Teach For America Is Our Largest Provider of New Teachers… And Likely Our Best!

There’s lots of talk today about this ProPublica story on Teach For America. To put it bluntly, I don’t think it’s a very fair or nuanced piece of journalism, and it’s missing two major pieces of context.

One, Teach For America is probably the largest provider of new teachers in the U.S.

This is hard to prove definitively given our fragmented data systems, but I’m quite confident it’s true. Consider our largest teacher preparation programs, in terms of total graduates. I pulled the latest data on all 2016-17 graduates with a bachelor’s or Master’s degree in education. The list of the largest teacher preparation programs may surprise some people, but here’s the top ten:


Institution Total Education Graduates (2016-17)
Grand Canyon University 5037
Western Governors University 4009
Concordia University-Portland 2320
Walden University 2202
Liberty University 2081
Ashford University 2066
National University 1821
University of Phoenix-Arizona 1580
University of Central Florida 1522
Ball State University 1272

These are big numbers, but they reflect graduates, not teachers, let alone new teachers. These are important distinctions. We know based on state and national numbers that many graduates with education degrees do not actually become teachers. Depending on the year and region, 25-40 percent of people who earn degrees in education never use that degree as a teacher.

Moreover, these numbers include bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. it’s impossible to know from the data, but it’s likely that the totals are padded by active teachers pursuing a Master’s degree to boost their salaries.

Let’s use Grand Canyon University as an example. It granted the most bachelor’s and the most Master’s degrees in education, but only 1,564 of those were bachelor’s degrees. If we assume that only those attaining a bachelor’s were truly new, and those graduates went on to teach at the national averages, Grand Canyon might have been responsible for somewhere around 1,000 new teachers that year.

The Cal State system provides another example. While no single institution made the list above, the Cal State system as a whole produced about 2,100 bachelor’s degrees and about 3,100 Master’s degrees in education that year. But in order for those teachers to qualify for a full-time license, California requires teachers to go through their preparation program after completing their bachelor’s degree. So again, these totals are deceptively high in terms of the total new teachers placed by the Cal State system.

In contrast, Teach For America currently has about 7,000 corps members, and they regularly churn out cohorts of 3,000 to 4,000 teachers.* Granted, TFA corps members are spread out all across the country, so it may not be the largest provider in any one state or region, but, collectively, TFA is larger than any other provider of new teachers.

Two, Teach For America may be the best teacher preparation program in the country.

Again, this is a hard statement to prove definitively, but TFA is certainly the most studied, and it reliably produces results that are at least as good if not better than its peers. TFA corps members outperform other incoming teachers in states like North Carolina and Tennessee and they even perform as well as other veteran teachers working in their same schools. TFA teachers do have higher turnover rates than other new teachers, but, on balance, students are still better off. This research mainly focuses on student growth in terms of achievement scores, but TFA teachers may also help boost student attendance

However, there’s a much larger difference across TFA corps members than between TFA and other preparation programs. (If you want to see what this looks like visually, Figures 2-3 here illustrate that point nicely.) That finding alone should make us stop and pause.

In fact, this variance issue plagues much of the journalism about TFA. Given the enormous size of TFA and the wide variety of outcomes of its teachers, it’s easy to find corps members who fit whatever narrative you might want to apply to it.

So I get why TFA is such a lightning rod. It’s huge, and it provides a stark contrast to the traditional teacher preparation programs. But I don’t find the politics around TFA all that interesting or illuminating. I’m much more interested in how this enormous, diffuse, short-term training program manages to produce new teachers who are still roughly on par with their peers.

*TFA often partners with higher education institutions, and when their corps members complete a degree, those completions would be counted toward the host college or university, not TFA. 

Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with TFA in the past. 

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

5 Replies to “Teach For America Is Our Largest Provider of New Teachers… And Likely Our Best!”

  1. This is as good a time as any to remind oneself of the “Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect,” which is the continued belief in the reliability of a publication’s reporting (in this case, ProPublica’s) outside one’s field of expertise–even after reading a piece in the same publication that you know to be full of errors and misunderstandings.

  2. +1 to Robert above.

    Isn’t main story here that a number of districts over time grew to reject TFA teachers – despite the advantages for kids – because of political pushback, thereby sort of forcing often reluctant TFA into arms of charters?

  3. Why do we not demand that our best and more tenured teachers are in front of our highest need students? TFA is koolaid that we have been drinking for decades? What if they shifted to be improve the highest performing teachers in the system for 5 plus years with proven results or really did an advocacy push to get the very best proven teachers in front of the highest need kids. Imagine yourself as a 40 yr old professional and compare that to you at 22. Why do we not demand the BEST for those who require the best to transcend poverty?? And why do we not pay the best more?? Just questions from someone who went to a low income school.

  4. On the other hand, TFA taps into a talent pipeline. It gets some who would not otherwise go into teaching into the field. So therein lies the debate. Do the benefits outweigh the trade offs? Or do you do a hybrid program? The only way to get the answer is to force the dialogue. Apologies for typos. It is late!

  5. The only other option is reimagining a system that provides best in class performance management, professional development and compensation, including pay for performance. It’s a huge undertaking but allows you to get the benefits of TFA without the set backs. Just food for thought!

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