Middle and high school students whose math teachers entered the profession through Teach for America learn what researchers are calling the equivalent of 2.6 months more than similar students each year, according to a study released today.
But the study found that teachers who entered the profession through the Teaching Fellows program, which supplies large numbers of New York City teachers, did not similarly boost students’ math scores.
The findings are likely to shape ongoing debates over the value of teacher experience and and over alternative certification programs, given the limited number of large-scale studies on the programs’ effectiveness. For years, Teach for America’s detractors have pointed to a 2005 study led by Linda Darling-Hammond, while supporters have been left to offer up smaller studies and anecdotal evidence about outsized gains.
But more recently, studies showing benefits to Teach for America teachers have begun to pile up, even as criticism of the program, which allows recent college graduates a fast track into the classroom, has continued.
The latest study, conducted by the firm Mathematica, is among the largest and uses random-assignment methodology, which is widely considered the “gold standard” in education research. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, an office that supports randomized studies in an attempt to boost the quality of education research.
Looking at 8,500 students in multiple districts over two years, Mathematica found small but significant gains from having a Teach for America teacher. The average student in the study would have scored at the 27th percentile if assigned to a non-TFA teacher but scored in the 30th percentile if taught by a TFA math teacher, which the study’s lead researcher, Melissa Clark, called “really nontrivial gains.”
“The findings suggest that over the long term, continuing to fill a position with TFA teachers who depart after a few years would lead to higher student math achievement than filling the same position with a non-TFA teacher who would remain in the position and accumulate more teaching experience,” Mathematica concluded.
But the research firm also concluded that students did better on average when their teachers had more experience, no matter which pathway the teachers followed into the classroom.
In the study, researchers assigned students randomly to a class either taught by a TFA teacher or a Teaching Fellow, or to a comparison class taught by a teacher who entered the profession through another certification process. Scores were compared between “classroom matches,” classes in the same school with identical subject matter, using state tests in middle school and end-of-course tests in high school. For TFA, researchers looked at student performance from 11 districts in eight states, and for Teaching Fellows, researchers looked at students in nine districts in eight states.
Mathematica’s report details the many differences between the two alternative certification pathways, including the age of their teachers and the preparation programs that new teachers undergo. But it does not speculate about how much of the comparisons reflect differences in the people who choose to become teachers through TFA or the Teaching Fellows program instead of through a traditional path, and how much they reflect differences in selection, training, and support.
Mathematica did not disclose any information about what districts took part in the study or whether New York City teachers were involved. But Teach for America says it has more than 1,700 teachers in New York City classrooms. And New York City is one of the flagship sites for TNTP’s Teaching Fellows program, with hundreds of new fellows each year, even in the heart of the economic recession several years ago. Of the city’s fellows, many teach math, although special education is the most common area assigned to new fellows.
The city, which has put in a bid to the state to run an alternative certification program of its own, touted its support for the programs in response to the study.
“Over the last decade, we’ve innovated like never before in city history by aggressively recruiting and hiring high quality new teachers, including those through selective alternative pathways,” said city Department of Education spokesman Devon Puglia. “Those dynamic new educators, be it through Teach for America or Teaching Fellows, have helped us better serve students, especially in high needs areas.”
“We think this is a validation of our approach to recruit, train, and support teachers,” TFA spokesperson Steve Mancini said. “There still a lot more work to be done, but certainly these results are encouraging.”