Teach for America (TFA) aims to increase student achievement by increasing the quality of teaching. Concerned with the short-term commitment TFA asks its recruits to make, I’ve never been sure what to make of TFA. Seeking teachers who were themselves strong students and focusing on outcomes, it has the potential to elevate the teaching profession. But by recruiting for a two-year stint, it also questions teaching as a career.

With these grumblings in the back of my mind, I’m always interested in research on TFA. If there were clear evidence that it did, or did not, work, my dilemma would be resolved. Well, even with a very rigorous new study by Mathematica Policy Research, my dilemma lives on. Comparing 66 TFA teachers with 90 non-TFA (mostly traditionally prepared) teachers in 36 schools serving preschool through fifth grade, only one significant difference was found: TFA teachers in preschool through second grade were more effective in reading. They added about 1.3 months of learning.

That’s important—it indicates that the TFA teachers are doing a better job on foundational reading skills. But what’s also important is that there was no difference in third through fifth grade. Even more important, there was plenty of room for improvement: on average, these preschool through fifth grade students’ were at the 34th percentile.

Why isn’t reading comprehension budging? The Mathematica study can’t answer, but readers of the Core Knowledge blog certainly can. Until elementary schools—and all types of teacher preparation programs—get serious about systematically building knowledge and vocabulary, reading comprehension will remain far too low.

 

Books on the brain courtesy of Shutterstock.
Books on the brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

Fortunately, more and more educators, administrators, and professors are coming to understand the nature of comprehension. A recent paper by Donald L. Compton, Amanda C. Miller, Amy M. Elleman, and Laura M. Steacy makes me think knowledge is starting to get its due (thanks to Aaron Grossman for sending it to me).

With a strong-but-brief review of the research on comprehension, the paper is well worth reading. So, I’m just offering some highlights (and hoping TFA’s Wendy Kopp is reading):

Much of the instructional research on reading comprehension has focused on strategy instruction as a means to engage students with text and help them monitor their comprehension…. This focus is warranted as evidenced by the effectiveness of strategy instruction especially for struggling readers…. However, it is unclear whether increased comprehension can be attributed to learning specific strategies. In their review of strategy instruction, Rosenshine and Meister (1994) noted that it did not matter which strategies were combined; as long as multiple strategies were used, students’ comprehension increased. In fact, it may not be the strategies themselves that engender changes in comprehension, but possibly some other factors that strategy instruction fosters, such as deeper engagement with the text and awareness of the need to monitor comprehension.

Our intent here is not to argue against the positive role strategy instruction may play in increasing engagement with text but instead to highlight unforeseen consequences associated with this type of instruction. We propose that strategy instruction may result in low-level text representations that embody only what is explicitly expressed in a text…. Deep level understanding of a text, on the other hand, goes beyond the text in nontrivial ways, requiring the construction of meaning through inference making, not just passive absorption of information….

Reading comprehension occurs as the reader builds a mental representation of the text…. The majority of comprehension theorists suggest that there are at least two levels of representation: a text-based representation and a situation model…. The text representation conveys the underlying meaning of the text’s explicit information…. The situation model involves the intertwining of the reader’s background knowledge with the text-based representation to form a deep representation of the text. Thus, the situation model is a more meaningful representation that goes beyond the text-based information…. We maintain that failure to construct situation models during reading is an acute symptom associated with reading comprehension disability.

A number of studies have reported that individual differences in background knowledge significantly influence the building of a representative situation model…. Readers who possess high levels of knowledge consistently exhibit better comprehension and retention than readers with low levels of knowledge….

[One study] examined the contribution of knowledge to comprehension processes by asking good and poor fifth-grade readers to read or listen to passages and answer questions. Results indicated that having some knowledge about a passage’s topic, which poor readers had less of, was positively associated with the likelihood of correctly answering questions about that passage. In addition, general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge remained significantly associated with correct responses even while controlling for passage specific knowledge. (Again, poor readers possessed less general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge compared to good readers.) Finally, regardless of passage-specific background knowledge, questions about information stated literally in the text were easier to answer than questions that required inference. Results suggest that multiple forms of knowledge, both passage specific and general, are likely required to form coherent and high-quality representations of text.

3 comments on “Even TFA Isn’t Boosting Reading Comprehension”

  1. 1
    Laura Hankin on March 15, 2015

    Excellent article. Well put. I completely agree. Thank you for writing. Cheers!

  2. 2
    Daniel Garza on March 17, 2015

    At the onset of Teach for America, I believed in this program. It was received by various school districts as a solution to teacher shortages. After a few years of observing their method of operation, I have become disillusioned.

    I have seen these TFA recruits exit the classroom after two years for other opportunities or promotions. Many of them have no intentions of teaching. Some use their experience in teaching to pat their resumes, while viewing teaching as a temporary job.

    Moreover, kids in lower income neighborhoods need our best teachers and there is absolutely no way that a 6 week training program (such as what TFA teachers go through) can effectively set up new teachers for success.

    I have yet to read a credible peer-reviewed research that indicate TFA teachers are better teachers than those who come through traditional education programs.

  3. 3
    Idrianne Lewis on March 22, 2015

    “Even TFA Isn’t Boosting Reading Comprehension” was very interesting. First, it points out that teach for America Teachers are not what folks make them out to be. I am also suspicious of their motives for coming in schools for two years. Additionally, I agree that unless we are deliberate about building knowledge and vocabulary and sustaining these reading comprehension will remain far too low.

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