Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement: Evidence from Teach For America

Keith McNamara

Almost a decade ago, Dan Goldhaber
found that
only about 3 percent of a teacher’s impact on her students came
from readily observable characteristics (things like years of experience or
degrees attained). The overwhelming impact could be attributed to intangibles
like enthusiasm and “skills conveying knowledge.” This study from Harvard
doctoral student Will Dobbie opens the vault of teacher-effectiveness
characteristics once again. It links Teach For America acceptance records with
New York City student-achievement data for new corps members between 2007 and
2009. The rigorous TFA admissions criteria—which include multiple measures like
leadership experience, perseverance, and academic achievement—were evaluated to
determine any correlations to ELA and math test scores of TFA-taught third
through eighth graders. While the study didn’t uncover a trove of new insights,
it did find statistically significant correlations between a few of the
admissions criteria and the test scores for first year TFA teachers. Notably: A
teacher’s prior achievement and perseverance are associated with student gains
in math while commitment to the TFA mission is linked to growth in ELA;
leadership experience is correlated with improvement in both subjects.
(Correlations between student achievement and TFA admission criteria for second-year
teachers were statistically insignificant.) Such findings push Goldhaber’s “3
percent” number northward, at least a little bit—in an area where every little
bit counts.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Dobbie's paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


Will Dobbie, “Teacher
Characteristics and Student Achievement: Evidence from Teach For America
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, July 2011).