Teach for America is not a volunteer organization…

…it’s a teacher-placement service. And depending how you feel about Teach for America’s mission and effectiveness, potentially a very expensive one.

There seems to be a common misconception that TFA is a volunteer organization like Peace Corps and Americorps, where corps members receive only a small living allowance and no wage. This editorial prompted me to try to help clear that up. While TFA corps members are considered members of Americorps, this only means TFA members are eligible for the loan forbearance and post-service education awards all Americorps members receive.

  1. Teach for America teachers are full employees of the school district in which they work and are paid out of district budgets. The school district pays corps members a full teaching salary plus benefits, just like any other teacher. TFA reports corps member salaries between $30,000 and $51,000.
  2. In some cases, school districts may also pay Teach for America a placement fee for each teacher hired from the corps. This seems to be a regional determination: this Rethinking Schools article by Barbara Miner (pdf) reports St. Louis schools paid TFA $2000 per placement; Birmingham schools reportedly paid TFA $5000 per placement.
  3. In 2008, the funding for about 25% of TFA’s operating expenses (or nearly $25 million) came from government grants. TFA also recently won a 5-year, $50 million grant in the Department of Education Investing in Innovation competition.

Add up all the taxpayer money spent, and then remember the entire 2010 TFA corps contains only 4,500 teachers. [Note: This number is of new recruits for 2010. The total number of active TFA corps members is around 8000.]

And then consider the middling results of Stanford’s 6-year study of TFA teachers in Houston (press summary, pdf full text), which found that uncertified TFA teachers only performed equivalently to other uncertified teachers and were out-performed by fully-certified teachers (as measured by student performance on standardized tests), after controlling for teacher backgrounds and student population characteristics. Even after TFA teachers become certified, they “generally perform[ed] on par” with traditionally-certified teachers.

Updated: Commenter Michael Bishop mentioned this 2004 Mathematica Policy Research study of Teach for America (pdf), which used random assignment of students to teachers. This was a one-year comparison study of TFA teachers to non-TFA teachers (novice and veteran) and found significant effects of TFA status for math results, but not for reading or behavioral outcomes.

And for those keeping score at home, the Mathematica study reports school districts paid TFA $1500 per teacher.


About Spherical Cow
I'm a trained cognitive scientist and education researcher currently working for an education non-profit. In my job, I translate findings from education research into classroom practice and observe and evaluate the results. I also help non-scientists understand what we can and cannot conclude from different data sets. I hope that increased awareness of quality research will improve the discourse and policymaking in education.

2 Responses to Teach for America is not a volunteer organization…

  1. Michael Bishop says:

    Other studies suggest better results for TFA, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teach_For_America#Educational_Impact The Mathematica Study is the only one I’m aware of which uses random assignment, and it finds that in math its teachers do even better than experienced teachers.

    The program doesn’t seem that costly to me. Another thing to credit TFA for: they’ve raised the prestige of teaching, especially teaching disadvantaged students.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment! I will update the post with some information about the Mathematica study. I do wonder how much of the math effect is simply due to stronger content knowledge of TFA teachers, and I seem to remember reading a study that concluded just that, but I can’t remember the source off the top of my head.

      As for TFA raising the prestige of teaching, I’m of two minds on that.

      I have no doubt TFA has raised the prestige of working in education. I work for a small education company and we are able to hire from elite universities precisely because TFA has made it acceptable—desirable, even—to devote a significant part of your career to improving education in low-income areas.

      However, I am not sure TFA has actually raised the prestige of teaching as a profession. As I wrote earlier, implicit in the TFA model is the idea that teaching is a simple enough task that a highly-educated person can do it competently (even well), with a minimum of specialized training. This stands in pretty stark contrast to the teacher-preparation models of high-achieving countries, which are structured (and respected) more like medical training, and to the work of researchers like Deborah Ball, who has built a pretty compelling case that specific knowledge of how to teach math matters quite a bit.

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