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Report validates Teach for America’s effectiveness

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By James McCusker
Herald Columnist
Published:
If a sports network were covering public school classrooms, they would be sure to broadcast this event: "The U.S. Teaching Open," where professional teachers compete against amateurs in classrooms across America.
In real life, it's happening right now, although it's not on the fall TV schedule, primarily because in the end of this competition we all win and TV doesn't cover those stories.
In recent years there has been considerable work done on the relative importance of academic preparation, training, testing, certification and evaluations. This is a particularly acute problem in urban schools in high-poverty areas where filling teacher vacancies in critical subjects is notoriously difficult.
We do know with certainty that an effective classroom teacher is a critical factor in student success. And while that is true in all parts of the curriculum, it is difficult to find effective teachers in some particularly tough subjects, and even harder to find the ones who are willing to teach in low-performing schools.
One of those subjects is high school math, and principals of public schools serving disadvantaged areas have found that finding high quality teachers willing to take on that challenge is: (a) extremely difficult; (b) impossible; or (c) a full-time job by itself.
In recent years, schools have been taking advantage of Teach For America and Teaching Fellows programs to fill critical classroom openings. The programs are different but both select individuals for accelerated, boot-camplike training in classroom teaching.
Given the continuing demand and the growth of these programs, the U.S. Department of Education decided to examine the effectiveness of these teachers compared with those who had entered the profession through more traditional routes.
A study was designed and implemented by analysts at Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton, New Jersey and their report, "The Effectiveness of Secondary Math Teachers from Teach For America and the Teaching Fellows Programs" was published last week. You can download a copy of the report at tinyurl.com/TFAmathreport.
The study was designed to answer one question about the Teach for America and Teaching Fellows programs: "How effective are (these) teachers at teaching secondary math compared with other teachers teaching the same math courses in the same schools?
Although barely a week old the report has already attracted operatic choruses from the "I told you so" partisans and the "seriously flawed analysis" camp. And the reason is obvious. The report concluded that the Teach for America math teachers weren't just as good as the regular teachers; they were better. The authors couldn't have drawn more attention if they had kicked a hornet's nest.
It didn't seem to matter whether the regular classroom teachers were novices or experienced, or whether they came from selective or non-selective certification programs. The Teach for America teachers were simply more effective.
The Teaching Fellows classroom teachers' picture is different, but still encouraging. In terms of effectiveness, the analysts could find no significant difference between them and the teachers from traditional sources.
Before we begin practicing our vocal exercises and signing up with the yea or the nay choruses, though, we should pay close attention to what the report said and what it didn't say.
The study measured effectiveness by comparing student scores on standardized math achievement tests, and the authors did an admirable job of sorting out the extraneous factors, overlaps and inconsistencies that so often plague educational studies. Scores on standardized tests have their limitations as we all know, but they are certainly a significant indicator of effectiveness.
Until very recently, when the experts decided to start introducing their wicky-wacky fuzziness, math achievement tests were pretty straightforward. Answers were either right or wrong. Of all the different subjects taught in high school, then, math most readily lent itself to clearly interpreted test results.
There can be a lot of good reasons why the Teach for America teachers have been more effective, and not the least significant has to be their youth. They haven't developed any bad teaching habits nor do they have to unlearn approaches, concepts or curriculum elements that school systems have jettisoned for some reason.
They are fresh volunteers, proven academic high achievers and enthusiastic as only newbies in a challenged or failing system can be. It is hard to believe that these are not factors in classroom effectiveness in a challenged school. They beat the "Bueller. Bueller. Bueller" monotone every time.
We should accept the report for what it is, not what we want it to be or are afraid it will be. It is not an endorsement of Teach for America but validation of their teachers to tackle the critical shortage of high school math teachers affecting so many urban American schools. If I were a high school principal in a challenged school I would find the report encouraging.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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