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Two on TFA: Studies Examine Cluster Placements and Older Novices

Nearly 25 years after it began, Teach For America has the distinction of being one of the most heavily studied teacher-preparation programs in the country—and it certainly reigns among the most polarizing. Coupled, those two aspects have encouraged scholars to begin digging into some nuanced questions about how the program is playing out on the ground.

Two examples of such research recently crossed my desk here at Education Week

The first study comes from the folks at the Center for Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, a research collaborative that uses large sets of longitudinal, or year-to-year, student data to examine policies and programs.

Miami began to place multiple TFA corps members in the same schools in 2009-10, hoping to improve corps members' satisfaction, leading to improved student achievement and teacher-retention rates. A critical mass of high-performing teachers might also boost student performance by sharing lessons and techniques or through informal coaching. (Although the research on the latter theory is pretty thin, there is some. As my colleague Debra Viadero wrote some time ago, there's reason to believe that effective teachers have "spillover" effects that help to boost other teachers' performance.)

The new study, led by Michael Hansen of the American Institutes of Research, looks at five years of test data from Miami between 2008-09 and 2012-13. Over this time period, the average number of TFA candidates in each school where they were placed rose from less than two to nearly 10. (They made up anywhere from about 4 percent to 20 percent of schools' staffs.) The researchers compared the results for the TFA teachers to those of their peers in schools without TFA clusters and adjusted for differences in student and teacher demographics.

The recruits in the schools appeared to boost math learning by an equivalent of about 10 percent of a standard deviation, or about three months, relative to average students assigned to non-TFA teachers, according to the research team. But the TFA teachers didn't seem to exert a clear or consistent effect on the performance of other teachers in the schools. 

TFA's take? "These findings are right in line with other recent and rigorous studies on teacher impact. Our teachers work in partnership with other teachers, school leaders, students and families in their communities to improve educational opportunities for children," a spokeswoman for the organization said. "While the research didn't find evidence of TFA teachers impacting other teachers in the schools based on student [test] scores, we were glad to see interviews with district personnel and principals at partner schools that showed TFA teachers do have a positive effect on school culture due to their high energy, high expectations, and outreach to parents and families."

The idea of "clustering" high-performing teachers has been catching on in several places, such as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, and through Teach Plus' T3 program in Boston, Fall River, Mass., and Washington. The features of those programs aren't the same as the TFA Miami one, though, so we shouldn't assume that they will show the same results.

Study no. 2 comes to us from Morgaen L. Donaldson of the University of Connecticut. It first appeared in Teachers College Record. 

For the study, she analyzed a sample of more than 2,000 TFA teachers, drawn from the 2000, 2001, and 2002 nationwide cohorts. They responded to an online survey of their individual characteristics, such as demographics and subject field, and whether they had left teaching. 

She found some interesting patterns, including that TFA teachers who were age 25 or older were more likely to be black and male, and less likely to be Asian. These older recruits were significantly more likely, at 24 percent, to have lived in the town where their TFA placement was than younger teachers (12 percent). 

Most importantly, they were also less likely to leave their teaching placements in years 2-6 of teaching than the younger entrants. The findings indicate that older TFA teachers in the sample had turnover rates that are comparable with other, non-TFA teachers who began their careers at the same time in similar schools. And their reasons for leaving were different: They were more likely to leave for family reasons or to raise children than younger recruits, who were more likely to pursue a job outside of K-12 teaching or to enter graduate school.

It's of course possible that we might see different patterns looking at more recent TFA corps members' data; the group says it's increased the number of career-changers and professionals in more recent recruitment cycles. But for now, this is interesting food for thought.

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