School & District Management

TFA, Alternative Programs Marginally Better Than Traditional Teacher Prep, Study Finds

By Liana Loewus — November 28, 2017 3 min read
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Students whose teachers were trained in alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America tend to perform slightly better academically than students whose teachers had traditional teacher training, according to a recent meta-analysis.

The study aims to put to rest a long-held debate about whether alternative route teacher training programs, which tend to provide a quick path to the classroom for people who already have a bachelor’s degree, can sufficiently prepare new educators. About 20 percent of new teachers enter through alternative programs, according to a 2016 report from the Education Commission of the States. Traditional teacher preparation programs, on the other hand, generally serve undergraduate students and culminate in a bachelor’s degree or teaching credential. (Some master’s degree programs also have a certification component.)

“People when they hear alternative, they think bad,” said Denise Whitford, an assistant professor of education at Purdue University and co-author of the study. “We found there really wasn’t much difference between the two [types of preparation programs], but the small difference we did find was in favor of alternative programs.”

The new analysis, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, looked at a dozen studies of teacher-preparation programs conducted between 1998 and 2015. (The researchers screened more than 700 studies on preparation programs from peer-reviewed journals and the federal What Works Clearinghouse for inclusion in the analysis. Many were excluded because they did not measure academic achievement or were not determined to be high quality.) The studies used test scores as indicators of student achievement.

The mean achievement of students whose teachers went through alternative programs was slightly higher (about .03 standard deviations, which is statistically significant) than those whose teachers were traditionally trained, the analysis found.

Separating Teach For America

The results differed somewhat when broken down by grade level, subject, and type of alternative program—though those differences remained small overall.

Students with alternatively trained teachers did moderately better in English at the middle school level, but showed no statistically significant differences in elementary or high school English.

The researchers also specifically analyzed teachers who came into the profession through Teach For America—perhaps the most well-known and controversial alternative program, which puts high-achieving college graduates into under-resourced classrooms after five weeks of training.

“With Teach For America, we think they are improving those results for all alternative teacher preparation teachers,” said Whitford. TFA is known for having a rigorous selection process, which Whitford said may be contributing to this.

A strength for TFA teachers seemed to be teaching math and science. Students in those classes with TFA teachers did statistically significantly better than those in classes with traditionally trained teachers. “That’s probably because [TFA] is recruiting from top-tier universities people with math and science backgrounds,” said Whitford.

Not all the news was rosy. At the high school level, when TFA teachers were excluded from the sample, teachers from other alternative programs performed statistically significantly worse than traditionally trained teachers in science. With TFA included, there were no statistically significant differences between alternatively trained high school teachers and traditionally trained ones in any subject.

However, Whitford emphasized that all of the differences across the programs were quite small. “It seems to not matter too much what preparation programs teachers come from,” she said. “Alternative, traditional, or TFA, it seems to be just a slight increase [or decrease] either way.”

So will this 12-study analysis end the traditional vs. alternative teacher-preparation wars? It’s unlikely. A 2010 report from the National Research Council noted there is broad overlap in what’s taught during the two types of programs, and argued the distinctions between them aren’t necessarily useful. But that hasn’t stopped the teacher-ed debates. And given the complexities around measuring good teaching, this study may not either.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.