TFA Teachers Shown to Boost Secondary Math Learning

Teach for America is no stranger to controversy. For some, they are the poster child for the new wave of urban education and should be commended for the way that they are able to recruit highly talented, motivated college graduates to devote at least 2 years to teaching in nigh-needs schools.  For others, TFA is a corporate model education firm mostly interested in boosting the resumes of their employees and in making money from needy school districts.  A new research study, however, suggests that the first of these two visions may be closer to the truth.

A newly released, rigorous federally funded study suggests that Teach For America deserves high marks for the performance of their secondary math teachers. When compared with the teachers of another teaching fellowship program, Teaching Fellows (run by TNTP), and with those from more traditional teacher training programs, TFA teachers improved student achievement by .07 of an effect size more than other teachers. That effect size translates to about 2 1/2 months of additional learning, according to the researchers.

For the study, researchers selected middle and high schools with at least two sections of the same math course. Students were randomly assigned to a classroom taught by a teacher trained through one of the selective programs, or a control group taught by a traditionally trained teacher or a teacher from a nonselective alternative route. . At the end of the year, the students were given standardized exams, and the researchers compared their achievement growth.

Random-assignment studies eliminate sources of bias caused by differences in student or school characteristics. The data show that the two groups of students had nearly indistinguishable background characteristics and were located in similar schools. In one of the only disparities, charter schools were slightly underrepresented in the treatment schools because many did not offer more than one section of math at a time.

In all, the sample of TFA teachers studied consisted of 135 math teachers in 45 schools across eight states. For the Teaching Fellows program, the study looked at 153 teachers in 44 schools across eight states.

Questions remain, however, about just why TFA has been able to create these results. The research study itself did not speculate on the reasons why TFA teachers had better results, but Matt Kramer, TFA’s co-CEO, has some hypotheses. He attributed the gains partly to the organization’s scrupulously tailored selection metrics. He also highlighted TFA’S support network as a possible driver behind the findings.

“There is unbelievable research clarity that the length of preservice does not matter that much,” he said of the findings. “Time in the classroom, lessons learned, and mentorship do matter. We spend much, much more than districts on teacher induction.

Further studies will be needed to delve more into the issue of why TFA teachers have been more successful with secondary level math.  There also have not been serious studies conducted comparing TFA teachers in other subjects, like English, to other fellowship or traditional teachers.

To read more about the study research design, the two alternative certification route programs, and the effectiveness of secondary mathematics teachers from these routes, please visit

On Sept. 12, IES’s National Center for Education Evaluation and Mathematica Policy Research hosted a forum on two IES studies on alternative certification. To view the webcast at, visit click here.