students of certified teachers outperformed students of under-certified teachers, including the students of the TFA teachers, by about 2 months on a grade equivalent scale. Students of under-certified teachers make about 20% less academic growth per year than do students of teachers with regular certification

    Now are you claiming David Berliner isn’t a valid researcher? At least he has the balls to have his work peer reviewed and published in a real journal.

  10. Furthermore, where exactly was this study published? My link is to an article that was actually peer reviewed. Your link is to a “study” that’s been posted on the National Bureau of Economic Research as a “working paper” and the publisher’s home school, Dartmouth, as well as a few other economic groups’ websites.

  11. Oh and here’s even more about your “study”, an analysis which found:

    Employing the covariance structure of test
    scores for NYC students and alternative models
    characterizing the growth in academic achievement,
    we find estimates of the overall extent of test
    measurement error to be quite robust, with our
    lowest estimate of the overall test measurement
    error variance indicating that roughly 17 percent of
    the variance in student test scores is attributable to
    test measurement error,

    We estimate about 84 percent of the
    variance in gain scores is attributable to
    measurement error.

    Pages 3 and 4 of the study Allen, since I’m sure you’ll claim you can’t find them.


  12. Dick Eagleson says:


    The EPAA is a “real journal” in the sense that there are probably actual paper copies of it in some library somewhere, but the idea that it represents scientifically respectable research is laughable. One tipoff is the terminology employed. Labeling TFA and other types of alternatively certified teachers as “Under-Certified Teachers” is not a scientifically neutral description; it’s a partisan editorial comment – even a sneer.

    The EPAA’s parent organization is something called the Education Policy Studies Laboratory which appears to be a consortium of university education departments. University education departments, of course, are the entities that have the most to gain by continuing the current near-universal regime of teacher certification because such credentials are not obtainable unless one first submits oneself to a great deal of expensive and mandatory pedagogy dished out by – gee, university education departments.

    In other words, the Ed schools, whose iron rice bowl is the mandatory consumption of their product by anyone seeking to make a living as an educator in most public school systems, have ginned up a “journal” in which the partisan and self-interested hacks of the current education establishment can take turns congratulating one another on what swell fellas they all are and how essential it is that no interlopers be allowed to poach on their monopoly franchise.

    A comparable journal run by witch doctors – and “peer reviewed” by other witch doctors – might, unsurprisingly, have articles with titles like ‘The Effectiveness of “Modern Medicine” and Other Under-magicked Therapies on Patient Outcomes: A Case of Harmful Public Policy.’ That wouldn’t make it true and it wouldn’t make it science any more than the farcical hackery you’re attempting to pass off as “evidence.”

    Conventional teacher certification is, quite simply, a racket – a way for otherwise useless academic hacks to use state coercive power to create and protect their phony-baloney jobs and, more broadly, to restrict entry to the teaching profession. In economics, this sort of thing is referred to as “rent-seeking behavior.” In the vernacular we call it corruption – because it smells.

    The EPAA is, in short, a sham journal written by self-dealing liars and crimps who have made good livings sponging off the American taxpayer while incrementally destroying public education and see no reason why their depredations should not continue indefinitely.

  13. And the NBER is any better? You may believe the EPAA is a sham and you’re entitled to your opinion, but as a professional educator I’m much more inclined to find their research (and its review) more credible than a bunch of economists.

    Funny, I’ve never seen an economics paper published by a teacher in an education journal.

  14. Read it? Good God, do you think I’d waste my time on anything Berliner’s published? Not likely.

    And that quote wasn’t anywhere on the article. Not unless Firefox’s search function doesn’t work all of a suddenly.

    Oh, and as for the inestimable importance of peer review please, try to impress someone with the importance of peer review who doesn’t know that the Discovery Institute also publishes peer-reviewed papers in support of their intelligent design agenda.

    And since I’ve got your attention, you never did answer where all those involved parents came from that are sending their kids to charters. In Detroit it’s over 20% of kids and in Washington D.C. it’s over 30%. And, as I pointed out, pretty much all the charters have waiting lists.

    That suggests the percentage of involved parents is pretty high yet somehow they only become involved once they sent their kids to charters.

    Or maybe they were involved parents while their kids where being failed by the district system and the only thing that changed was that they got their kids into schools that place some value on the kids and on the education they’re supposed to give the kids.

  15. Ah, Allen, change the subject again and again I see. Check the article yourself and look in the abstract. Since YOU seem to have trouble locating it I’ll give you a hint; the abstract is in the beginning.

  16. BTW Allen, I DID check the Discovery Institute website, and I have yet to find where they claim their research is peer reviewed. I even searched their website for “peer reviewed” and “peer review” with zero results.

    I see you continue to lie, and continue to lie poorly.

  17. Dick Eagleson says:


    I don’t understand the point of your reference to the NBER – which I assume is the National Bureau of Economic Research as you also refer, dismissively, to a “bunch of economists.” The study of TFA teaching effectiveness that is the hook on which this post and all subsequent comments hangs was not conducted by NBER, however, but by an organization named Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

    As to relative credibility, the NBER has been around for 90 years and has affiliations with multiple winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics. I don’t know what axe you have to grind with the NBER, but I would personally tend to trust the conclusions of a “bunch of economists” over those of any comparable “bunch of educationists” because the economists are at least required to understand mathematics as one of the minimum requirements of entry to the economics profession. This cannot, sadly, be said of those holding degrees in Education.

    Turning to Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., that organization has been around 40 years and has a long backtrail of publications one can inspect if one is curious about their bona fides.

    The Education Policy Alliance, in contrast, is just two years old and has no track record to speak of. As noted, it appears to be a creature of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory which, itself, seems to be an invention of the Education and Public Interest Center, which is, in turn, a project of the Education school at Arizona State University. It is an obvious attempt to borrow whatever respectability its ultimate parent organization, ASU, has in the service of defending the failed left-wing education monopoly status quo from which so many progressive parasites – including, I suspect, you – draw their paychecks.

    To long-time observers of the leftist “march through the institutions” the key item here is the use of the phrase “Public Interest” in the name of one of the associated organizations. Ralph Nader and his leftist associates in the 1960’s effectively hijacked the phrase “Public Interest” as their preferred label for any organization created to tub-thump for their various statist projects. “Public Interest” organization = Left-wing propaganda mill.

    Long story short, your citation is to a pack of lies published by a pseudo-academic organization that is entirely the creature of self-interested hacktivists in the education establishment interested solely in maintaining their undeserved monopoly privileges.

  18. Dick,

    My point being that economists know next to nothing about public school and the teaching of public school. The economists staking these claims have no prior knowledge/experience to base their claims on, just as a public school teacher would have no training, prior knowledge or experience to produce papers on the economy.

    As far as groups being self serving, there’s an awful lot of that, on both sides of the equation. As for myself, I’d rather listen to someone who’s been there, done that and has the t-shirt to prove it.

    The NBER is where I found this study published, openly admitting its a “working paper”. The “working paper” is a big favorite among the anti-public school crowd since their work generally isn’t fact checked by lazy journalists, or in the case of Jay Mathews, printed as if it were gospel.

    The NBER may very well be a very respected econmic study group, but what is there history with education matters?

  19. Dick Eagleson says:


    My point was that NBER seems to have had no hand in doing the research referenced in this post, so their familiarity with education practice is not relevant – though their familiarity with statistical methods and data analysis from a policy perspective would tend to be a credibility-enhancing factor if NBER had had a hand in the research at issue. I searched the Working Papers portion of the NBER website with the search predicate ‘Teach for America North Carolina’ and got 45 hits, but none of them turned out to be the study in question. I cannot seem to reproduce the conditions under which you took the NBER to be the source of the study. YMMV.

    Rereading the original post here, and the posts on other sites linked to from it, I see that I too misattributed the provenance of the study. I mistakenly assumed Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. was the source of the study in question, but they were, in fact, the source of an earlier study from 2004 that reached somewhat similar conclusions about TFA, but with respect to elementary students rather than high school students.

    The actual study about TFA-taught high school students in North Carolina was published last year by the Urban Institute. The Urban Institute’s history is much like that of Mathematica’s. Both are think tank organizations with 40-year histories. For what it’s worth, the Urban Institute does have a long history of doing research on education-related topics as part of its charter to study governmental social services programs and policies of all kinds.

    As with the output of most think tank organizations, the reports and studies published by the Urban Institute aren’t necessarily peer-reviewed before publication, but are certainly subject to even greater scrutiny in the policy analysis world at large after publication. The study in question is about a year old. Perhaps you can find some genuinely informed criticism of its methods or conclusions in the open literature that originate in places other than the laughably phony EPAA.

    My contention that the EPAA organization is a sham invented for the purpose of giving a superficially plausible sheen of academic respectability to blatant and self-serving nonsense being peddled by people with a directly pecuniary interest in the truth or falsity of the original study’s conclusions stands. The EPAA “journal” is, quite simply, a fraud, perpetrated by tax-paid employees of a state-supported institution for the sole purpose of insuring the future security of their paychecks in the face of massive evidence that what they do for a living not only has no positive educational value, but actually has a considerable negative such value.

  20. The study was done by the Urban Institute and the Calder Center.

    “CALDER is one of the new federally funded National Research and Development Centers and is supported by a five-year, $10 million grant from the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. Led by Jane Hannaway, the Center is a joint project of the Urban Institute, where she directs the Education Policy Center, and scholars at Duke University, Stanford University, the University of Florida, the University of Missouri, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Washington.”

  21. “Researchers found that TFA teachers were assigned students who started with significantly lower scores than the non-TFA teachers’ students.”

    No, they didn’t.

    They provide a lengthy explanation as to how they tried to connect students to classroom teachers by extrapolating when the exam proctor was or was not likely to be the classroom teacher (“The student data identify the proctor of each student’s EOC exam, but the proctor is not necessarily the instructor for that student’s class.”), and state that they had no baseline data for students. (“Without initial test scores for high school EOC subjects, we are not able to specify a model that controls for lagged student performance on the right hand side of the equation (or the construction of a gain score).”) They assume that this biases the data in favor of certified teachers, but make plain that it’s an assumption (“The TFA effect estimated using the cross-subject model, therefore, is likely to provide the lower bound of the true effects.”)

    There has been ample opportunity to collect robust data for analysis. It’s a shame that nobody wants to do the necessary work. Or perhaps it’s that nobody involved wants to find out what a robust study would reveal.

  22. JesseAlred says:

    Having captured district leadership positions in several cities, and having created two charter school networks, Wendy Kopp’s Teach For America friends are pursuing an approach to school reform based on the false premise that teachers are the cause of sub-par academic performance in urban schools, They disregard major factors like the degree of parent commitment, students habits and economic inequality.

    D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of media-thrilling hype. Appearing on the cover of Time, she sternly hovered over the camera holding a broom, which she was using to sweep trash, the trash being a metaphor for my urban teacher colleagues. MS RHEE, MY COLLEAGUES WHO WORK IN SOME OF THE TOUGHEST SCHOOLS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE NOT TRASH. The implication that a small group of self-proclaimed reformers from elite colleges have all the answers represents class arrogance not genuine talent.

    TFA teachers are a welcome addition to our nation’s public schools, and TFA and its offspring, the KIPP and YES charter schools, provide valuable services, but no data exists proving they are closing the achievement gap, or that they have a formula to close the gap, for the majority of low-income students. KIPP/YES teachers do great work, but they have students whose families apply to schools with longer school days, Saturday classes, an extra month of school in the Summer, as well as Saturday classes and nightly loads of homework. Only a small minority of working-class families will allow a school to take over their kids lives that much.

    When TFA’s leadership argue that schools, and not bad habits, are the cause of the achievement gap, they are discounting the role INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY plays in education. If you cannot look to government and public employees for the solution to every social problem, you cannot blame them every shortcoming either, especially in an endeavor like education which relies so much on individual hard work. In fourteen years teaching, I have met maybe two teachers who did not teach. Teachers do teach.

    By blaming teachers, and seeking in Washington D.C., Houston and New York, to terminate teachers based on student behavior, they are waging an Ivy League class war against professionals who endure challenging circumstances for lower-middle class pay.