Employment Guide: Sakaria: Study substantiates Teach for America’s claims of effectiveness

By Ankur Sakaria / Opinions Editor

Teach For America, a program that often receives a bad rap for offering school districts an incentive to hire low-paid, inexperienced college students, has recently been presented with an opportunity to respond to such criticisms. A recent study by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a sector under the Department of Education, highlighted how successful TFA teachers have been, particularly in mathematics.

The study evaluated 4,573 students across the nation for more than two years in an effort to compare how well students learned and understood mathematics under the tutelage of secondary math teachers in the Teach For America program as opposed to instructors from non-TFA backgrounds.

The results were encouraging.

From 2009 to 2011, TFA teachers were more effective than other instructors at their schools, with their students moving from the 27th percentile to 30th percentile on standardized mathematics exams. The students with TFA teachers performed significantly better than students taught by instructors disciplined by traditional means, the equivalent of about 2 1/2 extra months of learning more effectively.

The study disproves criticism that the TFA has received as it attempts to appeal to recent college graduates. Furthermore, the results defend the claim that many TFA recruits teach on the same level, if not better, than teachers trained through traditional means.

Much of the criticism directed at the TFA comes as a result of the brevity of its certification program. The brief two-year teaching term poses questions about the amount of experience that can be attained in terms of developing effective teaching techniques. It also begs the question of whether or not TFA can provide its recruits with the necessary tools to succeed in a field that requires them to teach students lessons that will serve as building blocks in their academic careers.

How are TFA teachers capable of teaching their students if TFA has so little time to teach its teachers, right? Yet, this study paints a different picture.

Students of TFA teachers who were in their first three years of teaching scored 0.08 standard deviations higher — an approximate 2 percent increase in scores — than students of other teachers who were in their first three teaching years. Moreover, students of TFA teachers in their first three years scored 0.07 standard deviations higher than students of teachers with more than three years of experience. If you ask me, the college graduates involved in the program seem far from inadequate, or inexperienced.

In fact, the claim that school administrators are laying off experienced teachers to replace them with TFA teachers who are ultimately paid less is irrelevant when TFA teachers have the ability to perform better and potentially stimulate perpetual success for their students. Plus, TFA teachers — many of whom have not dedicated their educational tenures to studying mathematics — have scored significantly higher on math aptitude tests than their counterparts.

It makes sense. TFA’s training program, which is highly selective in comparison to other certification programs, employs individuals from America’s best universities. Eighty-one percent of TFA teachers graduated from selective higher education institutions, whereas only 23 percent of teachers from conventional or traditional certification programs graduated from selective schools. This contingent TFA houses provides us with some obvious insight as to why its teachers are doing a better job than others.

The results of this study only strengthen a program like TFA’s track record. Although some might deem the results insignificant, students in impoverished schools have certainly seen significant improvements as a result of their efforts. “This research shows that our teachers are helping students grow academically and reach their full potential,” said Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach For America. “We applaud our teachers — and their students — for this achievement.”

Write Ankur at [email protected].