New Mathematica TFA Study is Irrational Exuberance

Teach For America (TFA) has sought to direct attention to a new study recently released by Mathematica.  A blogger at the Washington Post even argued that my prior critiques of TFA were “not true anymore.” (See all of my prior posts on TFA here.) Is that the case? Next week I will start an entire series on the Mathematica TFA study, but for now, because there is an avalanche of email and media inquiries about the study, I will discuss several important issues that I have noted in the study.

1) Mathematica TFA study does not say much about TFA writ large

The sample is large and covers an adequate number of students, schools and states. However, there are clearly some issues in the TFA sample that calls into question whether it really represents TFA and the profession more broadly.

The sample only contains secondary math teachers. However, in most communities, the majority of TFA teachers teach elementary, not secondary (See Houston example below).

The sample is heavily weight toward middle school, 75% of the classroom matches were middle school. Middle school teachers are much rarer in TFA assignments in districts like Houston (See below).

Not only is the sample secondary, but it is focused specifically on math teachers in middle and high school.

Although there is of course variation by site, relatively few TFA teachers teach secondary math. For example, around 82% of TFA teachers in Houston teach subjects other than secondary math. There is a wide variety of assignments. Here is a sample from 2010 (the most recent Houston TFA teacher data I have on hand):

TFA 2010
Tchr, Bilingual 6
Tchr, Bilingual EC-4 1
Tchr, Bilingual Kinderga 1
Tchr, Bilingual Pre-Kinderg 2
Tchr, Biology 1
Tchr, Chemistry 1
Tchr, English 14
Tchr, English/Language Arts 4-8 2
Tchr, ESL 4-8 1
Tchr, ESL Elementary 8
Tchr, ESL Kindergarten 1
Tchr, ESL Secondary 10
Tchr, Fifth Grade 8
Tchr, First Grade 5
Tchr, Fourth Grade 5
Tchr, History 8
Tchr, Kindergarten 1
Tchr, Middle Math 17
Tchr, High School Math 13
Tchr, Multi-Grade 3
Tchr, Physical Science 3
Tchr, Pre-Kindergarten 1
Tchr, Reading, 6-12 10
Tchr, Science 20
Tchr, Science 4-8 1
Tchr, Science 6-8 5
Tchr, Science Composite 1
Tchr, Second Grade 4
Tchr, Social Studies 8
Tchr, Third Grade 3

So it makes sense why the study’s sample covers so many schools and states. Even a district like Houston, that has about 10,000 teachers, only had 13 high school TFA math teachers in 2010. So clearly Mathematica had to scour the country to get a large sample size because TFA secondary math teachers are such a small part of where TFA typically slots its new teachers.

So while TFA and Mathematica have made the case that this study is about TFA writ large. It is not as it is focused on the relatively small number of TFAs that are secondary math teachers.


Another important consideration in the study’s sample is race/ethnicity. Notably, the Mathematica math teacher sample was 80% White and was compared to a sample of 70% non-TFA minority teachers. The Mathematica sample clearly doesn’t reflect reality in urban schools or the reality in Teach For America (maybe, because my reference is Houston— which may be more diverse than the average TFA site). White teachers are not seeking to teach (or stay) in urban schools in droves for a variety of reasons that are extensively demonstrated in the research literature. In terms of TFA, as an example, less than 50% of TFA teachers in Houston are White. Thus, the sample does not represent public school context or even TFA.


2) Size does matter

In any intro statistics course the professor will talk about how to graph to deceiptively represent information. One such way you can make very small number look important is by reducing the scale on a graph. Check out this graph from the Mathematica. What do you notice about the scale utilized on the left?

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.33.13 AM

Mathematica used tenths of a standard deviation as their scale. How would these minuscule standard deviation effects of TFA look on a scale of 1, 2, 3, standard deviations?

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 11.13.37 AM

You need binoculars, maybe a telescope when the effects of secondary TFA math teachers are placed on a scale that is not in tenths of a standard deviation.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 11.17.42 AM

So what about the 2.6 month additional learning claim made by Mathematica that they derived from the standard deviation change? We have had extensive discussions about class size as an important policy lever in the nation for several decades. How does the effect of class size reduction stack up against TFA? Kevin Welner wrote:

Julian, please see page 6 of our recent CREDO review, regarding the translation of SD units into days of learning My guess is that the only way to really help people understand who wacky the process is — or simply to put the 2.6 month claim in perspective — would be to point to other interventions (and to more generally point to the understanding of an effect size that small.)  Andy Maul did a nice job of the latter in the CREDO review.  See the use of Hanushek’s quote on page 7 (0.20 SD, referring to class size reduction, is “relatively small”). Andy also pointed out that, “A difference of 0.01 standard deviations indicates that a quarter of a hundredth of a percent (0.000025) of the variation can be explained.”  That paints a very different picture than the use of extra days of learning.

Despite the lofty claims from Mathematica and TFA about this relatively small group of White, Math, secondary (mostly middle school) teachers, the bottom line appears to be that they are still basically statistically indistinguishable from novice and experience comparison teachers in terms of their impact on academic test performance.

So if you are policy maker, you might want to take another look at class size reduction if you get triple the effect (.07 for TFA versus .20 for class size reduction) that Hanushek reported in his infamous meta-analysis.

3) Findings run contrary to what we know from decades of research about teacher quality

If the Mathematica study is to be believed, nothing matters for secondary student math achievement except the magic of TFA. Why? Because the findings run contrary to decades of research.

Prior ability in math as measured by the Praxis didn’t matter for middle school teachers:

In middle schools, we found no association between teachers’ scores on the Praxis II and student achievement.

Taking math courses or majoring in math in college doesn’t matter for student achievement:

We found no statistically significant relationships between teacher effectiveness and the amount of college-level math coursework completed. Teachers who had completed more than the median number of math courses—7.5 courses—were statistically indistinguishable in their effectiveness from teachers who had completed less than the median number of courses (Table IX.1). Findings were similar when we measured exposure to math coursework on the basis of teachers’ completion of minors, majors, or advanced degrees in math-related subjects

Working on your masters or teacher certification has a negative effect on student achievement.

For each additional 10 hours of coursework that teachers took during the school year, the math achievement of their students was predicted to drop by 0.002 standard deviations. These findings imply that a teacher who took an average amount of coursework during the school year, whether for initial certification or any other certification or degree, decreased student math achievement by 0.04 standard

In sum, you will be a better airline pilot (teacher) if:

  • You do not have ongoing pilot training, it will hurt your flying skills.
  • You do not study to become a pilot before piloting a plane. Just rev the engines. Wohoooooooo.
  • Using a flight simulator to test your ability to fly a plane before hand will have no relationship to your ability to fly a plane.

Boeing 777 Crashes At San Francisco Airport

4) Mathematica findings run contrary to TFA model

TFA has argued that their program is special because of the selectivity of the colleges and universities from which they recruit. According the Mathematica study the selectivity of college doesn’t matter:

We measured teachers’ general academic ability based on the selectivity of the college or university from which they received their bachelor’s degree. There was no statistically significant difference in effectiveness between teachers from selective colleges or universities and those from all other educational institutions (Table IX.1). Likewise, in sensitivity analyses, we found that teachers from highly selective colleges or universities did not differ in effectiveness from teachers whose colleges or universities had lower levels of selectivity.

Teach For America’s model focuses on a two year commitment. After that two year commitment, the turnover in many communities often approaches 80%— i likened TFA to a temp agency in the New York Times (See Why is TFA so incensed?). However, the Mathematica study’s findings run contrary to TFA’s rapid turnover as teacher effectiveness increased with teacher experience:

Students assigned to a second-year teacher were predicted to score 0.08 standard deviations higher on math assessments than students assigned to a first-year teacher. Among teachers with at least five years of teaching experience, each additional year of teaching experience was associated with an increase of 0.005 standard deviations in student achievement.

Considering the limited focus of the sample, size of the effect, wacky results relative to decades of research, and other other specific findings that controvert TFA’s basic reform model, clearly, the Mathematica TFA study has stimulated irrational exuberance, celebration, and other festivities on the part of TFA and supporters that are not warranted.

P.S. For another technical evaluation of the study see “Does Not Compute”: Teach For America Mathematica Study is Deceptive? Wonder about the interaction between the TFA network and Mathematica over the past decade? See: Huggy, Snuggly, Cuddly: Teach For America and Mathematica

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