That TFA Study

A Teach for America study came out last week. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what any of the fuss was about. There are a sizable number of these things already, and this one was basically within the range of the prior ones. So what ground has been broken? I have no idea. A number of people have asked me to comment on it, but I don’t really know what to say given how unremarkable it is in light of the past research.

There is one thing to say though. I am very curious as to why Mathematica — who has done these studies before — only tested math. Prior Mathematica studies have included reading and math metrics. And the story was always, as Dylan Matthews most recently reported, TFA teachers do somewhat better in math, but not in reading. In fact, that has been the trend study after study after study. Wherever they wind up against peers in a given study, TFA teachers invariably end up doing better in math than reading.

Then this study comes out and totally excludes reading. And the reporting on it makes no real note of this. Instead, the story is that TFA teachers are outperforming period, not outperforming in math. The omission of reading when we know the study trend is that TFA does better in math than in reading is just very bizarre, especially since Mathematica itself has done one of the reading/math combo studies before. It also led to amusing speculation as to the causes. If you are going to discuss why TFA teachers have whatever results they have, the best place to start is on the math/reading difference that pops up again and again. But since the reading bit dropped out of the study and nobody seemed to take much note of it, the pontificating ended up immediately proceeding into nonsense land.

At minimum, if you are reporting on this, you should emphasize that we are talking about one subject here, math. It does not, as basically every prior study indicates, generalize to reading or other subjects. Other than this point about reading, the thing just seems very unremarkable.

As a postscript, let me also say that people seem to have me pegged on this thing wrongly. The only reason I keep up with this stuff is because I want poor people to not be poor, and living in the US in 2013 that basically means that everyone just throws education-based solutions at you all the time. So I am forced, as much as I hate the subject, to keep up with these things. I have no particular interest in pedagogy or the nitty gritty of school running. My present view is that our education obsession will 1) fail to deliver the goods on poverty eradication, and 2) is an impediment to such eradication because it distracts from actual solutions and directs all of the political attention, will, and do-gooding in that failed direction. This is my sole interest in this.