Teach for America?

The Washington Post had an interesting article today on plans in the District of Columbia to recruit additional Teach for America teachers to high needs schools:

Teach for America, which has operated in the District since 1992, has 160 teachers working there this year. The number will grow to 250 in the fall, with 25 assigned to Prince George’s schools. If the school systems agree, there could be 500 such teachers in the District and Prince George’s by 2011, making Teach for America by far their largest supplier of new teachers. The expansion reflects what organization officials see as a new commitment to reform by the administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Prince George’s officials.

While I admire the commitment shown by Teach for America candidates, I question the decision to invest heavily in a program that has shown little significant impact on student achievement. By Teach for America’s own standards, the only reliable study conducted on the impact that Teach for America recruits have on student achievement is a 2004 Mathematica piece titled The Effects of Teach for America on Students.

The results of this study were less than impressive. While TFA teachers in the study did produce greater gains than those of comparable novice teachers, the gains merely brought struggling students from the 14th to the 17th percentile nationally. Even more disconcerting were quotes throughout the report like this one:

“The consistent pattern of positive or zero impacts on test scores…suggest that there is little risk that hiring TFA teachers will reduce student achievement.”

Is providing students of poverty with teachers who have little risk of harming student achievement truly our goal?

The real focus of discussion should be on the incredibly poor qualifications of teachers currently working in our highest needs schools. In the Mathematica study, only 54.5% of all teachers and only 33% of novice teachers in the control group had degrees in education. High needs schools are filled with teachers on emergency and provisional certificates and are plagued with higher rates of teacher turnover.

I believe we should work as a nation to design comprehensive programs that recruit and retain some of our best teachers to our neediest schools. Doing so will take a focused commitment to improving working conditions for teachers in these buildings. Ground breaking work has been done in recent years by The Center for Teaching Quality—in partnership with the NEA—to bring teachers into the conversation, resulting in this report highlighting the conditions and incentives necessary for both recruiting and retaining teachers in our hardest to staff buildings.