Teach For America (TFA) - July 2008 review | GiveWell

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Teach For America (TFA) - July 2008 review

We have published a more recent review of this organization. See our most recent review of Teach for America.
In July 2008, we gave Teach For America our "Recommended" rating, roughly equivalent to our current Silver Medal rating. More information:
Teach For America recruits, trains and places recent college graduates as teachers in low-income public schools across the country. Once corps members complete their two-year teaching commitment, Teach For America provides career counseling to help alumni progress in education or reenter the private sector. The goal is to provide quality teachers in the short term, and to recruit talented people into the education sector in the long term. We believe there is a compelling research case that TFA teachers perform at least as well as - and in some cases slightly better than - the teachers they are replacing (in terms of their impact on student achievement, as measured by test scores). The empirical case for its long-term impact is less clear; we would guess that Teach for America is increasing the likelihood that its graduates ultimately pursue education-related careers, but are not highly confident of this (or convinced that it is necessarily a good thing – see below). We have no substantial information on TFA's long term impact, other than anecdotes of particular TFA graduates who made contributions to the field of education. TFA's expenses are in the range of $15,000-20,000 per teacher placed. This expense covers recruiting, training, etc., but does not include the teacher's salary, which is paid by the state.

What do they do?

Teach For America (TFA) recruits recent college graduates, facilitates their training, and places them in school districts in 29 regions across the country, where they teach while completing coursework to earn full teaching certification and master's degrees. Teach For America also provides professional support to corps members throughout their two-year commitment, including feedback and guidance from program directors and content/grade-level teaching resources. Once corps members complete their two-year teaching commitment, Teach For America provides career counseling to help alumni either progress in education or another chosen field.

Teacher recruitment

TFA aims to recruit high-performing and ambitious students who have graduated from top universities and "who are highly likely to be leaders in all sectors of society in the course of their careers" (Attachment A-1 Pg 4). TFA seeks to hire students with strong academic records, regardless of prior teaching experience; note that in 2006, the average graduating GPA was 3.57 and the average SAT score was 1324 (Attachment A-1 Pg 4). Applicants must complete a selection process consisting of multiple rounds of interviews and requiring academic records along with letters of recommendation. More detail on this process is available on TFA's website.

Teacher training

Teach For America offers a summer training session for entering corps members before they start to teach, and helps corps members enroll in certification programs required by the districts in which they teach.

Summer training before starting to teach

TFA operates a five-week, full-day summer program for all entering corp members focusing on the following (from TFA's website):
  • Teaching. Corps members teach summer school students for approximately two hours each day, under the supervision of experienced teachers.
  • Observations and feedback from experienced teachers. Teach For America instructors observe every corps member several times each week, provide them with written feedback and discuss how corps members can improve.
  • Training from existing corps members, including help with planning lessons.
  • Rehearsal sessions with other new corps members. Corps members get together in small groups to rehearse the delivery of upcoming lessons.

Teacher certification programs

TFA helps its corps members acquire the necessary certification to become eligible to teach in public schools. The specifics of requirements vary by state (more detail for each is available here). In New York City (our area of focus), corps members must pass two certification tests before starting to teach, and must also enroll in an "alternative certification program" to obtain either a teaching certificate or a Master's degree; TFA corps members can attend either Pace University ($4,200 for a certificate, $9,200 for master's degree) or Bank Street College of Education (approximately $15,000 for a Master's degree). (See TFA's New York-specific certification page.)

Alumni services

Teach For America seeks to aid the professional development of alumni through a variety of programs, including alumni summits and partnerships with graduate schools; see the career services section of TFA's website for more.

School district selection

Teach for America places its corps members in school districts in “our nation's lowest-income communities" (Attachment A-1 Pg 2). Attachment B-6 Pg 1 gives some basic demographic information on the students reached, stating that over 95% are African-American or Latino/Hispanic and that over 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Does it work?

TFA aims for two types of impacts (Attachment A-1 Pg 2):
  • Short term: TFA aims to increase the supply of capable teachers in order to improve students' education.
  • Long term: TFA aims to produce alumni who "assume leadership positions in every sector to strengthen public education and take the pressure off schools by improving conditions in low-income communities."

Short-term impacts

We've reviewed several studies that evaluate TFA teachers' impact on their students, generally by examining scores on state-mandated math and reading exams. The studies vary in methodology and in results, but the general conclusion they imply to us is that TFA teachers' students perform at least as well as, and in some cases slightly better than, those of the teachers working alongside them.

Mathematica Study

A 2004 study published by Mathematica Policy Research (an independent evaluator) compared test scores of students in grades 1-5, some of whom (by random assignment) had TFA teachers and some of whom did not. The study evaluated 100 teachers' classes distributed over 6 of TFA's urban and rural program regions (Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta) (Attachment B-1, Pg 8). The students in each group were comparable on observable characteristics such as sex, racial composition and free-lunch eligibility; in addition, baseline test score comparisons and the experiment's design (using random assignment) imply that students placed in TFA teachers' classrooms did not differ systematically from students in non-TFA classrooms, prior to their experiences with different teachers (Attachment B-1 Pg 41). Students in classes taught by TFA corps members showed greater improvement than others on math standardized test scores - an advantage of 2.4 normal curve equivalent (NCE) points over the course of an instructional year (Attachment B-1 Pg 30). On the reading exam, students in TFA classes outperformed others by only 1 NCE point, not a statistically significant result. The study also found no statistically significant impact on the probability that students were held back or sent to summer school, and that student discipline, absenteeism, and negative behavior either remained constant or increased in TFA teachers' classrooms (although higher rates of poor behavior in TFA teachers classrooms may have been a result of the greater likelihood that TFA teachers would report such behavior) (Attachment B-1 Pg 18). We note the following possible concerns about the study:
  • While we know that regions and schools were randomly selected, we don't know how school districts were selected within each region. If the districts chosen had particularly poor teachers, the study could overestimate TFA teachers' effectiveness.
  • The authors note that there was no difference in the rates at which students left TFA teachers' classrooms vs. non-TFA teachers' classrooms: about 87% of students in both groups remained all year, with about 4% switching from non-TFA to TFA (or vice versa), and 9% leaving the school entirely (Attachment B-1 Pg 26, 27, 48). However, this still leaves open the possibility that students leaving TFA classrooms were worse performers than those leaving non-TFA classrooms, which could account for asymmetric score increases.
However, these concerns are relatively minor; we find this study to be a particularly informative evaluation of the program, as it was conducted using very strong methodology (comparing students who were likely similar in every way except for what teachers they had) and looked at a large number of classes in a variety of regions. We see it as implying that TFA teachers are roughly on par (in terms of impact on academic performance) with the teachers they replace, perhaps slightly better (particularly in math).

Other studies

The other studies we've examined are broadly consistent with the result above. Xu, Hannaway and Taylor (Attachment B-3) examined 23 high school districts in North Carolina over the years 2001-2006. Students were not randomly assigned between TFA and other teachers (as in the Mathematica study above), so the researchers were concerned that comparing TFA teachers' students to other students was not a strictly appropriate comparison. They made adjustments using a relatively complex and assumption-laden methodology (attempting to "normalize" students' test scores based on their scores on other tests in similar subjects). They concluded that "the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers" (Pg 3). As in the Mathematica study above, they also found the results "particularly strong for math and science classes" (Pg 3). This paper is extremely recent, and contains a clear review of other TFA studies (Pg 4-6) that is our primary source of information about the following papers:
  • Kane, Rockoff and Staiger studied TFA in NYC over 6 years, and - like the Mathematica study above - found a small positive impact of TFA teachers on math scores, and no statistically significant impact on reading scores.
  • Boyd, Grossman, Lankford, Loeb, and Wyckoff examined a single year of data in NYC and found mixed results: TFA teachers "outperformed" others (in terms of students' test scores) on middle school math, with more mixed results on reading.
We did not consider the results of the following three studies, because of methodologies that leave too many unanswered questions about whether the different groups they compared were in fact comparable.
  • Darling-Hammond, L., D. J. Holtzman, S. J. Gatlin and J. V. Heilig (2005). “Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about Teacher Certification, Teach For America, and Teacher Effectiveness.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13 (42).
  • Raymond, Margaret, Stephen H. Fletcher and Javier Luque. (2001) “Teach For America: An Evaluation of Teacher Differences and Student Outcomes in Houston, Texas,” (Stanford, CA: The Hoover Institution, Center for Research on Education Outcomes).
  • Laczko-Kerr, I., & Berliner, D.C.. (2002, September 6). The effectiveness of "Teach For America" and other under-certified teachers on student academic achievement: A case of harmful public policy," Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(37). Retrieved 6/16/08 from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n37/.

Principal satisfaction

A survey conducted by TFA (link here) implies that corps members' principals generally see them as being at least as good as the teachers working alongside them.

Long-term impact

Teach For America aims to increase its corps members' interest in education, and increase the likelihood that they stay in the field. The evidence we have of its ability to do so is not as rigorous or definitive as the research cited above; it generally implies that many alumni stay in education-related jobs, though not necessarily teaching jobs specifically.
  • Attachment B-5 presents data from an annual alumni survey, the most recent year of which yielded 4,097 responses (about 35% of the alumni network at the time – see Pg 4). In addition to listing prominent examples of alumni, the report indicates that 66% of TFA's alumni are currently in education-related jobs, though fewer than half of these are teachers (Pg 2).
  • A study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education reports that 60.5% of sampled TFA alumni “voluntarily remained in the teaching profession for more than two years” and that 35.5% stayed for more than four years.
  • A report from Education Sector gives several examples of TFA alumni who are prominent in the education system, including the founders of KIPP (our grant winner in this cause) and Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system.
  • 60% of KIPP's school leaders were TFA alumni as of December 2006 (according to an interview with one of KIPP's co-founders).
We find it reasonable, though far from conclusively established, to expect that the TFA program makes participants more likely to enter the field of education. However, we are ambivalent about the value of this goal. We personally believe that talented people are a scarce resource, and that there may be other problems more pressing - particularly in the developing world - than the nation's education system. We recognize that this is very much a judgment call, and encourage donors who disagree with our perspective to consider the long-term potential of Teach For America to recruit talented people into U.S. education.

Interpretation

Weighing the empirical evidence, we would guess that TFA is succeeding - to some extent - in recruiting and training teachers whose personal qualities (intelligence, motivation, etc.) are enough to compensate for their relative lack of experience and certifications, with the result that these teachers are at least as good as those they're replacing. However, while this accomplishment may be impressive, we question how much it is worth in terms of creating significantly better outcomes for disadvantaged students. We share Prof. Richard Murnane's concern that the teachers replaced by TFA members are "remarkably ill prepared to educate children and especially children needing the nation's best teachers" (Attachment B-4 Pg 1); thus, recruiting teachers who are as good or slightly better - and dispersing these teachers across disadvantaged schools - is likely to have only a small and dispersed impact on disadvantaged students. We feel that the KIPP model - concentrating selected teachers and principals in order to create whole schools that are well-focused on helping disadvantaged children - is intuitively (as well as empirically) more likely to make significant, rather than incremental, differences in disadvantaged students' performance.

What does it cost?

The following table shows the yearly breakdown of TFA's expenses reported in their 990 divided by their entering corps sizes (corps size figures are from a Harvard Business School Case Study (requires purchase), and available on Wikipedia):
YearExpensesEntering Corps SizeCost Per Teacher
2002$22,535,0001,731$13,018
2003$27,943,0001,719$16,255
2004$38,913,0001,661$23,427
2005$40,932,0002,226$18,388
2006$56,204,0002,503$22,455
2007$83,392,2983,026$27,559
2008$124,550,6963,700 (est)$33,662
It appears that as TFA has grown, its cost per corp member has risen significantly. It's possible that this is due to some fixed costs related to expansion. It's also possible that as TFA has grown, the marginal cost for each new teacher has grown as well (and will remain higher). Nevertheless, this rise in cost per corp member does not significantly alter our view, though we think it is a figure worth watching. Note that the figures cited above are costs per teacher recruited and placed; they do not include the teachers' salaries, which TFA has no role in paying.

The Organization

Financials. All data below is taken from the Form 990s (available via GuideStar) of the national TFA organization.
YearRevenues (thouands)Expenses (thousands)
2002$23,877$22,535
2003$38,765$27,943
2004$37,602$38,913
2005$54,686$40,932
2006$102,428$56,204
2007$90,908$83,392
2008$159,187$124,551
TFA's expenses were growing in line with costs up until 2006, when there was an almost 90% surplus in revenues. TFA's expenses have caught up in recent years, and they continue to grow their corps size in line with meeting their growth plan, which expects an increase in incoming corps size to 4,224 by 2010. On their 2008 Form 990, TFA reports net assets of $146,032,391, compared with expenses of $124,551, within the range of what we consider reasonable. For more, see our perspective on this financial metric. Board of Directors: TFA has a 31 member board that is heavily skewed towards private sector directors. The board is large enough that we would question how directly involved individual directors are in TFA operations; however, it seems like any subset of the board would probably represent a good degree of experience running large private sector and non-profit organizations.

Conclusion

We find it likely that TFA is accomplishing both of its goals: adding to the supply of quality teachers in underperforming schools and increasing the likelihood that its graduates ultimately pursue education-related careers. However, we question whether its approach is as effective in significantly changing students' lives as that of an organization like KIPP, which concentrates resources for more intense interventions.

Attachments

A. Application Materials

  • Attachment B-1: “The Effects of Teach For America on Students” – Mathematica (2004)
  • Attachment B-2: “The Effectiveness of ”˜Teach For America' and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement” – Laczko-Kerr and Berliner (2002)
  • Attachment B-3: Xu, Hannaway and Taylor (2007)
  • Attachment B-4: Richard Murnane's TFA op-ed - 9/18/04
  • Attachment B-5: Survey of TFA alumni
  • Attachment B-6: Profile of Students Reached