NEPC Report Examines Teach For America

Scholars conclude the program has some strengths, but smart policy should focus on reforms
that create stability and with stronger track records for improving student achievement

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Julian Vasquez Heilig, (512) 471-7551,

URL for this press release:

BOULDER, CO (January 7, 2014) -- Teach For America (TFA) is almost a quarter-century old. Since its launch, the program has experienced phenomenal growth, both in the numbers of participants and in the financial support it has received, and it has enjoyed extensive favorable publicity.

Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence, a report authored by professors Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento for the National Education Policy Center, challenges the simplistic but widespread belief that TFA is a clear-cut success story. In fact, Heilig and Jez find that the best evidence shows TFA participants as a group are not meaningfully or consistently improving educational outcomes for the children they have taught.

Teach For America recruits college graduates, typically from elite universities, to serve in short-term (two-year) positions teaching in low-income communities. According to Heilig and Jez, the program is a mixed bag, with some benefits and some harms. But, they conclude, it is hugely oversold and it risks being a distraction from alternative strategies for which research evidence provides much stronger support for improving teaching and educational outcomes, especially for children living in poverty.

Teach For America and other organizations have produced studies asserting benefits provided by TFA teachers. Those studies, however, have only rarely undergone peer review – the standard benchmark for quality research, Heilig and Jez observe. In contrast, the available peer reviewed research has produced a decidedly mixed picture. For example, the results attributed to TFA teachers varies both by their experience and certification level. The results also fluctuate depending on the types of teachers to whom the TFA teachers are compared; TFA teachers look relatively good when compared to other inexperienced, poorly trained teachers, but the results are more problematic when they are compared to fully prepared and experienced teachers, Heilig and Jez report.

Because of these differences, the question most frequently asked—Are TFA teachers “as good as” teachers who enter the profession through other routes?—is not the question we should be asking, Heilig and Jez contend. Whether one or the other group is better is “a question that cannot be answered unless we first identify which TFA and non-TFA teachers we’re asking about,” they write.

Even more important, “The lack of a statistically and practically significant impact should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not providing a meaningful reduction in disparities in educational outcomes, notwithstanding its explosive growth and popularity in the media,” according to Heilig and Jez. Moreover, despite its rapid growth, TFA remains a tiny fraction of the nation’s teaching corps; for every TFA teacher, there are 50,000 other teachers in the U.S., Heilig and Jez note, and the small numbers and small impact of TFA point to a needed “shift in thinking.”

“We should be trying to dramatically improve the quality of teaching,” write Heilig and Jez. “It is time to shift our focus from a program of mixed impact that, even if the benefits actually matched the rhetoric, would not move the needle on America’s educational quality due to the fact that only 0.002% of all teachers in the United States are Teach For America placements.”

The authors conclude with a series of recommendations. For example, they urge policymakers and school districts to invest in "evidence-based educational reforms” and to undertake a detailed understanding of “the peer-reviewed research literature on the impact of new, promising innovations.”

Heilig and Jez also offer recommendations specific to TFA. They urge districts to support TFA staffing “only when the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes”; to require contractual, five-year commitments from TFA teachers, which would improve student test-score achievement and reduce teacher turnover; to require TFA teachers – indeed, all teachers – to obtain additional training “based on well-supported best practices for in-service teacher professional development”; and to better understand TFA’s fiscal impact by comparing data such as finder fees, placement, and attrition rates for TFA teachers, as well as the program’s various costs, by communities.

Find the report Teach for America: A Return to the Evidence, by Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, on the web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (