Critics: No solid evidence that Teach for America boosts achievement

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In June, Teach for America received a flurry of media attention when a national study was released that showed students taught by the program’s teachers did better in math than students taught by other teachers at the same schools and in the same grades.

Teach for America contends that the report proves its teachers are having a positive impact on students in the toughest schools. But critics, pointing out that both sets of students scored very poorly, note that the gains made were marginal and do not provide solid evidence that the program produces effective teachers.

“There are no differences in reading [scores]. There was only slight difference in math and that difference was miniscule,” says Barnett Berry, president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The bottom line is neither the Teach for America teachers, nor the other teachers, were adequately prepared to serve these children.”

In fact, the math gains were equal to what would be expected from an additional month of instruction, according to the report from Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J. Test scores for students taught by Teach for America teachers rose from the 14th percentile in the fall to the 17th percentile at the end of the year. Students of other teachers scored in the 15th percentile in the fall and remained there at year’s end. Researchers used standardized test scores for 1,893 elementary school students in seven high-poverty districts: Chicago, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles/Compton, Mississippi Delta (two districts) and New Orleans.

John White, executive director of Teach for America’s Chicago office, dismisses the criticism.

“The gains made may be abysmal to less then abysmal. But anything that demonstrates strong academic achievement should be praised, replicated and enhanced,” White says.

Discipline a serious problem

The study also included a survey in which a third of Teacher for America teachers reported serious problems with physical conflicts between students or general misbehavior such as talking in class. In comparison, only 17 percent of other teachers reported serious problems with fights while 23 percent reported serious problems with misbehavior.

“If you read the reactions to this study, you’re going to see, depending on people’s political perspective, ‘Teach for America works’ or ‘Kids in urban districts are getting the short end of the stick.’ Both of these are probably true,” says Daniel Humphrey, associate director of the Center for Education Policy at SRI International, an independent research institute based in Menlo Park, Calif.

The real issue, Humphrey explains, is that assigning first-year teachers to difficult classrooms in dysfunctional schools—which is what Teach for America does—is not good no matter what route a teacher has taken to enter the profession.