Abigail Smith on TFA
In a time of demographic change for the nation's teaching corps and student population, Teach For America (TFA) is demonstrating that it can meet the need for effective teachers in some of the country's most distressed school districts. TFA's mission is to recruit and train highly motivated new teachers to help close the achievement gap afflicting low-income and minority students in urban and rural public schools.
TFA started as a senior thesis of Princeton University student Wendy Kopp in 1989, and has grown into one of the largest, most innovative teacher recruitment programs in the country. Since its first class of 500 teachers entered the classroom 15 years ago, more than 2 million students have been taught by TFA teachers. TFA has grown to 3,500 teachers in 2004, working two-year terms in 22 areas across the country.
The TFA process starts with intensive recruitment efforts targeting seniors at the nation's top colleges and universities. TFA recruits at 500 campuses, with a special focus on attracting math and science majors, and makes particular efforts to encourage applications from people of color. While TFA teachers have exceptional academic records, the recruitment process also seeks out students with the experience, drive, and commitment to develop into leaders beyond the classroom.
The recruitment effort has been so successful that there were more than 17,000 applicants for the 2005 corps, including 12 percent of the senior classes at Yale and Spelman College. The extraordinary interest in the program has allowed TFA to be very selective, accepting only 14 percent of applicants in 2004.
New teacher training begins with extensive curriculum review and observation of public school classes during the spring of corps members' senior year. The summer after graduation includes an intensive five-week training institute that includes teaching summer school under the close supervision of experienced teachers. The training process works well enough that over two-thirds of principals surveyed rate TFA teachers as better prepared than other teachers.
Once in the classroom, TFA continues to promote the professional development of teachers through ongoing technical support, training, and evaluation by regional TFA staff. TFA teachers are also required to enroll in teacher certification programs in their local jurisdictions. After TEA teachers complete their two years in the program, they are provided with career placement services designed to keep them in the classroom or prepare them for other leadership positions within the education field. There have been more than 14,000 TFA teachers since 1990 and nearly two-thirds of them are still working or studying full-time in education.
Another way TFA is distinguishing itself is by actively researching the effectiveness of their teachers and examining the characteristics that distinguish successful teachers. A comprehensive independent study of TFA's teachers, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research (MPR), demonstrated that the program is working very well. MPR measured the year-to-year progress of students taught by TFA teachers and similar students taught by non-TFA teachers.
The study proved that TFA teachers were as effective as or better than non-TFA teachers. TFA-taught students made 10 percent greater progress than their peers per year in math and slightly exceeded normal expectations for progress in reading. The performance of TFA teachers held up even when compared only to veteran teachers and fully state certified teachers - with greater than average gains in math and equal progress in reading for TFA-taught students.
A separate study of the Houston Independent School District, conducted by Stanford University's Hoover Institution, found that TFA teachers were consistently among the highest performing teachers in the district. It also demonstrated the effectiveness of TFA's innovative approach to teacher preparation.