Alex Cohen is the Director of Learning and Evaluation for the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.


Can a young, 20-something who just walked off the stage, college diploma in hand, step into a classroom and, with relatively little training, effectively teach in one of our nation’s more challenging K-12 environments?

Finding talented teachers for high-need schools is a perennial issue. While there are plenty of organizations working to address this problem, perhaps the most well known—and hotly debated—is Teach For America.

Teach For America, or TFA, selectively recruits recent college graduates to teach in high-need public schools. TFA generally attracts graduates who did not major in education and provides several weeks of training in the summer before placing them in schools, along with intensive ongoing coaching once they get there.

TFA works in more than 50 U.S. communities, including Indianapolis, where there are about 270 current and former TFA corps members in classrooms. But its unique approach raises a question: Does it work?

The available evidence says yes.

TFA is one of the most well-researched programs in the U.S., with numerous studies from across the country comparing outcomes—primarily standardized test scores—between similar students taught by TFA and non-TFA teachers. Overwhelmingly, these studies find a positive impact of TFA teachers on academic achievement, particularly math, relative to teachers from other preparation pipelines.

Of course, when talking about teacher impact, you have to consider retention as well.

TFA corps members make a two-year teaching commitment, and many leave after that. In Indianapolis, for example, 67% of TFA corps members stay on for a third year of teaching, and the other 33% leave the classroom.

Is this retention rate low enough to outweigh the positive impacts of TFA teachers while in the classroom? Again, the available evidence favors TFA. Two studies—from New York City and Washington, D.C.—find that TFA teachers’ retention rates are not nearly enough to offset their positive in-classroom impacts.

It’s important to note, too, that TFA’s lower retention may be critical to its success.

TFA’s model relies on bringing in high-caliber individuals for a limited time. By design, TFA does not anticipate all of its members will remain in teaching their entire careers and includes as part of its mission attracting applicants who will leave the classroom to become leaders in education and other sectors.

As a result, extending TFA corps members’ commitments might deter potential high-quality applicants. This is worth keeping in mind as many call for programs that require starting teachers to make three- or five-year commitments.

Funding effective programs like TFA is a key part of the Richard M. Fairbank Foundation’s approach to improving academic achievement in Indianapolis. But there is always room for innovation. That’s why, in addition to supporting TFA, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation also continues to explore new models for attracting, developing and retaining great teaching talent in Indianapolis.

Thanks to TFA’s commitment to rigorously measuring impact—in an area where that can be hard to find—we have a strong sense of the gains in academic achievement our grant funding to TFA produces for students in high-need Indianapolis schools. As our Foundation continues its commitment to growing the pool of top-tier teachers and improving academic outcomes for Indianapolis students, it will be critical to see how new programs and initiatives stack up.

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