Teach for America is Not the Success Claimed

Teach For America is a flagship program of the US government to improve teaching and student results by fast tracking high achieving graduates into teaching. While it has generated glowing press reports, a new report just published in the US says the evidence about whether it works is, at best, mixed.

The report concludes that the lack of evidence of consistent impact should indicate to policy-makers that TFA is not likely to be the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes. These findings call into question the likely success of its Australian clone, Teach for Australia, launched by the Federal Education Minister, Julia Gillard, last year.

Teach For America (TFA), and its Australian version, aims to attract high achieving graduates to teaching as a way to improve the quality of teaching and address teacher shortages. Graduates are given five weeks training (in Australia it is six weeks) before being sent to teach in disadvantaged schools for a two years.

The new report reviews the research evidence on the impact of TFA and concludes that the evidence is mixed. It says that the results are affected by the experience level of the TFA teachers and the group of teachers with whom they are compared.

Studies have found that novice TFA teachers perform just as well as other teachers in the same schools who not certified or traditionally trained. Experienced TFA teachers perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores.

However, comparisons with credentialed teachers show a different picture. Here the research shows that students of novice TFA teachers achieve significantly less in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers. For example, a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers’ certification status, found that standard certified teachers consistently outperformed TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings.

The evidence is that TFA teachers get better if they stay long enough to become fully credentialed. Experienced, fully credentialed TFA teachers appear to do about as well as other, similarly experienced, credentialed teachers in teaching reading according to the report. Sometimes they do better than that comparison group in teaching mathematics.

However, more than half of TFA teachers leave after two years, and more than 80% leave after three years. As a result, it is impossible to know whether these more positive findings for experienced recruits result from additional training and experience or from attrition of TFA teachers who may be less effective.

Furthermore, the high turnover of TFA teachers results in significant expenses for recruiting and training replacements. From a school-wide perspective, the high turnover of TFA teachers is costly. Recruiting and training replacements for teachers who leave involves financial costs, and the higher achievement gains associated with experienced teachers and lower turnover may be lost as well.

The report recommends that schools and districts would be better off devoting resources to other educational reform that may have more promise such as universal pre-school, mentoring programs pairing novice and expert teachers, elimination of streaming of classes, and reduction in early grade class sizes. It also recommends that schools use TFA teachers only when the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes.

The report, Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence, was published by the Education and the Public Interest Centre at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Centre at Arizona State University.


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