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TFA Selection Criteria Linked to Student Gains

Certain aspects of Teach For America's selection process appear to be linked to student achievement gains—a sign that it's possible to recruit candidates who are more likely to have an edge in the classroom, a new study concludes.

The study, by Will Dobbie of Harvard University, shows that the information used to select TFA candidates predicts a degree of student achievement during the candidate's first year of teaching. To give an example, students assigned to a teacher with a one standard deviation increase on the group's leadership metric score, on average, .054 standard deviations higher in math.

TFA selects its recruits through a detailed selection process that uses a mix of scored assessments, including essays, a group activity, recommendations, and a sample teaching lesson.

The qualities it measures include: achievement (academic GPA or work performance), leadership (performance in leadership role), perseverance (ability to work through obstacles), critical thinking (outlining solutions to problems methodically), organization (attention to deadlines and clarity of instruction), motivational ability (ability to keep students on task), respect (attitudes toward low-income individuals), and fit (whether the candidate believes TFA's goals are attainable).

For the analysis, Dobbie merged administrative data from New York City with TFA data from the 2007 through 2009 cohorts, coming up with some 380 teachers in all in grades 3-8.

Using a value-added method, Dobbie found that, in math, students who had TFA teachers with higher measures of achievement, leadership, and perseverance did better than their peers. The measures of critical thinking, organizational ability, motivation, and respect for others did not seem to be correlated.

In English, leadership and fit were related to gains, but these findings were less precise, and the paper notes that it is harder to draw conclusions about them.

Finally, the paper also found that students in grades 3-5 taught by a teacher who scored higher on the respect measure were less likely to have a behavior infraction.

Love or hate TFA, the idea of being more choosy about candidates has been seeing a lot of increased attention these days. Part of this discussion is being driven by all the talk of international comparisons, especially the supposition that teaching quality would improve if, as in Finland or Singapore, U.S. preparation programs did more to recruit teachers from among college graduates of high academic standing.

In the United States, TFA is not the only organization that has eyed front-end entry standards as one way of boosting its impact. As I reported in a recent Education Week story, other groups, and some school districts, are implementing "strategic hiring" practices, by using similar tools and instruments to analyze the potential of their recruits.

It's worth reiterating here that these selection criteria are in no way a silver bullet. The data show that on average teachers who score high on some of the TFA measures do better in the classroom, but not all of them do.

It is also clear that teacher quality is not an immutable characteristic. Research has shown for a long time now that teachers improve over their first few years on a job, and a more recent study indicates that quality feedback helps teachers to get better. A focus on strategic hiring, in other words, does not absolve principals or school districts of giving teachers support and professional development to improve. (TFA, for one, invests thousands of dollars in professional supports for each of its teachers.)

Finally, the paper notes that "improved selection is only beneficial to the extent that there exist effective teachers who are unhired." The bottom line here is local labor markets affect selections, and that the ability to be choosy only works when there is a surplus of folks seeking a position.

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