Study: TFA teachers raise math scores

Teach for America recruits raised disadvantaged students’ math achievement more than traditionally trained teachers, concludes a Mathematica study for the U.S. Department of Education.

Students of TFA teachers moved from the 27th to the 30th percentile on average. That doesn’t sound like much but it’s the equivalent of two and a half extra months of learning, researchers estimated.

The Mathematica study looked at 45 schools in eight states over two years, 2009-10 and 2010-11. Students were randomly assigned to a TFA-trained math teacher or to a teacher from a different background. (Most of the TFA-trained teachers were in their first or second year of teaching, but about 17 percent were TFA alumni who had three, four or five years of experience.) At the end of each year, students were given standardized math tests and their scores were compared.

Students of inexperienced TFA teachers (with three years or less in the classroom) outperformed students of more experienced comparison teachers, the study found.

Although TFA is often criticized for the fact that its teachers make only a two-year commitment to teaching, the findings suggest that over the long term, continuing to fill a position with TFA teachers who depart after a few years would lead to higher student math achievement than filling the same position with a non-TFA teacher who would remain in the position and accumulate more teaching experience.

Another alternative route to teaching, the Teaching Fellows program, also was analyzed. “Inexperienced Teaching Fellows teachers . . . were more effective than inexperienced comparison teachers; among teachers with more experience, there was no difference in effectiveness between Teaching Fellows and comparison teachers.”

While TFA and Teaching Fellows recruit from elite colleges, “college selectivity is not a magic cure-all,” points out Dana Goldstein.

 Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with  new data from New York City new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

Traditional teachers were more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. However, TFAers and Fellows earned higher standardized test scores in math. Higher teacher test scores correlate with slightly better outcomes at the high school level, but not at the middle school level, researchers found.

Goldstein speculates that TFA teachers perform well because they’re “incredibly mission-driven,” believe they can close the achievement gap, choose to teach in low-income schools and work very hard. In addition, TFA’s training emphasizes tracking student outcomes and raising standardized test scores.

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