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MAKING A DIFFERENCE?: Urban Institute Report Finds Positive Results for Teach for America High School Teachers

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“School systems working to improve their neediest schools may find that focusing on teacher selection has a greater payoff in high schools than focusing on teacher retention.”

At the high school level, Teach for America (TFA) teachers are more effective than experienced teachers across subject areas, but particularly in math and science classes, according to a recent report from the Urban Institute’s National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). The report, Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School, finds that programs such as TFA that focus on recruiting and selecting academically talented recent college graduates and placing them in schools serving disadvantaged students can help reduce the achievement gap, even if teachers only stay in teaching for a few years.

“School systems working to improve their neediest schools may find that focusing on teacher selection has a greater payoff in high schools than focusing on teacher retention,” said Jane Hannaway, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center and the CALDER. “In our study, we don’t know whether it was the strong academic credentials of TFA corps members or some kind of special motivation that came with being a TFA teacher that made the difference, but the results were clear: students performed better when they had an inexperienced TFA teacher than when they had a veteran educator at the blackboard.”

In performing their analysis, the report’s authors examined individual-level student data linked to teacher data in North Carolina from the 2000–01 through 2005–06 school years. Specifically, they looked at TFA teachers in high schools, and especially in math and science. As they explain, North Carolina was a particularly attractive location because of its rich administrative databases and its requirement that schools administer subject-specific end-of-course exams at the end of the school year.

Among those studied, TFA teachers were more highly qualified in several areas than non-TFA teachers. For example, significantly more TFA teachers have graduated from “most selective” or “very selective” higher education institutions than non-TFA teachers (64 percent versus 23 percent). In addition, TFA teachers have higher average scores on the PRAXIS, a series of tests that states use as part of their teacher licensure and certification process, and are more likely to be licensed in the subject area that they teach (90 percent to 82 percent in science subjects, 73 percent to 69 percent in math subjects, and 89 to 67 percent in English).

The report also finds that TFA teachers are more likely to be assigned to classrooms with higher minority concentrations (80 percent to 49 percent) and are more likely to be assigned to more academically challenged classrooms. And although students of TFA teachers are less likely to be limited English proficient, they are more likely to be racial or ethnic minorities, and less likely to have parents with bachelor’s degrees or higher. They also tend to have lower standardized scale scores on end-of-course assessments across all subjects.

However, the report finds that, in terms of test scores, TFA teachers can more than offset their lack of teaching experience with their better academic preparation in particular subject areas or with other unmeasured factors such as motivation. On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than students taught by more experienced instructors.

Without adjusting for classroom characteristics, the researchers find that having a TFA teacher is associated with about 0.12 standard deviations improvement in end-of-course performance. Adding classroom variables reduces TFA effects to 0.07, but it reduces the effect of teacher experience even more, resulting in a TFA effect on student achievement that is just below three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience.

“Our findings show that secondary school TFA teachers are more effective than the teachers who would otherwise be in the classroom in their stead,” the researchers write. “Other things being equal, the findings suggest that disadvantaged students taught by TFA teachers are better off than they would be in the absence of TFA.”

The report does have some criticisms of the program, noting that most TFA teachers have not received traditional teacher training and are therefore not as prepared for the demands of the classroom as traditionally trained teachers are. In addition, TFA only requires a two-year teaching commitment, and the majority of corps members leave at the end of that commitment. The report’s authors also point out that their findings do not mean that there is no value to teacher training and hypothesize that TFA teachers could be even more effective with more pedagogical training.

Complete Report.

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