Case Study: Building the Knowledge Base on Teacher Preparation and Effectiveness

The evidence of [TFA’s] teachers’ effects is among the most convincing to date of TFA’s impact on secondary math. It also stands in stark contrast to the teacher-preparation field at large: Most, if not all, programs lack experimental evidence of their impact.

- Education Week
Project Facts

The study of TFA teachers by Decker et al. placed consistently among the top-10 most downloaded reports from Mathematica’s website over the 10 years following its release, showing the public’s strong, enduring interest in the first-ever experimental evaluation of this well known yet often criticized route into teaching.

The study of teacher preparation models by Constantine et al., showing that students with an alternatively certified teacher did no worse on achievement tests than students whose teacher came through the traditional route, shed light on the effectiveness of different teacher training strategies. 

The study of TFA and Teaching Fellows by Clark et al. received widespread publicity upon its release, including summaries in the Atlantic, Politico, TIME, the Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report

Together, these Mathematica studies have been cited over 500 times in peer-reviewed research.

Notes on Data Collection. Collecting student data can be especially challenging in the low-performing schools where teachers from TFA and Teaching Fellows programs typically teach. All three studies achieved very high response rates on all data collections, whether teacher surveys, classroom observations, collection of teachers’ scores on college entrance exams or precertification exams, student achievement tests, collection of student data from district administrative records, principal surveys, or interviews with program officials. 

The Issue

Although alternative routes to certification have been a popular means to address teacher shortages, high-quality evidence on their effectiveness has been scarce. Alternative-route programs vary widely in their approach, but a defining feature is that participants begin teaching before completing certification requirements. Critics contend that teachers prepared through alternative routes are less prepared to teach, and less effective in their early years, than teachers from traditional programs.

The Approach

For all three studies, Mathematica’s research team effectively recruited enough districts, schools, and teachers to participate, ensuring the analysis could detect even relatively small impacts on student outcomes. Our stringent quality assurance methods ensured that all three studies successfully implemented random assignment, meeting the research “gold standard” and ensuring confidence in our results.

The Impacts

Mathematica’s random assignment studies on alternative routes to teacher certification provide a portrait of teachers from a diverse set of alternative route programs across a range of grade levels. They offer compelling, objective evidence on the impacts of these programs on student achievement and contribute to the policy discussion aimed at addressing teacher shortages in low-income schools:

  • The first study found that elementary school TFA teachers had a positive impact on their students’ math achievement, by an amount roughly equivalent to one additional month of math instruction, refuting longstanding critiques that TFA teachers were less effective than other teachers. 
  • The second study found that elementary school teachers from less-selective alternative programs had no positive or negative impact on students’ math or reading scores. The overall finding held for teachers from high-coursework and low-coursework alternative programs.
  • The third study found that secondary math teachers from TFA had a positive impact on their students’ math achievement, by an amount roughly equivalent to 2.6 additional months of instruction. Teachers from the Teaching Fellows programs did not have an impact on average math achievement.
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This case study is for informational purposes only. Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, provides a full range of research and data collection services, including program evaluation and policy research, survey design  and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data management, to improve public well-being. Its clients include federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, N.J.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago, Ill.; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington, D.C., has conducted some of the most important studies of education, disability, health care, family support, employment, nutrition, and early childhood policies and programs.

About the Project
Mathematica designed and conducted three large-scale studies on the relationship between teacher preparation and effectiveness using the most rigorous approach possible—random assignment of students to teachers from different kinds of teacher training programs—and compared student test scores to gauge teacher effectiveness. The first study compared elementary school teachers from Teach For America (TFA), a highly selective alternative-route program, with teachers from all other kinds of programs. The second study compared elementary teachers from less-selective alternative-route programs with teachers from traditional-route programs. Analyses also distinguished between alternative-route teachers from programs that required a high amount of coursework and those from programs that required a low amount of coursework. The third study separately compared middle-school math teachers from TFA and Teaching Fellows programs, both highly selective, with teachers from both less-selective alternative-route programs and traditional-route programs.