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Mathematica Study Examines Teacher Effectiveness in High-Needs Secondary Schools

September 16, 2013 12:00 PM

High-poverty schools across the country struggle to attract effective teachers, particularly in science and math. Teach For America (TFA) and the TNTP Teaching Fellows programs provide an alternative route into the teaching profession for promising candidates without formal training in education. Findings released by Mathematica Policy Research last week indicate that secondary math teachers from both programs are as effective as, and in a few cases, more effective than, other math teachers in the same schools.

Though both programs can help fill teaching shortages, critics often contend that TFA and Teaching Fellows teachers are not as effective as teachers who follow a traditional path into the profession, including college-level coursework and graduate-level education. To help guide policy makers, school districts, and principals concerned about teacher effectiveness in high-need schools, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) sponsored a large random assignment study of middle and high school math teachers from TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs. The study was conducted by Mathematica.

A panel presentation of the findings occurred at Mathematica last Thursday in Washington, DC, where the results of the study were presented and discussed. The panel was moderated by Elizabeth Warner, a senior staff member in the National Center for Education Evaluation within the IES. The panel consisted of Melissa Clark, Senior Researcher at Mathematica; Jill Constantine, Vice President and Director of Human Services Research at Mathematica; Vicki Bernstein, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Human Resources and Talent for the New York City Department of Education; and Grover J. Whitehurst, the Herman and George R. Brown Chair and Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brooking Institution.

What the study found was that TFA teachers were more effective than the teachers with whom they were compared, regardless of the certification route or years of teaching experience. Teaching Fellows were found to be just as effective as, and in a few cases, more effective than, the mathematics teachers with whom they were compared in the study schools. “They were more effective across the board,” said Clark. “TFA teachers made gains equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.” The study focused on secondary mathematics as it is an area high poverty schools have the greatest difficulty in attracting teachers.

"The results of this study are particularly useful for principals or school districts considering whether to hire teachers from these programs," Clark said. "Even if they plan to repeatedly hire that teacher, they can still expect higher student achievement on average from hiring these Teach For America teachers rather than hiring a teacher from some other program who might remain teaching long term."

The study refuted the claim that TFA teachers are less effective because they often leave the profession before gaining valuable experience in the classroom. While the TFA teachers in the study sample did have less teaching experience on average (two years versus 10 years), the students of the inexperienced TFA teachers outperformed students of the more experienced comparison teachers.

The study found it difficult to predict teacher effectiveness. “We examined a range of teacher characteristics,” said Constantine. “We used several identifiers, such as selectivity of college, what courses were taken, math content knowledge, student teaching experience, and coursework experience.” Researchers found that teaching experience and content knowledge at high school level associated with increased effectiveness. “Coursework being taken while teaching was associated with decreased effectiveness as well,” said Constantine. “We also found that no other teacher or program characteristics were related to teacher effectiveness in the study.”

Bernstein said that the study should encourage schools to “not choose teachers based solely on the certification path taken.” TFA and Teaching Fellows offered promising options for high-needs secondary schools that are similar to those in the study who face staffing shortages in math. Principals of the schools in the study would likely raise student math achievement by hiring at TFA teacher for the math classes examined in the study. “Content knowledge does not always equal success in the classroom,” said Bernstein. “Policymakers need to shift from the traditional to what is trustworthy to assure success in the classroom.”

“The results of the study are quite a condemnation of teacher preparation and qualifications in this country,” said Whitehurst. “It’s an indictment of the No Child Left Behind program and shows that coursework does not make a difference.” The study should force a redefinition of what teacher preparation is, one based on effectiveness and not credentials. Whitehurst also highlighted something the study did not identify. “We still don’t know how to predict effective teaching,” he said. “We need to get a handle on what effective teachers are doing in the classroom that defines ‘effective teaching,’ and figure out how to train it to others.”

The findings indicate the difficulty of predicting who will be an effective teacher based on characteristics that are readily observable at the time of hiring, including the routes through which individuals can enter teaching or the academic credentials that they must acquire. While the study does not open the doors for just anyone to walk into a classroom, it does show that the traditional routes into the profession are in need of redefining and adjustment. “We can’t say there’s now no barrier for entering the profession,” said Bernstein. “There are basics that should be in place to prevent harm in the classroom, such as requiring a bachelor’s degree. But we should be challenged to take a harder look at what these routes should be.”

Implications from the study indicate that the current certification process has no meaningful validity. There is no current screen for effective teachers, of which a new definition is required. Lowering the bar for becoming a teacher in the first place would not do much harm, while raising the bar for remaining a classroom teacher after a few years and evaluation could serve students and education better as a whole. The findings, in the short-term, can assist district and school officials and policymakers in making their staffing strategies for high-poverty and high-needs schools.


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