Don’t Hate the Teacher, Hate the Game: 5 Insights from Teach For America’s Success in High-Poverty Schools

This past Tuesday, The US Department of Education, in conjunction with Mathematica Policy Research, released the results of a study on the efficacy of secondary math teachers from Teach For America (TFA) and The New Teacher Project (TNTP) in high-poverty schools. Over the course of two years, in dozens of schools spanning eight states, the study determined that TFA and TNTP math teachers “are as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, other math teachers in the same schools.”

Of particular note, TFA teachers were determined to provide the equivalent of 2.6 additional months of instruction on average each year.

Combined with the results that Teaching Fellows are as effective as the other math teachers at their schools, a unique opportunity has arrived to re-examine our approach towards teaching math in our traditionally underserved communities. Focusing on TFA teachers, what follows is a look at some of the things school districts, collegiate education programs, and legislators can learn from this study.

1. Alternative Resources

High poverty schools face a range of issues from low average literacy (and thus a broader range of literacy within classrooms) to concentration of students with special needs (at schools that can least afford to provide related services) and high rates of absenteeism. Such situations require differentiation and accommodation on a radical scale, especially when literacy gaps make traditional textbooks and worksheets inappropriate.

To address this situation, TFA teachers and support staff have created an impressive suite of alternative math resources, often from scratch, based on the accumulated experience of thousands of teachers in high-poverty schools. TFA does this for all subjects, but it is more practical for math than it is for humanities and science-based classes due to the straightforward nature of most math resources. (Problem sets are easier to create and modify than laboratory experiments, literary selections, or historical narratives.) Resources include everything from worksheets to year-long syllabi, detailed unit plans, and data trackers that analyze student results to improve instruction. Experienced teachers even curate these resources online, creating a nationwide network to support new teachers.

Perhaps even more important is that TFA teachers network within the regions where they teach, openly discussing best practices for instruction, class procedures, management, and student motivation. Individual teachers are encouraged to workshop new ideas and experiment, and benefit from a strong safety net if a novel approach isn’t effective. These resources free TFA teachers to reflect, differentiate, measure their effectiveness, and recalibrate, leading to the second point:

2. Shorter Feedback Cycles and Best Practices

Rather than relying on a curriculum that changes on a yearly basis (and often less frequently), the wealth of resources and support allows a TFA teacher to target and maximize gains by modifying the curriculum as often as necessary. This process allows TFA teachers to zero in on the most effective practices for their students. Even if the beginning of the year is rough, TFA teachers can make up for lost time by targeting key areas and continually making improvements. This process of feedback and iteration can require a lot of work up front, but having a set of validated best practices frees up teachers to be creative, collaborative, and engaged, ideally within the first few months.

In contrast, strict adherence to a yearly curriculum provides only marginal room for improvement. It’s even more marginal if the teacher has a tenuous grasp on math concepts that limit the ability to accommodate. Most curricula are geared toward students at higher reading levels than those seen at high-poverty schools, so differentiation and accommodation are needed from the start. Such an exorbitant amount of work often overwhelms new teachers regardless of talent, and that time directly detracts from grading, reaching out to parents, and planning future lessons.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. More often than not, the disadvantages compound; without adequate resources, it can be difficult to pinpoint why students are struggling with the material. The test scores might be low, but is it because of reading difficulties, lack of engagement, a hiccup with the arithmetic, or something completely unforeseen? With little validated knowledge to work with, teachers are forced to make course corrections based on imperfect data and intuition. The cycle is reinforced and student outcomes frequently stagnate.

To be clear, all teachers can find themselves in these situations. However, TFA’s iterative model and wealth of flexible resources provide more and likelier opportunities to break cycles of ineffective teaching. Effective planning can avoid those cycles altogether from the start of the school year.

3. Content Knowledge Matters

When researchers compared the results of PRAXIS II scores (tests that determine the content knowledge of incoming teachers), the average TFA teacher at a high-poverty school blew traditionally trained and alternatively certified teachers out of the water, even if the TFA teacher didn’t have a degree in a STEM field. The average gap was 22 points out of 200, or 0.93 standard deviations for the statistically inclined. Narrowing our scope to just Middle School Mathematics, it was also 22 points out of 200, but this time for a whopping 1.12 standard deviations above other routes. [If you’re curious to see how you’d stack up, try the high school and middle school versions.]

The content knowledge gap exists for a number of reasons, including teacher attrition (usually to more affluent districts) that skims from the top of the talent pool, the steep salary penalty that talented STEM graduates face if they enter teaching relative to other fields, and the stringent academic requirements of selective programs like TFA and TNTP (relative to other programs). In a subject where technique and precision are paramount, this translates to big differences in instructional design and execution.

The study found the effect of the content knowledge gap statistically significant at the high school level (where the math is more sophisticated), but not at the middle school level. However, if you’re a student in a high-poverty school who has a difficult math question, the odds in this study would suggest a TFA teacher is more prepared to answer it.

4. Coursework For New Teachers Has a Negative Impact

The study also showed that coursework for teachers, usually toward certification or a graduate degree in education, had a negative effect on student achievement. The demands of education classes took valuable time away from grading, analyzing student work, and planning lessons. Additionally, some programs provide courses of dubious value to the teachers taking them, essentially serving as credit mills for teachers who must meet requirements for tenure, move up the salary scale, or are seeking to move into administration. Considering that time is often a new teacher’s most precious resource, these mandatory courses can be a particularly egregious drain on teacher efficacy.

Impressively, even though TFA teachers took more coursework on average, they still managed to outperform teachers who had significantly lesser burdens. However, the study didn’t include the effects of other limiting factors on time after school (such as raising a family, caring for elderly relatives, coaching, etc.), which limits the conclusiveness of these particular findings.

It is not beyond consideration that the effective 2.6-month gain in math instruction could be even larger without the relatively larger burden of these classes on TFA teachers. 

5. Gains Aside, Students At High Poverty Schools Are Still Struggling

The good news about TFA and TNTP aside, the fact remains that many of the students attending these schools are still far behind their peers in more affluent districts. The 2.6 month improvement is nothing to shake a stick at, and as Chad Aldeman at blog Quick and the Ed points out, the TFA impact was found to be “14 times larger (!) than the value of an additional year of experience” [emphasis removed].  These are impressive gains, yet the DOE study reminds us “[the] difference in math scores was equivalent to an increase in student achievement from the 27th to the 30th percentile” on end-of-year assessments.

If the gains are allowed to compound, year after year, this could have a significant impact, but the nation can’t wait until middle school or high school to remedy this situation. Both starting at the 27th percentile and resting on our laurels at the 30th percentile are unacceptable outcomes for our most disadvantaged students.

Tempting as it is to sift through the data for a silver bullet, the attendant issues of poverty and impoverished schools are legion, and progress on educational issues seems tedious because systemic problems insist upon nuanced, systemic solutions.

Ideally there would be a shift in our most basic educational paradigms when it comes to teaching and learning in poverty (especially to reflect recent breakthroughs in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience), but this is a good start. The study highlights trends that can inform a wide variety of practices to improve instruction and provide better outcomes for millions of students — changes that are long overdue.