Julian Vasquez Heilig, who recently moved from the University of Texas to California State University at Sacramento, is one of the nation’s leading authorities on Teach for America. He has studied their performance over time (see here and here), and he is not a fan. When Mathematica released its latest study of TFA, Heilig read it closely and analyzed the findings. TFA boasted that the study showed that its teachers were just as good as those who had studied education and intended to be career teachers. Some readers gleaned from this finding that “anyone can teach, no professional preparation needed,” that is, if they graduate from a highly selective college and are admitted to TFA.


Heilig digs deeper and has a different take on the study. The main finding, he says, is that Mathematica found no statistically significant differences in the groups of teachers they studied. However, he points out, the TFA teachers were overwhelmingly white, and few had any intention of staying in teaching as a career.


He notes that the test of “effectiveness” in pre-K-grade 2 is a five minute test:


Equally effective at what?…Mathematica utilized performance on the Woodcock Johnson III for the Pre-K-2 results— which takes 5 minutes to administer. Thus, the effectiveness of TFA teachers compared to Pre-K – 2nd grade teachers is based on a five minute administration to capture letter-word identification (Pre-K – 2) and applied problems for mathematics Pre-K – 2). Furthermore, one of the more egregious issues in the study is the aggregation of grades is that of the states that have Pre-K programs, more than half of states do not even require Pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. The report does not state that lack of a degree was an exclusion criteria and it is explicit that community preschools were included, so it appears than an aggregate that includes not only alternatively certified but also non-degreed teachers worked to TFA’s advantage. Should we really be impressed that TFA teachers outperformed a group that could have included non-degreed teachers? And they do it twice: with kindergarten and with grades K, 1, and 2.


What are the lessons of the study? Heilig writes:


So the [TFA] teachers were— on average— young, White, and from selective colleges. They had not studied early childhood in college and had very little teaching experience. They reported a similar amount of “pedagogy” (primarily the 60 hours from the five week Summer Institute), and more professional development (as we discussed above, they viewed it not very valuable). TFA teachers also reported less student teaching experience before they entered the classroom. They also were more likely to be working with a formal mentor (I mentioned David Greene’s point about the drain on mentors due to the constant carousel of Teach For America teachers in and out of schools here). As new teachers, they spent more time planning their own lessons, but were less likely to to help other teachers. Finally, TFA teachers were less satisfied “with many aspects of teaching” and less likely to “plan to spend the rest of the career as a classroom teacher….”


In conclusion, read at face value, here is the message Mathematica appears to promulgate with the report:


We do not need experienced (read: more expensive) teachers when non-experienced, less expensive teachers get the “same” —though not statistically significant— outcomes.
We do not need a more diverse workforce of teachers, again, because TFA teachers, who are overwhelmingly white, get the same outcomes.
Is TFA really in alignment with a vision for providing every student a high quality teacher? Or do they, Mathematica et al. just keep telling us that they are?


For myself, I have read many times that Teach for America invites young people to “make history” by serving for two years. And Wendy Kopp has frequently said that “One day,” all children in America will have an excellent teacher. I have a hard time understanding the logic of these claims. If the TFA teachers get the same results as current teachers, how is that “making history”? If most TFA recruits leave after two years, how does that lead to the conclusion that one day all children will have an excellent teacher? If TFA persuades policymakers that teachers can do a good enough job with no professional preparation, doesn’t that decimate the idea of teaching as a profession? If anyone can teach so long as they went to a selective college, how does that raise the standard for teachers? If our policymakers prefer churn, with teachers leaving every two or three years to find their real career, how is that good for students? How does TFA improve the profession? It doesn’t. It eliminates it.


For his fearlessness, for his willingness to stand up to those with money and power, for his willingness to present the evidence as he finds it without fear or favor, I place Julian Vasquez Heilig on the honor roll of this blog. He is an example to all researchers of the ethics of his profession. To be an outstanding researcher requires years of study, scholarship, discipline, dedication, and experience. Sort of like being a great teacher.