‘Teach for America’ Instructors Shine

Published September 1, 2001

Instructors who enter teaching through the decade-old Teach for America program perform as well as or better than teachers entering the profession by more traditional routes, according to a new study of teachers in the Houston Independent School District.

Since TFA teachers are given only limited preparation for work in the classroom, the program’s success raises questions about the value of four-year teacher preparation programs at the nation’s 1,200 schools of education.

“This study shows that you don’t have to undergo years of training in a school of education to be a satisfactory teacher,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which sponsored the study. “Able and well-educated college graduates who undergo a brief period of intensive training such as TFA offers can be a great source of talented teachers for troubled school districts that desperately need them.”

The Teach for America program, developed by education reformer Wendy Kopp, works something like the Peace Corps. TFA recruits talented liberal arts graduates from competitive colleges, puts them through special training, and places them in some of the nation’s toughest public schools.

Although TFA teachers were welcomed into Houston’s public schools by U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige when he was superintendent there, the program was strongly criticized recently by Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond for placing unqualified–i.e., uncertified–teachers in schools that deserve better.

The new study, performed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at the Hoover Institution, found TFA teachers produce as high or higher student achievement as other HISD teachers, regardless of their certification and years of experience. On average, the impact on students of having a TFA teacher is always positive, often large, but not statistically significant. Although the size of the effect varies by grade, subject, and peer group, the results are strongest in mathematics in elementary and middle schools.

While there are variations among teachers, TFA teachers as a group show less variation in quality than teachers entering from other routes, according to the study’s authors, Margaret Raymond, Stephen Fletcher, and Javier Luque.

“The range in difference of TFA teachers’ contribution to student performance is for the most part tighter than the range for non-TFA teachers, meaning TFA teachers are more consistent and less risky as a group of potential employees,” the study concludes. “[T]he curves show clearly that the highest-performing teachers were consistently TFA teachers, and the lowest-performing teachers were consistently not TFA.”

In addition, TFA teachers are less likely to leave after one year, and many elect to remain in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment.

A few days before the CREDO report was published, the issue of how well colleges of education prepare their graduates for work in the classroom was brought to national attention by First Lady Laura Bush in an interview with The Associated Press. Bush, who taught second grade from 1968 to 1972, said she hopes to work with education colleges to “really beef up” teacher training, since new teachers were not always prepared for the classroom.

“I think it’s unfair for colleges of education to not make sure that their teachers are really prepared when they graduate,” she said.

For more information . . .

Copies of the August 1, 2001 report, Teach for America: An Evaluation of Teacher Differences and Student Outcomes in Houston, Texas, by Margaret Raymond, Stephen Fletcher, and Javier Luque is available from the Web site of the Hoover Institution’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes at http://credo.stanford.edu.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, an information clearinghouse on teacher quality issues, should be bookmarked by anyone with an interest in teacher preparation, teacher quality, and alternative teacher certification. It provides up-to-date information on news, research, literature, and policy options, together with many links to other useful Web sites. NCTQ is found on the Web at www.tqclearinghouse.org.