Equity & Diversity Opinion

Philip Kovacs: Research Suggests Teach For America Does Not Belong in Huntsville

By Anthony Cody — January 09, 2012 4 min read
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Guest post by Philip Kovacs.

Two months ago Anthony Cody graciously allowed me to publish the results of my investigations into Teach for America’s “research.” You can read those pieces here and here.

I would like to offer some closure to my investigation by providing interested parties with a brief discussion of some material left off of TFA’s “research page.” I need to acknowledge here that I am not the first to point out this contradictory research.

Prominent bloggers and researchers have been picking apart TFA for almost a decade. Their collective work undermines and negates TFA’s claim that “A large and growing body of independent research shows that Teach For America corps members make as much of an impact on student achievement as veteran teachers.”

Larry Ferlazzo offers an extensive list of links to blogs, newspaper pieces, and magazine articles for those interested in spending a few days reading about issues surrounding TFA. My focus here, however, is on peer-reviewed work.

Unfortunately, there are not many peer-reviewed studies comparing TFA to veteran or traditionally certified teachers. A further problem, which I addressed here, is that these studies rely on student test scores as the sole determinant of teacher effectiveness.

For the record, I believe the most compelling case against TFA ignores test scores and focuses on the organization itself. Barbara Torre Veltri’s Learning on Other People’s Kids is a compelling expose of the organization, written using in-depth interviews with TFA corps members as well as expansive data sets including training materials and tax returns.

The earliest peer-reviewed study comparing TFA corps members to veteran teachers that I am aware of is Laczko-Kerr, I., & Berliner, D. (2002). The effectiveness of Teach for America and other under-certified teachers on student academic achievement: A case of harmful public policy. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10 (37).

The emphases in the following quote, taken from the article’s abstract, are mine:

...1) students of TFA teachers did not perform significantly different from students of other under-certified teachers, and 2) that students of certified teachers out-performed students of teachers who were under-certified. This was true on all three subtests of the SAT 9: reading, mathematics and language arts. Effect sizes favoring the students of certified teachers were substantial. 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.

Three years later the same journal published Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D., Gatlin, S.J., & Heilig, J.V. (2005). Does teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and teacher effectiveness. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13 (42).

The emphases in the following quote, taken from the article’s abstract, are mine:

In a series of regression analyses looking at 4th and 5th grade student achievement gains on six different reading and mathematics tests over a six-year period, we find that certified teachers consistently produce stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers. These findings hold for TFA recruits as well as others. Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers.

The abstract is fairly mild compared to page 18, where the authors note (emphasis mine):

...we found that uncertified teachers and those with less than standard certification--whether TFA or non-TFA--exert negative effects on student achievement relative to teachers with standard certification. Uncertified TFA teachers showed significant negative effects on student achievement in five of six estimates (and the sixth also has a negative coefficient.)

That same year MIT’s journal of Education Finance and Policy released Boyd, D., Grossman, P., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2006). How changes in entry requirements alter the teacher workforce and affect student achievement. Education Finance and Policy, 1 (2): 176-216.

From the Conclusion of the study, page 212 (emphasis mine):

Our analysis of alternative-route teachers suggests that in some instances Fellows and TFA members provide higher student achievement gains than the temporary-license teachers they replace. For example, Fellows in their third year of teaching in middle schools outperform temporary-license teachers in both math and ELA. More typically, alternative-route teachers are no better or worse than the temporary-license teachers they replace. When compared to college-recommended teachers, alternative-route teachers often provide smaller gains in student achievement, at least initially, and for ELA it takes longer to catch up. As noted above, many of these differences are not large in magnitude, typically about 2 to 5 percent of a standard deviation, and the variation in effectiveness within pathways is far greater than the average differences between pathways.

The most recent peer-reviewed study is Vasquez Heilig, J., Cole, H. & Springel, M. (2011). Alternative certification and Teach For America: The search for high quality teachers. Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, in press. I requested and received the page proofs as part of my research into Teach for America.

This study focuses more on the legal ramifications of changing the definition of “highly qualified” teachers so that programs such as TFA can operate under No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to make sure poor, minority students received the same high quality education by middle and upper class students.

This peer-reviewed piece appeals to me and to my city in particular because Huntsville, Alabama, is under a federal desegregation order and one of the Department of Justice’s specific complaints is inequitable distribution of teachers. Given that TFA members are only going to Title I schools, it seems to me that this particular inequity is going to increase, especially in light of the peer-reviewed pieces cited above. The authors of the last piece agree. From the Conclusion, page 410 (emphasis mine):

While it is essential that classrooms be led by well-educated, competent, and high-quality teachers, low-achieving students are often taught by teachers who are less qualified and less effective than are high-achieving students. Poor and minority students are also disproportionately assigned less qualified and less effective teachers. This inequitable distribution of effective teachers further compounds the disadvantage that high-poverty and high-minority students are faced with in school. Children most in need of strong teachers are being denied what arguably might be their most invaluable resource--teachers, which is reinforcing the inequalities.

If you are a parent reading this blog and Teach for America is operating in your school district, the above findings should make you more than uncomfortable. On a purely economic level, if you pay federal taxes, you should feel the same way, as TFA receives massive federal funding, though this year that may be cut.

On a moral level, we should all be ashamed that our country continues, despite 10 years of No Child Left Behind, to under-serve poor, minority children. Americans like to talk about equality of educational opportunity, but that has simply never been the case, and it never will be if we continue to deny children strong teachers.

How TFA can continue to make the claim that they produce corps members who make “as much of an impact on student achievement as veteran teachers” despite evidence to the contrary is a fairly simple matter. Thanks to massive grants and payments from school districts around the country, TFA has quite a war chest, and they can afford a massive public relations campaign that includes directly lobbying the federal government using your tax dollars.

Why there are so few peer-reviewed studies looking at TFA is a more interesting question. Perhaps it is because TFA doesn’t want them. Discussing why TFA doesn’t release information on how its corps members perform, CEO and founder Wendy Kopp was rather candid, “We just don’t feel it’s responsible to show,” Kopp said. “There are so many flaws in our system.”

What do you think? If there are so many flaws in the system, is it worth the price paid by students, school districts, and tax payers?

Philip Kovacs is an assistant, tenure tracked professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.