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Making a Difference?

The Effect of Teach for America on Student Performance in High School

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Document date: March 27, 2008
Released online: March 27, 2008

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Teach for America (TFA) selects and places graduates from the most competitive colleges as teachers in the lowest-performing schools in the country. This paper is the first study that examines TFA effects in high school. We use rich longitudinal data from North Carolina and estimate TFA effects through cross-subject student and school fixed-effects models. We find that TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers, including those who are certified in-field. Such effects exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in math and science.

Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School

Teach for America (TFA) recruits and selects graduates from some of the most selective colleges and universities across the country to teach in the nation's most challenging K–12 schools throughout the nation. TFA has grown significantly since its inception in 1990, when it received 2,500 applicants and selected and placed 500 teachers. In 2005, it received over 17,000 applicants and selected and placed a little over 2,000 new teachers, and the program anticipates expanding to over 4,000 placements in 2010. In total, the program has affected the lives of nearly 3 million students.

The growth of the program alone suggests that TFA is helping to address the crucial need to staff the nation's schools, a particularly acute need in high poverty schools, but TFA is not without its critics. The criticisms tend to fall into two categories. The first is that most TFA teachers have not received traditional teacher training and therefore are not as prepared for the demands of the classroom as traditionally trained teachers. TFA corps members participate in an intensive five-week summer national institute and a two week local orientation/induction program prior to their first teaching assignment.2 The second criticism is that TFA requires only a two year teaching commitment, and the majority of corps members leave at the end of that commitment. The short tenure of TFA teachers is troubling because research shows that new teachers are generally less effective than more experienced teachers (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain, 2005; Rockoff, 2004).

The research reported here investigates the relative effectiveness (in terms of student tested achievement) of TFA teachers, and examines the validity of the criticisms of TFA. Specifically, we look at TFA teachers in secondary schools, and especially in math and science, where considerable program growth is planned over the next few years. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study of TFA at the secondary school level.

Using individual level student data linked to teacher data in North Carolina, we estimate the effects of having a TFA teacher compared to a traditional teacher on student performance. The North Carolina data we employ is uniquely suited for this type of analysis because it includes end of course testing for students across multiple subjects. This allows us to employ statistical methods that attempt to account for the nonrandom nature of student assignments to classes/teachers, which have been shown to lead to biased estimates of the impact of teacher credentials (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor, 2007a; Goldhaber, 2007).

The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are particularly strong for math and science classes.

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2 In recent years, TFA corps members have also engaged in on-going professional development activities provided by TFA and whatever other supports school districts provide new teachers.

Topics/Tags: | Education

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