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A new study by the Urban Institute says yes. The nonpartisan think tank studied achievement data in North Carolina high schools and found that students whose teachers were placed through Teach for America scored higher on math and science exams than their peers.

Teach for America, or TFA, selects graduates of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities and assigns them to work in some of the nation's toughest schools for a two-year commitment. With 17,000 applicants, TFA placed more than 2,000 teachers in 2005 and expects its ranks to grow to 4,000 by 2010. While few would question the intelligence of the program's participants (several of whom work in Baltimore), critics have two major gripes: 1) that TFA is sending to our neediest schools teachers who are not only uncertified, but sometimes culturally unprepared for an inner-city environment, and 2) that it perpetuates a revolving door of teachers in needy schools (since some college grads see the program as a resume-builder while they figure out what they want to do with their lives).

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The Urban Institute's study indicates that those criticisms are unfounded. "TFA teachers are able to more than offset their lack of teaching experience, either due to their better academic preparation in particular subject areas or due to other unmeasured factors such as motivation," the report says. The advantage still held when TFA teachers were compared with colleagues fully certified in their fields. The report's authors say their findings stress the importance of finding teachers with strong academic backgrounds and -- yikes! -- indicate that teacher recruitment is more important than teacher retention.

I have no doubt that this report will generate controversy. Do its findings ring true in your experience?

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