Applauding Teach For America – and Demanding More

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We should all be applauding Teach For America (TFA) right now.   But, of course, we’re not.  And we should all be examining this organization carefully to hold it accountable to its stated vision.  But, of course, we’re not.

Instead, we’ve divided ourselves into two camps – TFA critics and defenders.  The defenders are applauding, and the critics are criticizing, and there is plenty of research holding TFA accountable (see below).  However, the critics seem to be willfully ignoring credible evidence showing that TFA has accomplished some very impressive results.  Do TFA’s critics honestly believe that our nation’s schools of education have nothing to learn from TFA?

And the defenders are, in my opinion, not looking honestly at whether the organization is actually doing everything possible to accomplish its stated vision: “One dayall children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”  Do TFA’s defenders honestly believe that a revolving system of folks teaching for 2 years can create sustainable change for our hardest hit schools and kids?

A recent Mathematica study (summary here) compared secondary math student achievement results for 5,790 students who were randomly assigned to 66 TFA math teachers or 70 comparison teachers.  The researchers identified a group of classrooms within a school that were matched in terms of subject matter, class conditions, and period.  Students in that school who enrolled in the same math course were then randomly assigned to a classroom taught by a TFA teacher or by a comparison teacher.

The students taught by TFA teachers outperformed those taught by the comparison teachers by an average of .07 standard deviations .  That’s statistically significant and meaningful, the randomized study design makes the results compelling, and the findings held up under many different sensitivity analyses.  This study adds to other evidence (and here, and here) that TFA teachers are as effective or more effective than other teachers.

But, before everyone starts burning down schools of education or citing contradictory research findings, I think it’s worth considering what it would mean if these results were NOT true.  What if we had an organization that recruited the cream of the crop from our top colleges, and we found that those folks were less successful than our traditionally prepared teachers)? Well, TFA receives tens of thousands of applications every year from our nation’s top colleges.  Meanwhile, traditionally prepared teachers, on average, are “among the lowest achieving graduates of U.S. high schools (Committee for Economic Development, 1985, in Ballou & Podgursky, 1995)” with SAT scores near the bottom of all college graduates (Weaver, 1983, in Ballou & Podgursky, 1995).

If the TFA folks were less successful than traditionally prepared teachers, it would seem to suggest that our K-16 education system had less of an impact than the one or two years of teacher preparation in an education school.

This does not appear to be the case.  Instead, it seems that the best educated people actually turn out to be slightly better at educating the next generation (see Note below for one alternative hypothesis).  In other words, the things that parents and teachers have been telling kids for years – study hard, get good grades, go to a good college – actually seem to matter not just in helping a kid earn more money, but also in helping that kid become better at a really important job – teaching.

Thinking in these terms ought to restrain our anger toward schools of education.  Their relative ineffectiveness might be largely determined by the students they admit.  Of course, our judgment ought to be restrained by the humility of admitting that we actually have almost no data or evidence about the relative effectiveness of schools of education.  But our collective lack of restraint in the face of ignorance is a subject for another day.

With regard to this study, TFA’s defenders will likely trumpet the rigorously researched results, and the study helps them do that by “translating” the effect size into “about equal to 2 ½ months of schooling.  That sure sounds like a big and important result, and a strong justification of the TFA approach.  However, a closer look at the study results for individual teachers shows a lot of variability in the effectiveness of TFA teachers (see Figure V.1 from the study: variability in effectiveness of TFA teachers).  This means that it’s very likely that an excellent TFA math teacher will be replaced in two years by a mediocre teacher, who will be replaced by an average teacher, and on and on.  This kind of turnover cannot logically lead to the dramatic school improvement to which TFA says it is committed.

Instead of descending into TFA vs. ed school debates, we ought to celebrate that TFA appears to have successfully cracked a really important nut – they’ve figured out a way to get our most ambitious, highest-achieving college graduates to go into teaching.  What’s more, those high-achievers appear to be able to help our most disadvantaged students improve their achievement (at least in secondary math).

The problem then becomes – how can we get those most successful teachers to remain in teaching?  Here’s one possibility: gradually increase the TFA time commitment from 2 years to 5 years but this is a tricky thing to accomplish politically.  If we’re going to make any progress on getting TFA teachers to remain in the classroom, it would seem important for us to agree that this is a worthy goal in the first place.

And if we’re not going to make any progress on this second goal, then I’m afraid that the .07 effect size difference is not going to be enough to help anywhere near “all children” achieve TFA’s vision in my lifetime.

Note: It’s also possible that the positive impact of TFA teachers is not driven by the recruitment and selection of higher-achieving people, but by the training that TFA teachers receive.  However, because the TFA organization itself is staffed heavily by TFA alumni, and because that organization has been relentlessly refining and improving its training methods for over two decades, the credit in the end goes back to the same group of people: perhaps the people that TFA recruited have managed to develop a better training system than our schools of education.

 

– Kevin

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