Teaching Profession

Study Finds Benefits In Teach For America

By Debra Viadero — June 16, 2004 5 min read
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Students taught by Teach For America recruits learned more in mathematics over the course of a school year than schoolmates whose teachers were hired through more traditional routes, a new study shows.

The report, released last week by the Mathematica research group, is the first national study, and the most rigorous, to examine the impact of the Peace Corps-style program. It recruits promising young liberal-arts graduates to teach for two years in disadvantaged rural and inner-city schools.

“The Effects of Teach For America on Students: Findings from a National Evaluation,” is available from Mathematica Policy Research. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Students of the teaching corps’ recruits made larger learning gains in mathematics than did children in other classrooms in the same grades and the same schools, the study found. In reading, students of both kinds of teachers showed similar levels of improvement.

Since 1990, the privately organized Teach For America has deployed more than 10,000 graduates to disadvantaged schools plagued by teacher shortages. The recruits take part in five-week summer institutes that include four weeks of student teaching. Because states have begun stepping up their requirements for Teach For America participants, most also continue their education coursework on the job.

But critics have accused the program of gambling with poor children’s futures because few of its recruits come to the program with education backgrounds.

See Also...

See the accompanying chart, “Comparing Types of Teachers.”

“We hope this will move us beyond the debate over whether Teach For America is a good thing and whether it has a positive impact on students,” said Wendy S. Kopp, the president and founder of the New York City-based nonprofit group.

The Mathematica study was financed by the Smith Richardson Foundation of Westport, Conn.; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation of Menlo Park, Calif.; and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

To test whether the teaching corps was making an impact in the classroom, the Mathematica researchers analyzed 2002-03 test scores for 2,000 students in Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta, and New Orleans. Within each of the 17 participating schools, students in all grades were randomly assigned to Teach For America teachers and to those who were hired through traditional means.

The researchers say the math gains they found were equivalent to about a month of extra schooling. Put another way, they say, the gains were worth about 65 percent of the academic growth that can occur when schools reduce class sizes.

The math gain was more pronounced when researchers narrowed the comparison group to include only teachers who, like the Teach For America instructors, had been on the job three years or less. In reading, the improvements remained even.

No explanation for why the Teach For America teachers produced better math results emerged from the study. Those teachers were no more likely than the other teachers studied to have majored in that subject, and both groups said they used similar teaching practices

The biggest difference between the two groups of teachers was that 70 percent of the Teach For America recruits had graduated from colleges ranked as “very,” “highly,” or “most competitive,” compared with under 3 percent of the traditional hires.

Poor Qualifications

When it came to formal training, however, the two groups were not as different as critics of the TFA program might expect. Although just 3 percent of the Teach For America recruits had undergraduate education degrees when they joined the program, 25 percent had earned a master’s or bachelor’s degree in the field by the time the study ended.

In comparison, 55 percent of the other teachers in the schools studied—and 33 percent of the comparison group’s beginning teachers— had degrees in education.

Overall, the researchers found, the non-Teach For America teachers had substantially less formal training and lower rates of certification than the national average. Teach For America targets its efforts toward schools where principals often have to rely on emergency hires, long- term substitutes, and alternatively trained or certified teachers.

“The qualifications of all the teachers are extremely subnormal, and the achievement of the students is extremely poor,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor who advocates more extensive education training for teachers, said of the study. “And Teach For America teachers don’t solve that situation.”

The study’s findings are bound to attract attention as districts and states struggle to meet federal requirements to staff classrooms with qualified teachers. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools, with a few exceptions, have until the end of the 2005-06 school year to ensure that all teachers in core academic subjects are “highly qualified.’’

Paul T. Decker, the project director for the study, said the findings show that the TFA program could be an effective strategy for raising children’s academic achievement.

“At least from the perspective of school districts, it may be cheaper to hire Teach For America teachers than to reduce class size,” added Mr. Decker, who is a vice president for human-services research at Mathematica, which has offices in Washington, Princeton, N.J., and Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Decker acknowledged that his analysis of Teach For America did not account for some of the hidden costs to participating schools, including the expense of replacing departing recruits. Most of the Teach For America participants studied said they planned to teach for “just a few years,’’ although national statistics show that 60 percent stay in education in some way when their two-year commitments end.

In other findings, the Teach For America corps members were more likely than regular teachers to rate tardiness and fights among students as serious problems, though school records showed that the actual rates of absenteeism and disciplinary incidents among the two groups’ classrooms were similar.

“What they bring to the school is a sense that ‘if I can do it, anybody can do it,’ and that becomes part of the school culture,” Rebecca Mir, the principal of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Houston, said of the teaching corps’ members, which her school has employed since the early 1990s. “We’ll take success any way we can get it.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Benefits In Teach For America

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