Teach for America’s Impact on Student Achievement Mixed, Says Study - June 21st, 2010

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Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

A new policy brief released earlier this month by the Education and the Public Interest Center and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPIC/EPRU) suggests that Teach for America (TFA), an alternative teacher preparation program, is less effective than years of positive press reports would suggest.

The report, “Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence,” was written by Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, who’s an assistant professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, and Dr. Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento. It offers a comprehensive overview of research on the Teach For America (TFA) program, which recruits graduates of elite colleges to teach for two years in low-income rural and urban schools. The brief was published by EPIC, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and EPRU, at Arizona State University.

Overall, Heilig and Jez argue that the impact of Teach For America on student achievement is mixed at best.  On the one hand, studies show that TFA teachers perform fairly well compared with one segment of the teaching population - other teachers in the same hard-to-staff schools, who are less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared. Compared with that specific group of teachers, TFA teachers "perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores," the policy brief's authors write.

Comparisons of TFA teachers with credentialed non-TFA teachers, however, reveal that "the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers," Heilig and Jez write.

And in a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers' certification status, standard certified teachers consistently outperformed uncertified TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings.

In the end, TFA teachers have some advantages and some disadvantages, and these lead to outcomes one might expect. According to Jez and Heigil, the trade-offs are straightforward. TFA teachers are elite college graduates, but they receive a much shorter training process than conventional teacher education programs. They teach in hard-to-staff schools, but they generally do so for only two years. One would anticipate that these TFA teachers would show outcomes better than other minimally trained beginning teachers but worse than fully trained teachers or experienced teachers.

The research does in fact support these assumptions, say Heilig and Jez. According to research evidence, TFA teachers do get better if they stay long enough to become fully credentialed. Those experienced, fully credentialed TFA teachers "appear to do about as well as other, similarly experienced, credentialed teachers in teaching reading ... [and] as well as, and sometimes better than, that comparison group in teaching mathematics," Heilig and Jez write.

According to Jez and Heilig, the “catch” is that more than half of TFA teachers leave after two years, and more than 80 percent after three. It’s therefore impossible to discern if those who remain have improved because of additional training and experience - or simply because of "selection bias” (they were more effective than the four out of five TFA teachers who left).

Furthermore, the high turnover of TFA teachers results in significant expenses for recruiting and training replacements.

"The lack of a consistent impact...should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes," Heilig and Jez write. In the face of such limitations, the authors urge schools and districts instead to devote resources to a number of proven remedies for improving achievement, including mentoring programs that pair novice and expert teachers.

The authors also recommend that schools use TFA teachers only when "the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes." 

Heilig’s research interests include issues of access, diversity and equity in higher education. His current focus is on examining how high-stakes testing and accountability-based reforms and incentive systems are affecting urban minority students. His qualitative work also addresses the sociological mechanisms by which immigrant student achievement and progress occur in relation to specific NCLB-inspired accountability policies.

Heilig, who is in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, is a faculty affiliate of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Mexican American Studies. He also serves as associate director for the University Council of Education Administration, which is housed in the College of Education.

Last year Heilig was honored with the University Co-op’s Hamilton Award for Best Research Paper for  “Accountability Texas-Style: The Progress and Learning of Urban Minority Students in a High-Stakes Testing Context.” In April he was given the first-ever Warfield Center for African and African American Studies Faculty Teaching Award.

Access “Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence,” the study authored by Heilig and Jez, online.

Last updated on June 21, 2010