Part One: Questions for Teach for America

This will be the first in a two part series on Teach for America, a program developed by Wendy Kopp while she was studying public policy at Princeton. According to its website, the goal of the program is to “recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.” In these blogs, we will explore just how successful Teach for America has been.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of college graduates have joined Kopp’s movement whose mission is to ensure that students who are growing up in poverty have the opportunity to get an excellent education. In fact, since 2008, applications for the program have doubled and foundations have donated tens of millions to the program.

Studies indicate that family income is one of the most accurate ways to predict how students will perform in the classroom. For example, only 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students received proficient or above scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

At the center of the debate over how to achieve educational reform is how do schools overcome the challenges that poverty creates? The solution clearly is to fill these schools with highly effective teachers, but statistically, these schools generally have twice as many teachers who have fewer than three years’ experience in schools.

Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as the founding director for Teach for America in New York City, said, “The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they [highly effective teachers] aren’t there.”

Teach for America believes that it can create a corps of highly effective teachers to fill these schools in a short period of time. However, research has supported the simple fact that experienced teachers tend to be more effective in the classroom, while beginning teachers tend to improve with experience.

One Harvard study which focused on students in Texas, for instance, concluded that a teacher’s level of education, experience, and scores on their licensing exams had more of an influence on student performance than any other factor they studied. Research done in North Carolina on various teacher training programs, which included Teach for America, revealed that when elementary students were taught math by a first-year teacher, they lost the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared to students who had teachers who had four years of experience.

So how are Teach for America candidates recruited and trained to prepare them for the challenges they will face? First, most of those who apply only consider teaching as an option after speaking with a Teach for America recruiter or program graduate; most of them have no education background and have never even considered teaching as a career.

Ryan Winn, for example, was won over when his recruiter showed him a picture of his third-grade Phoenix class. When the recruiter told Winn that half the students in the photograph would probably drop out by the eighth grade, Winn said, “That struck me as incredibly unfair and I was upset about it.” He is currently a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.

Once a graduate is accepted into Teach for America, they begin their training with thick packages of reading materials. Next, they spend five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who are taking remedial coursework in order to move on to the next grade.

While co-teaching, they are overseen by another instructor, who might be a more experienced school teacher or a current or former Teach for America corps member.

Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes Elementary in Miami, said of the training program, “It was a real steep learning curve.”

After this short summer experience, these “trained” Teach for America teachers are sent to the districts they have been assigned to where many of them don’t even know what they are going to teach until just before the school year begins. The districts which hire these teachers pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member who gets hired on, as well as paying the teacher’s salary.

Interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members were mixed. Many described classroom victories, but many also admitted to feeling uncertain about their abilities as first-year teachers.

Brett Barley, who taught in the San Francisco Bay area, said,  “I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me. I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful.”

Barley had reasons to be dismayed; most of his fourth-grade class started the year at a second-grade level in reading and writing. Two of his students were classified as blind, and roughly 30 percent weren’t native English speakers.

“The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels,” Barley said.

Kopp’s book, A Chance to Make History, tells the stories of several Teach for America corps members who achieved extraordinary success in their classrooms, but there are many teachers whose experiences were far from successful, like Megan Hopkins. A Spanish major in college, Hopkins was assigned as a bilingual teacher in Phoenix, but she received no training regarding how to teach English language learners.

“I had no idea how to teach a child to read,” Hopkins said. “I had no idea how to teach a second language learner to read in Spanish, much less in English. After five weeks of training, I really had no idea what I was doing. I felt that was a big disservice to my students.”

She was encouraged by Teach for America to set a goal to advance her students one and a half grade levels, but she had no idea how to attain the goal. She had to work with other teachers to develop a plan.

She said that she was praised “up and down” for increasing her students’ reading levels, but she questioned the validity of the results. She claimed that one of her students, who was a native Spanish speaker, was able to read fluently in English as a result of her efforts, “but if you asked him what he read, he had absolutely no idea.”

So how effective is Teach for America, and how effective are the teachers who the program “trains?” These are questions we will explore tomorrow in the second part of this blog.

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