In 1989, a senior at Princeton University by the name of Wendy Kopp laid out a vision in her senior thesis that would lead to the creation of a national service program called Teach For America. The goal of the new program was to combat the startling inequities that plague our nation's most impoverished schools by recruiting the best and brightest recent college graduates into teaching.
In its fifteen years of existence, more than 10,000 ambitious men and women, most with no formal teacher training apart from a five-week summer training program, have committed to teach for at least two years in rural and urban communities. To date, these young teachers have impacted the lives of an estimated 1.5 million children. As the program has grown to now serve 22 sites across the country, so has it popularity and competitiveness. Last year, TFA received 16,000 applications for 1,500 spots making it statistically more difficult to get into than Harvard Law School. TFA is now the nation's leading supplier of new teachers, an astounding accomplishment for an organization that has faced such stiff resistance from many quarters.
But as TFA has grown, one critical question has remained unanswered - do the students assigned to a TFA teacher benefit academically? Advocates for traditional certification, which only allows individuals to teach who have gone through a school of education, have maintained that TFA, while well meaning, is horribly misguided idea that hurts the children it is trying to help. Until this week, there was little quality empirical evidence that helped to settle this debate.
A study released yesterday by Mathematica, a policy research organization based in Princeton sheds new and important light on this essential question. The sophisticated study compares the performance of students of TFA teachers to the performance of students of teachers in the same schools and at the same grades. To ensure the results were not skewed by an unequal distribution of students, researchers randomly assigned students to the different classrooms before the school year began.
The results are clear. Across the board, Teach For America teachers do as well or better than any other teachers in their schools, including both the ones that have been teaching for many years and the ones who are fully certified. The effect is particularly pronounced in mathematics where students of TFA teachers made ten percent more progress in a year than students of non-TFA teachers. The fairest "apple to apple" comparison found that new TFA teachers stacked up quite well to other new teachers in the building, so much so that the impact was about the same as if the school had reduced the class size from 23 to 15 students but a whole lot less expensive. Of the 12 different ways that the researchers crunched the numbers, only on one measure did TFA perform less well and that was for a subgroup of TFA teachers: not surprisingly, first year TFA teachers did not get the results of certified, experienced teachers.
These findings are certain to serve as a significant dose of fuel on an already heated debate about who should be allowed to teach in our nation's schools.
Few would disagree with the notion that we need smart, motivated teachers who know the content they teach and have the teaching skills to discipline, motivate, and educate a classroom of students. But while our schools of higher education regularly produce well-educated people with a strong understanding of a certain content area, just what essential teaching skills are needed and how to teach them most effectively and efficiently has remained unanswered. Unfortunately, research over the past 50 years, including this most recent empirical effort, has yet to demonstrate teachers who took education coursework in college are any more effective at raising student learning than teachers who did not.
Of the teachers surveyed in the Mathematica study, less than three percent of TFA teachers have a Bachelor's degree in education compared to 55 percent of non-TFA teachers. And yet, by all indications, TFA teachers are performing as well and usually better than the other teachers in their buildings. Does this mean that teaching skills don't matter? Hardly; but it does raise some obvious questions about how teachers can acquire these skills and what states ought to be forming as policy.
And while this debate will inevitably continue, the results of the Mathematica study leave us with three clear lessons.
First, Teach For America works.
Second, there is no basis for districts to resist programs like Teach For America or see themselves as being forced into it only because of teacher shortages. While schools of education will always have a place in the training of teachers, they have for too long failed to attract and produce both the quality and quantity (particularly in subject areas like math and science where shortages are most prevalent) of candidates to retain their distinction as the sole provider of teachers.
Unfortunately, there is third lesson revealed in this study. The harsh truth is that while students of TFA teachers are outperforming students of non-TFA teachers, both groups of students still languished at depressingly low levels of achievement. While any serious attempt to narrow the achievement gaps will take years of sustained effort that cannot possibly be revealed in a single year's growth (the limit of this study), the ongoing low performance of the children in this study is a depressing reminder of the work before us. No matter what we are likely to do or say, or even if they get a few great teachers along the way, many of these young students in the Mathematica study will never graduate from high school and those that do will still be many years behind their more privileged peers. As Wendy Kopp recognized fifteen year ago, by continuing to ignore the myriad forces that are keeping good teachers out of the toughest schools and chasing away those that take on the challenge, we are robbing many of our children of one of the few resources from which they can learn the skills and knowledge they will need to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Doing so is bad for our economy, our democracy, and the countless young men and women who strive to be part of both.