Does Teach For America Have an Impact on Student Learning? What the Research Says (Part 1 of 2)

What impact has Teach For America had on student learning and achievement? Has its rapid growth over the past 15 years weakened its impact? Yesterday Bellwether released a report that seeks to answer these and other important questions on Teach For America’s scale, which has been unprecedented in the social sector. In this blog post, I’ll dive into what the research says on corps members’ instructional impact on students. In the next post of this two-part series, I’ll explore Teach For America’s long-term vision and how the organization thinks about its alumni impact.

Overall, the evidence of Teach For America’s impact on student learning is positive: On average, corps members produce better results in math than other teachers and comparable results in reading. Importantly, there is little evidence to suggest that Teach For America’s rapid growth has weakened corps members’ effectiveness in the classroom.

Mathematica Policy Research, an independent social policy research firm (disclosure: I previously worked at Mathematica), has conducted two national randomized controlled trials—the gold standard for evaluating public policies and programs—to assess Teach For America’s impact on student achievement. In these studies students within the same school and grade were randomly assigned to either Teach For America corps members or comparison teachers (both beginning and more experienced ones). This type of study design ensures that differences in student learning reflect differences in teacher effectiveness—and not pre-existing student gaps prior to the start of the study.

Both Mathematica studies showed that Teach For America corps members teaching math produce better results than their peers, including veteran teachers:

The first study released in 2004 included nearly 2,000 elementary school students in six school districts; its results showed that students taught by corps members had gains equivalent to one extra month of math instruction over the course of one year. In reading, corps members produced results roughly comparable to other teachers. In other words, they were not better than other teachers, but they were also not harming students—as some critics, who disapprove of Teach For America’s two-year commitment and boot camp-style summer training, claim.

Nine years later, the U.S. Department of Education sponsored a second Mathematica study. This time Mathematica focused on math achievement among 4,500 middle and high school students in 11 school districts. Findings from the 2013 study were even more positive than those of the first study: Students taught by Teach For America corps members in math showed improvements equivalent to receiving 2.6 additional months of instruction in one school year (about a summer’s worth).

Although less rigorous, other quantitative studies provide additional data points on Teach For America’s impact on student learning. Researchers from the Strategic Data Project, housed within the Harvard Graduate School of Education, analyzed student data from the Los Angeles Unified School District and concluded that corps members teaching math outperformed other novice teachers by 1 to 2 additional months of instruction. And state data on teacher preparation programs in both North Carolina and Tennessee have shown positive results for Teach For America corps members across multiple grades and subjects.

Overall, these research results are highly promising and help to validate Teach For America’s rapid scale and presence in over 50 regions across the country. But while these findings on corps member impact are positive, they are not necessarily enough. Since founding Teach For America, Wendy Kopp has always articulated a two-part vision for the organization: Corps members will not only excel in the classroom, but also act as leaders and advocates for children in poverty after their two-year commitment. In this way, alumni will continue to act as agents of change in the movement to end educational inequity long after their corps experience comes to a close.

In my next post, I’ll discuss Teach For America’s alumni impact—challenges in gathering this type of data, key outcomes the organization considers, and findings to date.