Researchers: Teach for America boosts math scores in Miami-Dade

Thousands of students in struggling Miami-Dade schools made significant gains in math thanks to temporary educators recruited by a polarizing, alternative teaching agency, according to a new study.

But there’s little evidence that Teach For America recruits grouped in low-performing schools have any impact on reading scores or that a “clustering” strategy had any broader effect on their colleagues’ teaching habits.

The findings were released Thursday by the American Institutes for Research, a D.C.-based nonprofit with a prominent role in Florida’s test-driven public education system. The testing and research firm is believed to be the first outside the district to review Miami-Dade’s partnership with Teach for America, which recruits college graduates from all majors, gives them a five-week course in teaching and places them in urban schools for two years.

“Was the cluster placement strategy a success in M-DCPS? It may be, in spite of the lack of spillover,” the study’s authors wrote.

The growing presence of Teach For America has been both celebrated and criticized across the country by people who see the program as either an investment in long-struggling schools or part of a larger movement to chip away at the traditional pillars of public education.

The first 35 TFA recruits came to Miami-Dade in 2003. This past school year, there were more than 300, strategically grouped, or “clustered,” together in a few dozen schools that largely serve poor, black communities. The increase was driven by a $6 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funded both the clustering strategy and the research by the American Institutes for Research’s CALDER Center.

The study suggests that Miami-Dade’s use of the teachers has been successful, at least in math classes, where researchers said students taught by Teach for America corps members gained the equivalent of an extra three-plus months of learning over the course of a school year. But researchers found no evidence that the recruits had a broader impact on the rest of the schools’ faculty.

“Clustering TFA corps members may still affect these schools’ cultures in other meaningful ways, but it just doesn’t show up in student test scores,” lead author Michael Hansen said in a statement.

The findings are notable for several reasons.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s administration has given Teach for America — often called only TFA — a notable role in its push to improve academics at low-performing schools. Meanwhile, critics contend that staffing needy schools with rookie teachers who often leave the profession after their TFA contract ends can lead to greater instability to the detriment of students.

“Short-term educators, I don’t think, is the way we should be trying to staff our schools,” said United Teachers of Dade president Fedrick Ingram.

Associate Superintendent Pablo Ortiz, who oversees the district’s Education Transformation Office, declined to immediately comment on the study. But he noted that the district provides increased support for TFA teachers throughout the year.

“It’s a cluster of highly motivated and highly intellectual and committed young people who want to save the world,” said Ortiz. “They’re walking into these schools that are difficult to staff. We have to recognize there are not long lines of individuals waiting to work at some of our most difficult and challenging schools.”

Erin Bradley, a TFA spokeswoman, wrote in an email that the organization was pleased to see the results of the study. The authors came to their conclusions by reviewing five years of math and reading test scores and analyzing them through a value-added formula similar to the controversial formula used to evaluate Florida’s teachers.

“Our team is taking this research and applying what we’ve learned as part of our work to continuously improve and support our corps members to be the best teachers they can for Miami’s kids,” wrote Bradley.