Teach for America is a non-profit group that places liberal arts graduates in schools with a need for qualified teachers. A few Williams graduates participate each year. The idea is that the students receive energetic and knowledgable teachers, while the liberal arts alums receive an eye-opening experience in the classroom.

A randomized evaluation of Teach for America was just completed by Mathematica Policy Research. You can download the final report here. The study is well constructed. Students were randomly assigned to be taught be either a Teacher fro America participant or by someone in the school’s regular teaching pool. The random assignment ensures that, on average, the TFA participant has the same quality of student as the “control” teacher. Student performance was measure by performance on stanardized tests.

In math courses, a two point difference between the TFA and “control” teachers was detected. The result is statistically significant, but substantively might be construed as minor (the scores are based on Normal Curve Equivalents with a median of 50 and standard deviation of 21, so moving from 28 to 30 is not a huge success).

In reading courses, there was no difference between students assigned to TFA participants or regular teachers.

I think a couple of conclusions can be safely drawn:
1) Teach for America doesn’t harm students. The liberal arts graduates typically took no education courses in college, but they don’t do worse than the typical teacher in a low-income school.

2) Teach for America may aim to address inequity in public education, but the gains are extremely modest. The quality of the “control” teachers was extremely low in the sample — many were not even certified teachers. Despite a low baseline for comparison, the Teach for America participants did not perform exceptionally well. TFA participants may be hard working, enthusiastic, smart, and idealistic, but they aren’t miracle workers. The bottom-line is that students still underperform in both math and reading. (Note: An interesting point of comparison would have been to compare the performance of experienced and “good” teachers from more affluent schools in the same low-income schools.)

It is possible that the benefits from Teach for America aren’t measured by performance on a standardized test. For instance, maybe TFA teachers inspired more people to attend college down the road. The study saw no difference in grade promotion, summer school enrollment, and behavior, but the effects may be subtle and long term.

My friends who have participated in Teach For America have reported mixed feelings about the experience. It was challenging and rewarding at times, it was also depressing and disheartening at times. If they had to do it over again, I think most of them would still have signed up.

Undergraduates considering Teach for America should not fool themselves into thinking that they will be changing the lives of their inner-city students. On the other hand, undergraduates shouldn’t worry about causing harm to their students, either. The schools need teachers of any stripe. If you are considering a career in teaching, Teach For America might be a good way to become certified and determine whether education is for you.

I think I was a pretty good math teacher a few years back. However, the handful of instances where I think I made a difference were away from the blackboard and had nothing to do with algebra or geometry. I reckon these personal instances could have taken place in any job where I regularly came into contact with teenagers (although teaching is a fun and rewarding way to work with youth).

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