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Julian Vasquez Heilig, (512) 475-8586,
Su Jin Gatlin Jez, (916) 278-5955,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

Teach For America: A Return To The Evidence

New brief points to investments in other evidence-based educational reforms

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Jan. 7, 2014) – Teach For America (TFA) has received hundreds of millions of dollars and generated considerable public attention for sending college graduates, who do not typically have an education background, to teach in low-income rural and urban schools for a two-year commitment.  Despite glowing accolades, the impact of this alternative teacher-training program is hotly debated. In a follow up to a previously released brief, two noted education professors address public concerns about TFA and offer a template for the general public to conduct citizen research on TFA locally.

Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas at Austin and Su Jin Gatlin Jez of California State University, Sacramento authored the brief, Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) published the brief with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

As local communities make decisions about educational reforms, it is important to understand the true impact of TFA on student achievement on test scores, the increased costs districts and communities face, and whether or not TFA is at least as effective as other reforms. The brief concludes that TFA is less effective than other well-studied reforms.

Peer-reviewed research on the impact of TFA teachers on student test scores continues to produce a mixed picture, with results affected by the experience and certification level of the TFA teachers and their comparison groups. Heilig and Jez find that available information regarding TFA varies by community, as do the results. According to the authors, TFA should not be considered a panacea, or major factor for improving teacher quality in hard-to-staff schools.

Instead of trying to understand whether or not TFA teachers are as good as non-TFA teachers, the authors propose a shift in thinking about the impact of TFA – a shift toward substantially improving student learning rather than continuing to focus on reforms that have inconsistent results that, at best, result in marginal improvements. Heilig and Jez call for increased attention on programs that are more likely to "move the needle" on America's educational quality.

The authors advise that policymakers and districts invest strategically in evidence-based reforms that are already improving student success by larger margins than the mixed evidence on TFA.

Based on a review of the evidence available, Heilig and Jez propose the following to districts in regards to hiring TFA:

  • Support TFA staffing only when the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes.
  • Consider the additional costs of TFA teachers and press for contractual five-year commitments to improve student test-score achievement and reduce costly teacher turnover.
  • Require TFA teachers to receive additional teacher training that is based on well-supported best practices in in-service teacher professional development.
  • Independently obtain contracts and data to compare finder fees, placement, and attrition rates of TFA teachers, and various costs by community.

In conclusion, Heilig and Jez maintain that, "Policymakers and stakeholders should consider TFA teachers for what they are – a slightly better alternative when the hiring pool is comprised of primarily uncertified and emergency teachers." Overall, the authors recommend that attention should be prioritized on attracting America's most talented college students to teaching as a profession and not a temporary solution.

Find the brief, Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence, on the web:

This policy brief was produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The brief can also be found on the NEPC website:

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a Faculty Affiliate of the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Su Jin Gatlin Jez is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Sacramento. She also serves as the Associate Director of the Independent Education Doctorate Program, a joint effort of the Department of Public Policy and Administration and the College of Education's Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, and is a Faculty Associate with the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy.

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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

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