Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Mathematica Report on Teach for America: More Effective Math Teachers or a Case of "Irrational Exuberance"?

The conversation about Teach for America (TFA) has been reignited by a new study by Mathematica Policy Research last week, which concludes that TFA teachers were more effective in teaching secondary math than their peers who entered teaching from traditional routes or from alternative teaching programs. The study focused on secondary math because this it is an area experiencing teacher shortages. Mathematica evaluated the effectiveness of Teach for America and Teaching Fellows (an alternative teaching fellowship program) teachers and found that “[o]n average, students assigned to TFA teachers scored 0.07 standard deviations higher on end-of-year math assessments than students assigned to comparison teachers,” an impact “equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.” The study found no significant difference between Teaching Fellows and traditional teachers in secondary math assessments. The report, The Effectiveness of Secondary Math Teachers from Teach For America and the Teaching Fellows Programs, was sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, and is available here.

 Below is Mathematica's video presentation of the study's findings:

Articles about the study in the Washington Post note that the Teach for America program is deeply divisive, and as shown by the different takes in the Post hailing the results here and advising caution about interpreting the study here. The latter summarizes a post in Cloaking Inequity, which challenges some of the Mathematica report's findings. In the post, New Mathematica Study is Irrational Exuberance, Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig points out that the study’s sample only contains secondary math teachers when in most communities, the majority of TFA teachers teach in elementary, not secondary schools. Because relatively few of TFA teachers teach secondary math, Heilig argues that the study does not give a balanced view of TFA or allow a solid conclusion to be made about comparisons between TFA and experienced teachers. But that is what the Mathematica report seems to conclude in this excerpt from the executive summary:

The study findings can provide guidance to school principals considering hiring decisions. Although a specific teacher from TFA or a Teaching Fellows program might be more or less effective than a teacher from a traditional or less selective alternative route, our findings can shed light on the average effectiveness of the teachers from TFA relative to teachers from another route and on the average effectiveness of Teaching Fellows relative to teachers from another route.

Our study suggests that, on average, principals of the secondary schools in the study would raise student math achievement by hiring a TFA teacher rather than a teacher from a traditional or less selective alternative route to teach the math classes examined in the study.


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