Do Teach for America Teachers Outperform Others?

Here’s one way to get a hot discussion started. Issue a research report that concludes that teachers who have come through the alternative licensure program known as "Teach for America" ( do a better job of educating students than teachers from traditional licensing programs. On September 11th, the Institute for Education Sciences, the research branch of the US Department of Education, released "The Effectiveness of Secondary Math Teachers from Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows Programs." You can read the entire study at:

This study compared student performance using state mathematics assessments in grades 6 though 8 and a math assessment developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association on high school student performance among students taught by teachers from two alternative licensure programs: Teacher for America and the Teaching Fellows Program, The math performance of students taught by alternative licensed teachers and traditionally licensed teachers was compared. The study concluded that no significant difference appeared between Teaching Fellows teachers and traditional route teachers. However, the study found that students from Teach for America teachers outperformed students from classrooms of traditional route teachers. The researchers concluded that students assigned to a TFA teacher scored 0.07 standard deviations higher on end-of-year math assessments than students assigned to comparison teachers. This is the statistical equivalent of the effect of an additional 2.6 months of school.

These conclusions, understandably, have sparked a significant debate on the role of alternative route licensing programs.

But before we jump to conclusions that professional preparation of teachers in traditional teacher preparation programs has been shown to be inferior, I think this study offers a far more important and relevant insight into teacher preparation. According to the study, TFA is a highly selective process that asks applicants only for a two year commitment. According to the study, only about 12% of applicants are accepted. Applicants are screened on prior content knowledge, interviews, writing samples and sample lessons. The initial training in Teach for America is relatively short, approximately 5 weeks; but most TFA programs also require that students register in state-approved alternative certification programs to complete coursework toward certification during the first years of teaching. TFA teachers begin teaching with materials and strategies they have been exposed to in their initial training and, most importantly, they receive intense coaching and personal support from their TFA supervisor moving forward. They are placed according to an analysis of the best fit between the strengths of the individual and the assignment. Thus, the TFA teacher undergoes an intense process of "on the job training" in a highly supportive environment using expert-developed materials and lessons and receiving intense one-on-one coaching.

There is much to like here. However, the focus is more on a delivery process based upon knowledge and expertise that is external to the TFA teacher where the development of lessons and strategies is done by someone else. Bright, motivated young people with good content knowledge are instructed in how to deliver lessons guided by intense coaching. One of the primary objectives of TFA is to help fill critical areas of teacher shortage in high need areas; so the idea is to move quickly to fill gaps. Two issues surface: 1) would the TFA teacher be able to function at this level if they had to design their own lessons and activities and/or had to deliver these actions at other grade levels and 2) what happens to teacher performance when intense coaching is removed? Since TFA teachers tend not to be career-long teachers, the length of service issues and sustained performance over time are not easily examined.

I do not think arguing whether alternative route or traditional route licensing is inherently superior is very productive. There is value in considering the roles of rigorous screening, strong content knowledge and sustained coaching for beginning teachers. And many traditional licensing programs introduce candidates to actual classroom experience very early in their licensing process. Traditional programs add important value in areas of learning theory, assessment strategies, needs of students with special needs, strategies related to equity and diversity, disciplinary practices and classroom management, meeting the needs of English language learners, and understanding how human development in young people impacts their learning. The IES study points to the fact that early experience and intense coaching positively impact teacher success. Incorporating more of such components into the preparation of all teachers would help the beginning teacher feel better prepared and more successful in using the in-depth preparation they have received.
Ultimately, the IES study would suggest that integration of these pathways would be desirable. Investing in the quality of the process of both preparation and induction of teachers is more of a resource issue than a question of winning the debate of alternative licensing vs. traditional licensing.


3 thoughts on “Do Teach for America Teachers Outperform Others?

  1. US Department of Education Awards $8.176 million to Teach for America

    Sure to add more fuel to the debate over the recent IES study of the effectiveness of teachers prepared under the alternative license program Teach for America, the US Department of Education this morning released an announcement regarding grant awards for teacher and principal professional development under the Supporting Effective Educators Development (SEED) program. Thirty million dollars ($30 million) has been awarded to 6 national programs, including $8.176 million to Teach for America. You can read about it here:

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