As she continues to talk I realise that TFA is—in the best possible sense—a cult. It has its own language (“corps members”, “alums”), recruits are indoctrinated (“We tell them that it can be done, that we know of hundreds, thousands, of teachers attaining tremendous success”), go through an ordeal (“Everyone hits the wall in week three in the classroom”), emerge transformed by privileged knowledge (“Once you know what we know—that kids in poor urban areas can excel—you can accomplish different things”) and can never leave (alumni form a growing, and influential, network). I have not seen the same zeal when talking to those on the equivalent programme in England, Teach First. In fact, one Teach Firster told me that in the early days the missionary-style language imported from America had to be toned down, because it just didn’t suit the restrained English style. But could that fervour be necessary for its success?This overstates the success of TFA teachers a bit. In the IES-funded experiment conducted by Mathematica, they match conventionally certified teachers in terms of impacts on reading scores and beat them in math scores by a measurable but not huge bit. Put differently, their impacts are incremental, not transformative, at least by this metric.
At the same time, putting smart young adults - and TFA teachers average a couple hundred SAT score points over their conventionally educated colleagues - into public schools has to have some indirect effects, whether on their peers, on the views of future leaders about government-operated schools and teacher labor cartels, on their views about poverty, on school administration and operation as some TFA teachers stay on and advance through the ranks, and so on.