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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/ 4/2010

Teach for America -- let's do the numbers

By Conor Williams

The Tennessee State Board of Education recently released data
showing that teachers trained by Teach For America (TFA) are getting better test scores out of their students than nearly every college of education in the state (the only exception: math teachers from Vanderbilt University). Here's Jane Roberts, reporting in Memphis's Commercial Appeal:

Teach for America, which recruits high-performing college graduates to the classroom from all disciplines, racked up the highest student scores among new teachers in reading, science and social studies. Even compared to students of veteran teachers, students of TFA teachers had the highest test scores in reading. Vanderbilt teachers' students took top honors in math.

Critics have long complained that the program does not adequately prepare its corps members. These numbers seem to challenge that line of attack. It's also worth keeping in mind that TFA only places teachers in high-need, underserved districts. These numbers reflect increasingly talented teachers succeeding under the most difficult circumstances. Don't believe me? Ask a teacher where he or she learned more about how to teach: in child development classes or in front of students. I promise you -- and I have an advanced degree in education -- that it's the latter. TFA's training takes this insight seriously.

Of course, it's important to remember that scoring relatively better than other teachers doesn't mean that the overall results are adequate. In other words, though their numbers were the state's best (by 10 percent), only 42 percent of students in beginning TFA teachers' classrooms scored above the 80th percentile on reading. We can still do better at training our nation's teachers. Of course, we also need to hold teachers accountable if they aren't improving.

Even given the study's constraints (only includes Tennessee colleges of education, only uses test scores to measure effectiveness, etc.), these are striking numbers. As a TFA alum, I find them encouraging! What do you think?

By Conor Williams  | December 4, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Williams  | Tags:  Education, Education Reform, Jane Roberts, TFA, Teach For America, Teachers, Tennessee  
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I think anything we can do to help improve our schools is great! I would hope that there is an arm that demands the parents involvement early on. Elementary school is the place to start with teaching the PARENTS how to help their kids by expecting good grades and respect for the adults who teach them. I see that children are not being supported at home, and this is the number one reason why children fail in my opinion. Why would a kid care if he gets an A or B if his parents don't?

Posted by: dcjayhawk2 | December 4, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

No child should be left behind and we have a moral and societal obligation to ensure that all students attend safe,great schools with highly qualified and motivated teachers.Study after study indicates that it is the classroom teacher that has the greatest IN SCHOOL affect on student learning,but it is the homelife of a child that has the greatest overall affect on that child's ability to learn.For example,countries such as Finland and Singapore consistently far out perform the US on student test scores.However,Finland and Singapore have a child poverty rate of 3% compared to the 23% child poverty rate in this country.Moreover,when US students from middle and upper income families are compared to high achieving countries our students are quite competitive.My point is that the US must not only address the quality of the schools but also the poverty and the dysfunctional familiy life that too many of our students endure if we are ever going to significantly improve education.Any teacher will also tell you that if childen come from homes that value education and that instill the importance of school in their children,no matter the economic background,those children will have a real chance of succeeding educationally,especially if they have a motivated and dedicated classroom teacher.One more point, I agree that most educational courses are ineffective in preparing a college student for the classroom.A good liberal arts education and a year long internship working with master teachers and taking basic mini-courses on lesson planning,classroom management,etc.would be the best preparation for teaching.Keep up the terrific and important work TFA,the profession needs more young people like you.

Posted by: johnbird1 | December 4, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

This is great. Finally some studies to show that TFA is getting results. This way all the nonbelievers can see how effective TFA teachers are, and that the program is living up to its great intentions. I'm currently waiting for my admissions decision after finishing my final interview this week, and I am hoping more than ever that I'm accepted. Thanks for publishing this!

Posted by: Hunter12 | December 4, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

As a TFA alum, Mr. Williams is aware that there have been many studies of TFA teacher effectiveness. The conclusions drawn by the stuudies vary substantially.

In this column, Mr. Williams cites a single study. To provide a broader view, here are two more.
The above study out of Stanford looked at 4th and 5th graders in Houston and found the following:
“[W]e find that certified teachers consistently produce significantly stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers. Alternatively certified teachers are also generally less effective than certified teachers. These findings hold for TFA recruits as well as others.”
This 2010 report out of The Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice draws upon several peer-reviewed articles and concludes:
“[A] simple answer to the question of TFA teachers’ relative effectiveness
cannot be conclusively drawn from the research; many factors are involved in any
comparison. The lack of a consistent impact, however, should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.
“It is therefore recommended that policymakers and districts:
--Support TFA staffing only when the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes.
--Consider the significant recurring costs of TFA, estimated at over $70,000 per
recruit, and press for a five-year commitment to improve achievement and reduce re-staffing.
--Invest strategically in evidence-based educational reform options that build
long-term capacity in schools.”

My personal curiosity lies in how students taught by TFA recruits fare after their TFA’er leaves and the students are thrown back into their school’s ‘normal’ program. If there were gains in test scores, are they maintained after their TFA teacher experience? Are these students more likely to do better academically, socially and professionally later on in life than their non-TFA exposed peers? I was not able to find such a study. Perhaps Mr. Williams is aware of one and can provide the link in his next post.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

MsJs that same study found that certified TFA teachers yield higher achievement gains on TAAS math and reading exams than their certified non-TFA counterparts. Also, as someone who went through the Texas public school system, I can tell you TAAS hasn't been used for a decade, so that study is also a little out of date. Since 2002 we've used TAKS. In top of that, TFA is much larger and has come a long way since 2000, from 900 corps members then to more than 4,500 now.

Posted by: Hunter12 | December 4, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Hunter12, the first study is admittedly old but the second is not. I'm only trying to point out that short-term TFA effectiveness is anything but clearcut.

If you know of a peer-reviewed study that measures long-term TFA effectiveness on students, I'd love to read it.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

MSJS, Once a child can read, a child can read regardless of the teacher. Whether or not a child wants to read is another matter.

Is there any data on many TFA trained teachers stay in profession?

Posted by: Teacher18 | December 4, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Teacher18, I agree about the difference between being able to read and wanting to read.

The 2nd study I mentioned in my 12:13pm posts has some data on the number of TFA'ers who remain teachers.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Anything involving the Teachers Union has NOTHING to do with Education and everything to do with UNION DUES and benefits to teachers.

If America wants to do something to improve Education, start with de-certifying the problem - the TFA!

Posted by: 2012frank | December 4, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Teacher18, I know that TFA quotes that 30%+ TFA teachers teach for a third year after their two-year contract, and that number dwindles to around 15% for the fourth year. I've never seen numbers past then. But they also say that 60% + stay in education, whether that's teaching, administrative work, or some sort of advocacy. I wish those numbers were higher, but considering these college grads would have never likely considered education, I consider it a victory.

And MSJS I'd also like to see a good, reputable study that highlights the effectiveness of TFA nationwide, not just in Houston or Tennessee. That would clear up a lot of questions regarding TFA.

Posted by: Hunter12 | December 5, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

All well and good. Major problem-TFA teachers don't last long. Why?

Posted by: tuonela | December 5, 2010 5:11 AM | Report abuse

All well and good. Major problem-TFA teachers don't last long. Why?

Posted by: tuonela | December 5, 2010 5:11 AM | Report abuse

TFA teachers don't stay because the time required means they don't have time or attention for their own families and, at some point, most people want a personal life.

The best teachers I've ever seen were nuns.Not the smack-the-kid-with-a-ruler kind of nun, but concerned professional educators. Except for specific religious duties, seven days a week, all waking hours, they focused on being educators. But most of us are not willing to forego marriage and children in order to devote ourselves to our vocation.

Posted by: mullingitover | December 5, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

mullingitover, the main reason TFA teachers leave after 2-3 years is that they didn't intend to teach as a career in the first place. There are some critics (I'm not one of them) who assert too many TFA teachers use the program to pad their resumes on their way to some other career and do so at the expense of kids in poor, underserved districts.

Hunter12, I agree. A nationwide multi-year study would be great.

Posted by: MsJS | December 5, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Now my statistics training is rusty, but if 42% of TFA students read above the 80th percentile, that's a fantastic ABSOLUTE achievement, not relative as claimed. If corrected for the underserved population these TFA teachers serve, the acheivement would be even more dramatic. One would expect, by definition, 20% of students to read at the 80th percentile.

This doesn't surprise me, since TFA teachers are drawn from the same talent pool that elite private school teachers come from--high acheiving liberal arts grads not holding eduaction-specific degrees.

Posted by: Belowreserve | December 5, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who makes policy based on flawed testing results and standards of giving tests should have his or her head examined very carefully.

Posted by: sailhardy | December 5, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I am 74. I attended public schools and a top university. Before attending college most of my teachers were "old maids." That is because NC for many years would not permit teachers to marry!! These women were older, but were excellent teachers. Teaching was their life.

For many years schools and courses for teachers have been very poor. In fact, alot of their students could not compete in a real university environment. Teaching became the easy way out and a sure job. A teacher should have to do more college work and less of the being taught how to teach. Perhaps a teacher should get a degree and then have to attend grad school to get the teaching courses. Today many teachers are just teaching the test thus dumbing down education.

Posted by: annnort | December 5, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

Any attempt to understand the inherent dilemma of TFA teachers should always begin with the premise that they are the enemy of all teacher unions.

TFA teachers (as a group) are far brighter, more motivated, and sometimes even embarrassingly more qualified in the subjects that they teach than their veteran teacher peers. In short, TFA teachers represent a direct threat to a union's primary objective of protecting teacher jobs regardless of classroom competency.

Teacher unions pay only lip service to the academic achievement of children. Their real mission has always been about defending job security and increasing the pay and benefits for its dues paying members regardless of their competency. The TFA pool is viewed as a competitive alternative to poor performing, yet union protected teachers.

And so it goes...

Posted by: pgould1 | December 6, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Norm-referenced test percentiles are based on a huge number of scores. Half of the scores are above the 50th percentile, and half below. It would be normal for only 20% of students to score above the 80th percentile. 42% is way above what would be expected if the test is valid and reliable.

Posted by: bikergrrl | December 6, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

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