Teach for America Shows Its Mettle

Published October 1, 2004

An independent evaluation of Teach for America (TFA) has confirmed the value of placing bright, liberally educated college graduates as teachers in some of the nation’s most troubled elementary and secondary schools.

The study, by the respected research firm Mathematica Policy Research, was among several recent contributions to the continuing debate over whether teacher quality is more likely to result from conventional school-of-education training or from opening the profession’s doors to a wider variety of talent and experience.

Mathematica used random assignment to gauge the relative performance of TFA and regular teachers in 17 of the lowest-performing schools in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta. At these sites, 95 percent of the approximately 2,000 children qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch, and achievement was at the 14th percentile when they entered the teachers’ classrooms.

The result in a nutshell: TFA teachers were as effective as the general population of teachers at teaching reading in these impoverished districts, and they were more effective at teaching math. The TFA advantage was not huge–3 percentile points in math–but the results flew in the face of contentions that only conventionally trained and certified teachers could help disadvantaged students.

Critics pointed out that some of the teachers in the control group were themselves uncertified novices, as is often the case in poor communities where teacher recruitment is difficult. However, the study also showed TFA outperformed certified and veteran teachers.

“TFA teachers not only had more success than other novice teachers, but they had more success than teachers with an average of six years of experience in the classroom,” noted lead researcher Paul Decker.

Teach for America asks some of America’s “best and brightest” to give something back to the country by committing to teach at least two years in the neediest urban and rural schools. About 60 percent of TFA participants remain in education after the two-year stint, and many others work as policy advocates on behalf of low-income and minority families.

American Board Certification

While TFA has a track record showing the value of broadening the intellectual mix of the teaching corps, it is not an alternative route to certification. Such a program at the national level, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, recently gained momentum when Florida, a state known as a leader in educational choice, decided to accept ABCTE’s Passport to Teaching as a new route to full certification for public school teachers.

ABCTE offers certification to mid-career switchers, recent college graduates, and current teachers. To gain certification, candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree, pass a criminal background check, and meet American Board standards demonstrating their subject matter knowledge as well as grasp of teaching methods.

ABCTE exams use innovative computer technology that enables candidates to respond to a variety of simulated classroom situations. Candidates for certification must also complete an essay showing they can communicate well with parents and other educators.

Recently, American Board candidates won Passports to Teaching in Pennsylvania and Idaho, the first two states to offer the ABCTE alternative to conventional teacher training. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has recognized ABCTE as a viable option for localities to use in meeting the No Child Left Behind requirement that there be a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom.

ABCTE and other forms of alternative certification that bypass the schools of education have met resistance from defenders of the status quo, among them David G. Imig, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Last year, Imig publicly distributed questions he had obtained from a preliminary draft of an ABCTE test. Proponents of the alternative certification charged Imig was trying to sabotage the competition. Imig, 64, has since announced he will be retiring from his work at the 800-member association. He plans to seek a post-retirement position with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Palo Alto, California.

Teacher College Math

In Michigan, the Grand Rapids Press recently reported that teacher training institutions routinely boast on their Web sites that 100 percent of their graduates pass mandatory academic tests. However, those training institutions were defining graduates as those who passed the tests, thereby guaranteeing a perfect pass rate simply by defining out those who failed.

In reality, pass rates were as low as 66 percent at one school, and as high as 97 percent at another.

Teachers Agree: Too Many Incompetent Teachers

At The Washington Post, education writer Jay Mathews expected an outpouring of criticism when his first-ever guest columnist, California chemistry teacher Richard Chapleau, penned a piece, “If I Were Emperor of Education,” advocating that up to one-third of public school teachers be dismissed for incompetence. Chapleau also argued teachers should have to be evaluated by other teachers who know them well, and parents should take more responsibility for instilling in their children a love of reading.

Chapleau, too, braced for the criticism. To the surprise of both men, they received an overwhelmingly positive response from teachers across the country who agreed there are too many classroom incompetents as well as too many irresponsible parents.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

Information about the Teach for America program is available online at http://www.teachforamerica.org.

The June 2004 report from Mathematica Policy Research, “The Effects of Teach for America on Students: Findings from a National Evaluation,” is available online at http://www.teachforamerica.org/documents/mathematica_results_6.9.04.pdf.

Information about the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence is available online at http://www.abcte.org.