Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence (The Sequel)

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The sequel to the 2010 Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence was released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) today. The new policy report is entitled Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence. I have included the citation, official NEPC press release, and the Executive Summary in this post.

Citation: Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S.J. (2014). Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/teach-for-america-return.

Press Release: A Return to the Evidence

Scholars conclude the program has some strengths, but smart policy should focus on reforms
that create stability and with stronger track records for improving student achievement

BOULDER, CO (January 7, 2014) — Teach For America (TFA) is almost a quarter-century old. Since its launch, the program has experienced phenomenal growth, both in the numbers of participants and in the financial support it has received, and it has enjoyed extensive favorable publicity.

Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence, a report authored by professors Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento for the National Education Policy Center, challenges the simplistic but widespread belief that TFA is a clear-cut success story. In fact, Heilig and Jez find that the best evidence shows TFA participants as a group are not meaningfully or consistently improving educational outcomes for the children they have taught.

Teach For America recruits college graduates, typically from elite universities, to serve in short-term (two-year) positions teaching in low-income communities. According to Heilig and Jez, the program is a mixed bag, with some benefits and some harms. But, they conclude, it is hugely oversold and it risks being a distraction from alternative strategies for which research evidence provides much stronger support for improving teaching and educational outcomes, especially for children living in poverty.

Teach For America and other organizations have produced studies asserting benefits provided by TFA teachers. Those studies, however, have only rarely undergone peer review – the standard benchmark for quality research, Heilig and Jez observe. In contrast, the available peer reviewed research has produced a decidedly mixed picture. For example, the results attributed to TFA teachers varies both by their experience and certification level. The results also fluctuate depending on the types of teachers to whom the TFA teachers are compared; TFA teachers look relatively good when compared to other inexperienced, poorly trained teachers, but the results are more problematic when they are compared to fully prepared and experienced teachers, Heilig and Jez report.

Because of these differences, the question most frequently asked—Are TFA teachers “as good as” teachers who enter the profession through other routes?—is not the question we should be asking, Heilig and Jez contend. Whether one or the other group is better is “a question that cannot be answered unless we first identify which TFA and non-TFA teachers we’re asking about,” they write.

Even more important, “The lack of a statistically and practically significant impact should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not providing a meaningful reduction in disparities in educational outcomes, notwithstanding its explosive growth and popularity in the media,” according to Heilig and Jez. Moreover, despite its rapid growth, TFA remains a tiny fraction of the nation’s teaching corps; for every TFA teacher, there are 50,000 other teachers in the U.S., Heilig and Jez note, and the small numbers and small impact of TFA point to a needed “shift in thinking.”

“We should be trying to dramatically improve the quality of teaching,” write Heilig and Jez. “It is time to shift our focus from a program of mixed impact that, even if the benefits actually matched the rhetoric, would not move the needle on America’s educational quality due to the fact that only 0.002% of all teachers in the United States are Teach For America placements.”

The authors conclude with a series of recommendations. For example, they urge policymakers and school districts to invest in “evidence-based educational reforms” and to undertake a detailed understanding of “the peer-reviewed research literature on the impact of new, promising innovations.”

Heilig and Jez also offer recommendations specific to TFA. They urge districts to support TFA staffing “only when the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes”; to require contractual, five-year commitments from TFA teachers, which would improve student test-score achievement and reduce teacher turnover; to require TFA teachers – indeed, all teachers – to obtain additional training “based on well-supported best practices for in-service teacher professional development”; and to better understand TFA’s fiscal impact by comparing data such as finder fees, placement, and attrition rates for TFA teachers, as well as the program’s various costs, by communities.

Find the report Teach for America: A Return to the Evidence, by Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, on the web at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/teach-for-america-return.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.

Contact: 
William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058, wmathis@sover.net
Julian Vasquez Heilig, (512) 471-7551, jvh@austin.utexas.edu

URL for this press release: http://tinyurl.com/k745er7

For those of you that would like more information on the specific findings, I have included the Executive Summary from the report below.

Executive Summary

Teach For America (TFA) receives hundreds of millions of public and private dollars and has garnered acclaim for sending college graduates, who do not typically have an education background, to teach in low-income rural and urban schools for a two-year commitment. The number of TFA corps members has grown by about 2,000% since its inception in 1990. The impact of these transitory teachers is hotly debated. Admirers see the program as a way to grow the supply of “outstanding” graduates, albeit temporarily, as teachers. Critics, however, see the program as a diversion from truly beneficial policies or even as a harmful dalliance into the lives of low-income students who most need a highly trained, highly skilled, and stable teacher workforce.

Despite a series of non-peer-reviewed studies funded by TFA and other organizations that purport to show benefits of TFA teachers, peer-reviewed research on their impact continues to produce a mixed picture. The peer-reviewed research suggests that results are affected by the experience and certification level of the TFA teachers as well as by the group of teachers with whom those TFA teachers are compared. The question’s specifics strongly determine the answer.

The practical question faced by most districts is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than fully credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom those school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, the predominance of peer-reviewed studies have indicated that, on average, the students of novice TFA teachers perform less well in reading and mathematics assessments than those of fully credentialed beginning teachers. But the differences are small, and the TFA teachers do better if compared with other less-trained and inexperienced teachers. Again, the comparison group matters greatly.

The lack of a statistically and practically significant impact should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not providing a meaningful reduction in disparities in educational outcomes, notwithstanding its explosive growth and popularity in the media. The program is best understood as a weak Band-Aid that sometimes provides some benefits but that is recurrently and systematically ripped away and replaced.

Experience has a positive effect for both TFA and non-TFA teachers. Most peer-reviewed studies find that the relatively few TFA teachers who stay long enough to become fully credentialed (typically after two years) appear to do about as well as other similarly experienced, fully credentialed teachers in teaching reading and sometimes do better than this comparison group in teaching mathematics. However, since more than 50% of TFA teachers leave after two years and more than 80% leave after three years, it is impossible to know whether these more positive findings for experienced TFA recruits result from additional training and experience or from attrition of TFA teachers who are less effective.

TFA’s revenue has rapidly expanded. Between 2000 and 2013, TFA’s yearly operating expenditures increased 1,930%—from $10 million to $193.5 million. Of those expenditures, TFA annual reports show that about a third of operating costs are borne by the public. Also, over the past ten years, TFA has obtained nearly a half of a billion dollars from private sources. With an organization as large as TFA, there is no perfect way to assign specific costs, but dividing TFA’s income reported in its 2011 annual report by the number of corps members yields a figure of approximately $25,490 for each corps member recruited and placed. About a third of this money comes from local, state, and federal budgets, earmarked to support TFA as a perceived benefit to society. Another third comes from tax-deductible charitable donations from individuals and corporations to TFA (which is incorporated as a non-profit). And the final third comes from private foundations. Including what TFA spends directly per recruit, our calculations show that the total cost of the two-year commitment from a TFA recruit can easily exceed $70,000 when including professional development, training and other costs.

Due to the high turnover of TFA teachers, the re-occurring costs of hiring 100 TFA recruits is quite high for society—about $6,044,000 more than hiring 100 Non-TFA teachers. From a school and district perspective, TFA is also expensive. Recruiting and training replacements for teachers who constantly churn involves recurring financial costs. Districts also pay TFA a fee per corps member per year employed—resulting in a substantial on-going expenditure.

Thus, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and extensive lobbying by supporters and prominent alumni, TFA appears to offer few if any benefits for improving teacher quality in hard-to-staff schools. Why, then, is there so much discussion, even controversy, surrounding TFA?

Despite persistent claims to the contrary, a simple answer to the question of the overall utility of TFA teachers for urban and rural schools is elusive. The program is sometimes viewed by policymakers and advocates as a way to meaningfully address the very real need for high-quality instruction in hard-to-staff schools—and it is clearly not that. At best, hiring TFA teachers is a stop-gap measure for some desperate schools that is somewhat better than their other poor options. But even in those cases, the program is a diversion away from truly beneficial policies.

Instead of trying to understand whether or not TFA teachers are as good as non-TFA teachers (a question that cannot be answered unless we first identify which TFA and non-TFA teachers we’re asking about), we propose a shift in thinking about the impact of TFA. We should be trying to dramatically improve the quality of teaching. It is time to shift our focus from a program of mixed impact that, even if the benefits actually matched the rhetoric, would not move the needle on America’s educational quality due to the fact that only 0.002% of all teachers in the United States are Teach For America placements. It is therefore recommended that policymakers and districts:

  • Invest strategically in evidence-based educational reform options already incontrovertibly identified in the peer-reviewed research literature as substantially improving student success by larger margins than the mixed evidence on TFA.
  • Devote effort to understanding the peer-reviewed research literature on the impact of new, promising innovations.

Based on the review of the evidence, we make the following recommendations to districts in regards to hiring through TFA:

  • Support TFA staffing only when the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes.
  • Consider the significant costs of TFA teachers, estimated at over $70,000 per recruit, and press for contractual five-year commitments to improve student test-score achievement and reduce costly teacher turnover.
  • If not already compulsory, require TFA teachers to receive additional teacher training that is based on well-supported best practices for in-service teacher professional development. We recommend this for non-TFA teachers, too, but feel it is especially important for TFA teachers given their limited pre-service training.
  • Independently obtain contracts and data to compare, by community, finder fees, placement and attrition rates of TFA teachers, and various costs.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on TFA go here.

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Categories: Teach For America

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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16 Comments on “Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence (The Sequel)”

  1. Ken Mortland
    January 7, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Have copied your posting and plan to use it in postings of my own. Thank you.

  2. January 8, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    Reblogged this on Naked Teaching and commented:
    Once the rhetoric is stripped, the hype worn down and the two years finished, what do we have. Disruption without improvement? TFA interns should stick to volunteering maybe? Like with a master teacher with a minimum of five years’ experience? We know what works. Why don’t we celebrate skill and dedication instead of novelty for novelty’s sake.

    • Ken Mortland
      January 9, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      Unlikely they will switch to volunteerism, though that’s not a bad idea. It won’t generate either the fees from the receiving districts or the donations from foundations that have become the reason for TfA’s existence.

  3. January 15, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Teach For America: Truth of Crime.

  4. April 11, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Reblogged this on Fuzzytek and commented:
    Please read this assessment of Teach For America (TFA) and a paper which examines the quarter century old program.
    “Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence, a report authored by professors Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento for the National Education Policy Center, challenges the simplistic but widespread belief that TFA is a clear-cut success story. In fact, Heilig and Jez find that the best evidence shows TFA participants as a group are not meaningfully or consistently improving educational outcomes for the children they have taught.

    Teach For America recruits college graduates, typically from elite universities, to serve in short-term (two-year) positions teaching in low-income communities. According to Heilig and Jez, the program is a mixed bag, with some benefits and some harms. But, they conclude, it is hugely oversold and it risks being a distraction from alternative strategies for which research evidence provides much stronger support for improving teaching and educational outcomes, especially for children living in poverty.”

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