An evaluation of Teach for Australia carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) shows that it is a very high cost program but fails to demonstrate that it has improved school outcomes or teacher retention in disadvantaged schools.
The cost of training TFA associates vastly exceeds that of traditional university-based training. Retention of TFA teachers is well below that of mainstream teaching graduates and a significant proportion of those who remain in teaching transfer out of disadvantaged schools. There is no robust evidence that TFA teachers are more successful in improving student results in disadvantaged schools than university-trained teachers.
Nevertheless, the ACER evaluation found that TFA is effective in providing an alternative pathway for teachers to enter the profession. On the basis of the positive evaluation, the Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, announced that funding for the program will be increased by $22 million a year and total funding for the program to 2018 is estimated to be over $57 million.
TFA aims to fast-track high achieving university graduates into teaching. Selected applicants are supported to undertake an intensive six week teacher training course and agree to teach in a disadvantaged secondary school for two years. During the placement they are supported by an in-school teacher mentor and they continue to study for a teaching qualification.
The objectives of TFA include attracting new high-quality entrants to the teaching profession to work in disadvantaged schools, retain a proportion of these new entrants beyond the initial two year commitment, and increase student outcomes at school. A key expected outcome is to achieve measurable benefits for students in socially and educationally disadvantaged schools.
The specific focus of the program is placing high quality teachers in schools serving disadvantaged communities in metropolitan and regional areas. School eligibility for participation in the program is based on the relative disadvantage of students in both socioeconomic and school performance measures. Generally schools are selected from within the bottom 50 per cent of state or national measures of socio-economic disadvantage.
Since the program began in 2010, 175 associates have been placed in 52 schools, mainly in Victoria. Ninety per cent of the participating schools are government schools. The new report is the third evaluation of TFA since it began.
The ACER report shows that TFA is a high cost program. It says:
In terms of teacher education the TFA Pathway involves relatively high financial outlays by government. These relatively high costs are linked to the key elements of the Pathway, as well as the costs of establishing the Pathway and the relatively small number of Associates involved.
….it remains the case that the cost of recruitment, a quality teacher education component and Associate support is high relative to other pathways into teaching. [p. xvii]
The report compares the cost of traditional and TFA training for 50 teachers. It estimates that the cost to government of training 50 teachers would be approximately $713,400 and the cost to students would be a maximum of $423,600. The total cost of training would be about $1.14 million over the training period. In contrast, the cost of TFA training for 50 teachers is estimated at $4.9 million, over four times that of university-based training.
There are some incompatibilities in the cost estimates, but they do not account for the cost disparity. The cost of the university pathway includes the base cost of the teaching course but does not include additional costs to schools of the practicum component of the course, any school-based coordination and the role of supervising teachers. These items are included in the TFA cost. However, they account for only about $1.2 million of the $3.8 million cost differential.
It also appears that a significant part of the higher cost of TFA is unnecessary as the ACER evaluation found that many participating in the TFA program would have entered teaching through the traditional pathway. The report states that about one quarter of TFA associates had already decided to enter teaching and nearly half may have entered teaching via a university graduate course had they not been successful in their TFA application.
Given the huge disparity in training costs, TFA would have to be achieving remarkable success to justify the high cost. However, the ACER report fails to demonstrate this is the case.
The report does not assess whether TFA is achieving the key objective of increasing student outcomes at school. It dodges the question by claiming incomplete data. It says that it was not possible to investigate in any quantitative manner the extent to which measurable benefits for students have been achieved, despite this being a key objective of the program.
TFA has been operating for four years and ACER did the two previous evaluations. No provision was made at the inception of the program to collect data on student results. Surely, it is not too much to expect that provision should have been made right from the start to collect data on student outcomes in the participating schools and classes given the high cost to the taxpayer of the program and given that a key objective of the program is to improve outcomes in disadvantaged schools.
Similarly, the report fails to assess whether TFA is delivering on the key objective of retaining TFA associates in teaching beyond the initial two year placement. It only provides data on the experience of the first cohort though the program and it shows that 33 per cent had left teaching within three years [p. 67]. This is a high attrition rate. The second evaluation of TFA reported that 40 per cent of the first cohort through TFA left teaching after two years [p.55].
Other data indicates that over half of TFA associates left teaching within four or five years and one-third left after two years. Information provided by the Federal Department of Education to Senate estimates shows that 56 per cent of the associates who completed their two year placement in 2011 and 2012 had left teaching by 2014. One-third of the 2012 cohort stopped teaching at the end of their two year placement.
This high attrition rate far exceeds most estimates of attrition by new teachers entering the profession through traditional teacher training. Only about 10 per cent of teachers in NSW leave the profession after five years according to the Productivity Commission’s report on the schools work force [p. 63]. A report on attrition of recent Queensland graduate teachers published by the Queensland College of Teachers last November found an attrition rate of 15 per cent within five years. Another study found an attrition rate for new teachers in Australia of 27 per cent within five years, which is still only half that of TFA teachers.
Apart from the high attrition rate, it is also apparent that many of those who stay in teaching transfer to more advantaged schools after their initial two years. The report shows that about 40 per cent of the first cohort who were still teaching after three years had changed schools and about 75 per cent of these said that their new school did not serve educationally disadvantaged students [p. 67]. That is, 30 per cent of those still teaching had transferred out of disadvantaged schools.
The ACER evaluation is very limited. It relies on information obtained from surveys of principals, teachers, TFA associates and students. The best it can come up with is that “Associates are greatly valued by their school community” [p. xvii]. It says that the perception schools have of Associates is very positive and every school that has participated in the program would like to continue that association. However, it is perhaps not surprising that under-resourced schools would welcome high achieving graduates to help at their school, even if they do not have extensive training.
It is not even clear that TFA associates are being placed in genuinely disadvantaged schools. All the report says is that they are placed in schools in the bottom half of the school SES measure. It could be that the majority are placed in medium level SES schools rather than low SES schools.
It is incredible that key objectives of the program cannot be assessed because the relevant data has not been collected. This suggests that it has not been a priority for the previous Labor Government and the current Coalition Government to do a serious evaluation of the program. Government faith, not evidence, has sustained TFA at high cost to the taxpayer.
The ACER evaluation of the TFA program fails to adequately assess whether TFA is achieving key objectives. The evaluation demonstrates that TFA is a very high cost program for the taxpayer but it fails to demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the high cost. Its evidence of the benefits is anecdotal. It does not provide any substantive evidence that the program is increasing student results in disadvantaged schools. It fails to assess why the attrition rate amongst TFA teachers is very high compared to university trained teachers. The report even fails to show that TFA teachers are being placed in genuinely disadvantaged schools.
The available evidence suggests that fast-tracking of teachers into disadvantaged schools is not cost effective. It suggests that disadvantaged schools, disadvantaged students and the taxpayer would be better served by using the funding Teach for Australia in more effective ways.