Expert Commentary

Effects of Teach for America in high school

2011 study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management on the effects of Teach for America teachers on high school student performance

Teach for America (TFA) is a program that recruits top graduating students from some of the most competitive colleges across the United States to work as teachers in underserved school districts for at least two years. TFA recruits non-education major students who are not certified teachers, with the idea that their undergraduate degrees will be enough to prepare them to teach. Some education experts have questioned the effectiveness of TFA on improving student performance; other lines of criticism have focused on the TFA attrition rate in the teaching profession after the standard two-year commitment.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, “Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School,” assessed the impact of a TFA teacher on student performance. The study used data from North Carolina that included both teacher profiles and matched them with student’s exam performance over a seven-year period of time (2000-2007.) The study compared the TFA cohort against outcomes for regular system teachers, who typically had certification and proper licensure.

The study’s findings include:

  • Without controlling for relative years of teaching experience, “the effect of having a TFA teacher is about 8.5 percent of a standard deviation [increase] in student test scores over traditional teachers”; this effect bumps up to 13.5 percent of a standard deviation when teacher experience is taken into consideration. Overall, the positive impact of TFA educators is particularly strong on student science scores.
  • Looking across all high school subjects, the effects of TFA teachers “remain about 2 to 3 times the effect of having three to five years of teaching experience.”
  • There is greater diversity among non-TFA teachers and novice non-TFA teachers. Indeed, a smaller percentage of TFA teachers are from racial and ethnic minority groups,” with 86% of TFA teachers being white, compared to about 56% of other teachers.
  • Non-TFA teachers not only have more teaching experience but also are more likely to have graduate degrees. Among TFA teachers, “only 2 percent of them have a master’s degree or higher. By contrast, 29 percent of all non-TFA teachers and 14 percent of novice non-TFA teachers” have advanced degrees.

The researchers conclude that their results “suggest that programs like TFA that focus on recruiting and selecting academically talented recent college graduates and placing them in schools serving disadvantaged students can help reduce the achievement gap, even if teachers stay in teaching only a few years.” Though they warn that the results do not undercut the potential value of teacher training, the study’s authors note that the findings “have important implications for the recruitment and selection aspects of human resource management in education, at least for high school teachers. They stress the likely importance of strong academic backgrounds.”

Tags: schools, children, youth, rural, teachers