For the past 20 years, Teach for America has attracted top college graduates to Mississippi’s classrooms through combination of idealism and ambition: work in a high-poverty school for two years, then lead the charge to reshape American education afterwards.
TFA has also attracted its share of opposition and controversy. Critics argue that quality teaching requires experience, and that TFA’s five-week crash course cannot properly prepare young teachers (many of them only four years removed from the classrooms they’re asked to lead) for the rigors of America’s toughest schools. I know a number of TFA alums who’d agree, with mortifying anecdotes to back it up. But proponents point to the contributions that TFA alums have made to the field of education after they’ve finished their teaching stints. They say the net benefit of the program often comes in the impact teachers make after they leave the classroom, whether in school leadership or advocacy and policymaking.
A report just released by the analytical whizzes at Mathematica Policy Research promises to shake up this calcified debate in Teach for America’s favor. The study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, provides strong empirical evidence that students taught by TFA teachers outperform their peers taught by traditional teachers. According to the authors, the gap between TFA and traditional teachers on secondary math assessments was “equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.” That difference is highly significant — statistically and otherwise. (For a closer examination of the methodology and findings, read this Wonkblog analysis. Or just read the report yourself).
For one, it validates Mississippi’s $6 million annual investment in TFA, which has boosted the number of corps members in the Delta to 380 this year. In a state that suffers dearly from brain drain, TFA has been able to keep a number of its alumni in Mississippi (156, according to the website), including those who have started organizations such as Mississippi First and the Sunflower County Freedom Project. The New York Times recently profiled several alums who have put down roots in the Delta. The common thread is that none of them would have come to Mississippi if not for TFA. Now they don’t want to leave.
Delta State University has also reaped the benefits. DSU is one of TFA’s ten national training sites, and the only one located in a rural area. Over 1,000 incoming teachers crowded onto the Cleveland campus this summer for their five-week training institute before dispatching to schools and communities across the South. Mississippi’s Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds attributed the partnership with TFA for DSU’s uptick in enrollment against downward trends elsewhere in the state and country.
I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes been skeptical of TFA’s corporate branding and self-promotion (as well as that of some of its members). I’m also wary of overselling the results of the report. Not all TFA teachers are more effective than their traditional peers. Experience still counts in teaching, as do career teachers become bedrock members of their communities. The data show that the TFA model works, but that model is premised on selectivity. TFA can, at best, supplement traditional teacher recruitment/training and share best practices. Even after years of rapid expansion, TFA supplies little more than 1 percent of the 34,000 teachers statewide.
So what have we learned? We already knew that TFA brings bright, passionate young people to Mississippi who never would have come otherwise. We knew that many of them stay in Mississippi to make a long-term difference in the state. Now we know that many of them also improve the education of our most vulnerable children and young adults.
TFA’s contribution to Mississippi has been — and will continue to be — extremely positive. Let’s set aside ideological objections and work together to build on their success.