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The Test-Score-Raising Betterness of TFA and Other Alt-Cert Programs

November 30, 2017

On November 28, 2017, EdWeek produced an article entitled, “TFA, Alternative Programs Marginally Better Than Traditional Teacher Prep, Study Finds.”

The EdWeek title should read, “TFA, Alternative Programs Marginally Better Than Traditional Teacher Prep at Raising Test Scores, Study Finds.”

There is a difference.

The EdWeek piece is based on a November 2017 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies (JCFS), “Traditional vs. Alternative Teacher Preparation Programs: A Meta-Analysis.”

The JCFS study is a technical read, and it is pretty well done, statistically speaking, though I take issue with promoting the use of student tests to measure teachers (see quote below). In the end, the researchers analyze the results of 12 other studies comparing traditional teacher prep programs to alternative teacher prep programs, with particular focus on Teach for America (TFA) as an alternative teacher prep program.

In general, the JCFS study finds slightly in favor of alt cert, and particularly TFA, as being associated with higher student test scores. What the study does not examine is the degree to which alt cert, including TFA, train their teachers to pursue the narrow focus of increased test scores, a goal that is not one and the same with providing a well-rounded, quality education.

Given America’s test score fixation, genuine learning has been accorded the role of wallflower.

I have had only a few interactions with former TFAers, and it strikes me how quickly gauging success as a teacher verbally morphs into comments about how high the test scores of their students were.

So, the fact that the JCFS meta-analysis finds that teachers trained via alt cert programs have students with slightly higher test scores than those trained in traditional teacher prep programs does not surprise me.

What does surprise me is that the JCFS researchers not only fail to question the validity of measuring teacher job performance using student tests; they promote the idea as a means to gather useful data.

It also surprises me that the JCFS researchers do not question the degree to which student test scores represent authentic learning. They do comment on “student achievement in the U.S.” as “still below average, in comparison to the rest of the world,” but they do not carry that thought further and question how it is that the US continues to be a major world power despite those “still below average” international test scores.

From the “limitations” section of the JCFS meta-analysis:

…Although this is a very important and controversial topic, to date there has been very limited literature empirically examining the effectiveness of TTP programs, particularly in comparison to ATP programs, in addition to a scarcity of studies that report key statistical information for comparison. A good faith effort was made to identify as many peer reviewed empirically-supported studies as possible, however, there has been even less research that addresses this topic by comparing teacher training program effectiveness with student achievement as an outcome variable. We unfortunately only identified 12 studies that met our inclusion criteria, and this small number of existing studies limit the power of the current research. It is plausible that different findings will be discovered once more research is conducted in this area. Certainly, the need for researchers to conduct more studies in this field that are empirical, high quality, and transparent in regards to the reporting of their data is critical. Indeed, given NCLB (No Child Left Behind) mandates in the past and federal state grants, states have developed accountability systems that allow linking teachers (and their preparation) to student performance. Examining these data on a large, national scale has the potential to provide insights on the effects of teacher preparation on student achievement.

There is a reason that no national testing company would dare include with its student achievement tests a statement supporting the usage of these tests to gauge teacher effectiveness:  Measuring teachers using student tests is not a valid use of such tests, and no testing company wants to be held liable for this invalid practice.

Certainly the pressure is on traditional teacher training programs to focus on the outcome of teachers-in-training “raising” student test scores and to use those test score outcomes as purported evidence that the teacher-in-training is “effective.” May they never reach the ultimate cheapening of pedagogy and reduce teacher education to nothing more that test-score-raising.

Are teacher alt cert programs little more that spindly, test-score-raising drive-thrus lacking in lasting pedagogical substance? There’s an issue worthy of research investigation.

What price will America pay for its shortsighted, shallow love of high test scores? Also worthy of investigation– more so than that of the ever-increasing test score.


getschooled test


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Michael Fiorillo permalink

    If teachers passing through TFA and other so-called alt-certification programs have only “slightly” better impacts on student test scores – a questionable measurement of teacher competence, as you correctly point out – doesn’t that fall within the statistical margin of error for the survey, meaning it’s significance is quite limited?

    • The difference is statistically significant, but the practical significance is questionable.

  2. Massawessick permalink

    And b/c these educFAKEors tend to be recruited from the tops of their college class (albeit in African basket weaving, interplanetary gas evolution, etc…), they are led to believe that same linear focus on high grades/scores is what is Black kids need to “succeed” as they have. Don’t forget…in towns such as NOLA, everything has been literally provided to these alt cert transplants, from a job, to money, preferred housing, transportation, recreation, continued employment after they dump the teaching gig, and oh yeah in NOLA….the free happy-hour booze fest. So with their entire existence having been created for them, and with the chip implantion reinforced through constant drill, practice, rehearse…what they don’t have, and what they are NOT teaching our kids is how to adapt, how to be creative, how to take risks, how to think big, how to mirror and match the people you are associating with, etc….YOU CAN’T TEACH WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW…..Yeah…and in my experience with alt cert “educaTORS” (specifically TFA’s), they seem to lack sufficient skills to exist outside their little pre-programmed world of the schools and nonprofits they occupy. So like you suggested Mercedes, they focus on scores, teaching to the test…b/c that’s what the “chip” in their head tells them to do.

  3. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    “Measuring teachers using student tests is not a valid use of such tests, and no testing company wants to be held liable for this invalid practice.”

    Nobody who is making school policies seems to care about the irresponsible use of student test scores to rate teachers. Invalid measures are codified in federal and state policies and testing companies say nothing. Why? They are cashing in on the invalid use of their tests.

    The sham is made worse by policies designed to push scores into a distribution approximating a bell curve, then rating teachers on an A to F scale based on that distribution, subject-by-subject, grade level-by-grade level. Federal and state policies have set up a perpetual process of testing and arbitrary rankings as if these will solve every problem, especially if you include SEL test for social-emotional learning and ratings of school climate.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider: Raising Test Scores Is Not the Purpose of Teaching or Education | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. So Saith TFA. | deutsch29: Mercedes Schneider's Blog

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