The debate about the efficacy of Teach For America continued in the Washington Post this past weekend. Yes, it goes on and on. This time we are discussing a recently released study (apparently not peer-reviewed at this point) that says TFA teachers’ student performed better in math but not ELA. There are many non-peer reviewed studies that analyze TFA— which produce mixed results— as we discussed here. Su Jin Jez, Cal State Sacramento faculty member (also a good friend of mine since grad school), and I critique the study in the story (after a whole lot of Teach For America is awesome meme):
Critics, unsurprisingly, dispute this. Julian Vasquez Heilig, an associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin and a coauthor of the critical Linda Darling-Hammond paper, notes that the Mathematica sample compares TFA students both to traditionally certified teachers and to other teachers trained in alternative certification programs, some of which require as little as 30 hours spent on an online program before being sent into the classroom.
“Let’s say you go to Reagan airport, and Delta says you have three options: one pilot who has had 30 hours of training, another who’s had five weeks of training, and another who’s been piloting for five years and has been piloting this plane for a whole year. Which pilot do you want?” Vasquez Heilig asks. “When they compared the TFA teachers to the certified teachers, they weren’t better. There’s no significant result. So they’re comparing five weeks to 30 hours.”
Of course, Teach for America’s allies would say that that’s just the state of American education, where school districts have to choose between bad teachers or inexperienced TFA candidates. Vasquez Heilig thinks the better question to be asking is why that’s the case to start with. “Why do we have the word ‘hard-to-staff schools’?” he asks. “Does Finland? How about Korea? We aren’t doing what we need to be doing in terms of providing teacher quality.” Real teacher quality improvements, he argues, require money that politicians aren’t willing to spend.
Su Jin Gatlin Jez, an assistant professor at Cal State Sacramento and another Darling-Hammond coauthor, also notes that the United States doesn’t, in fact, have a teacher undersupply issue at the moment. Because of layoffs, we actually have too many teachers for spots available. “We’re laying off experienced teachers,” she says. “So the problem it’s solving may not be existing even at all.”
Overall, Jez concludes that the consensus on TFA among researchers would likely go something like, “They may be better than other teachers in math, but there’s no evidence they’re very good at reading, and definitely not compared to experienced teachers.” That seems fair, if a bit pessimistic. The evidence seems overwhelming that compared to other teachers in their districts, TFA teachers outperform them on math instruction and match them on reading. But when TFA teachers are compared to experienced teachers, the result is less clear.
I also noted in my discussion with the WaPo reporter that the study showed inconsistent effects for African American and Latina/o students across the distribution. They didn’t report results for White students. We also don’t know the demographics of the students beside their race/ethnicity. This is important considering the flood of recent critiques of the single day of training that new TFA corp members received from the organization before they begin teaching ELLs and Special Education students. I have discussed previously on Cloaking Inequity the noticeable uptick in TFA alums resistance in California and elsewhere against the organization— a Civil War. To read more about former TFA corps members’ critiques of the organization and for the full thread on TFA, go here.
Note: Dr. Su Jin Jez and I are producing an update this summer to the 2010 report that we authored for NEPC to examine the peer reviewed research that has been published since that time. Stay tuned.
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