Strong Results from Alternate Routes

There’s big news today for fans of teacher effectiveness research—and honestly, who isn’t? Mathematica has released an IES-sponsored study of secondary math teachers prepared by selective alternate route programs including TNTP’s Teaching Fellows programs and Teach For America.

The study has a bunch of important features you should know about. First, it has an excellent design that includes random assignment of students, which is quite rare and will give the results substantial credibility. Second, teachers from various pathways were included, including less selective alternate routes. Third, both new and experienced teachers are in the study. This allows examination of how more seasoned alt route teachers compare to equally-seasoned peers. And fourth, the study looks at high school teachers as well as middle school. We believe it is the first-ever study of our Fellows at the high school level. Hats off to the researchers, who designed a study that truly advances the knowledge base in the field.

On to results. Before I even address the findings on Fellows, Teach For America deserves congratulations. Corps members outperformed both novice and experienced teachers from other pathways, both traditional and alternative. It’s a great accomplishment. We have all heard the debates and read the repetitive news articles asking whether teachers trained in a summer institute are suitable to be full-time teachers in challenging classrooms. Raise your hand if you have heard some variation of the line “Would you rather have a real surgeon or a smart trainee?”

On that front, the study could not be clearer: kids benefitted academically from having a Teach For America teacher. There is plenty of room for debate about how we build and sustain a high-quality national teacher workforce, but there really isn’t that much room for debate anymore about whether Teach For America produces effective teachers.

What about our Fellows? They did pretty well. Novice Fellows outperformed other novices from traditional and alternate routes. This is good news for us because the novices in the study were trained by us more recently. Our teachers also outperformed peers from less selective alternate route programs. When it came to our more experienced teachers, they were indistinguishable from peers. This isn’t a bad finding—it means that a school district seeking to fill math positions can do just as well hiring Fellows in the long run as hiring from any other pathway. And we’re optimistic that our cohorts improved over time, given the finding that our novices had bigger gains than peers.

With research, there are always caveats. This study comes with a big caveat: the program we ran for the Fellows in this study is substantially different from what we do today. As we’ve written several times in this space, we decided some years ago that we could train better teachers and had to throw all of our energy and resources behind that effort. We began assessing the early career performance of our participants, allowing only effective teachers to continue in the profession. We streamlined our training process to focus on foundational skills that seem to make the biggest difference in determining whether new teachers develop and thrive. None of that was in place for the teachers in the study.

Overall, we’re pretty excited that in the most rigorous study ever done of selective alternate route programs, our teachers were at least as effective as their peers and in some cases more effective, and we’re thrilled that our friends at Teach For America achieved even more inspiring results. We’re hopeful that we won’t have to wait too long for a similarly robust study of our new program model.

We also need to approach the results with humility. They don’t suggest that traditionally or experienced teachers are bad. Too often, the debate over alternate routes quickly degenerates that way. Nobody has this figured out yet. Every program trains some good teachers and every program has some misses. What we all still need to learn dwarfs what we know. For today, we can declare victory that we know a little more than we did yesterday.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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