Part Two: Expand Teach for America?
Students from Holmes Elementary School in Miami
Okay, let’s talk turkey about Teach for America and its impact on improving the lowest performing schools.
First, with a crippled economy and college graduates facing huge obstacles in landing jobs after school, Teach for America is receiving some renewed attention. And why wouldn’t it? Corps members earn teacher salaries, and at the same time, some of their federal student loans are forgiven. Quite a draw for graduates in this tight job market! In fact, applications to join the corps members are sky high.
On top of that, some school districts like one north of downtown Miami are actively working to fill their staffs with Teach for America corps members.
Julian Davenport, an assistant principal at Holmes Elementary in Miami, said, “These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers.” Three-fifths of this school’s staff come from Teach for America.
And it is estimated that by 2015, due to a $50 million federal grant, recruits from Teach for America could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation’s highest need school districts. Here in Ohio, Governor Kasich signed a bill in April which opened the door for Teach for America teachers to begin working in Ohio schools by the 2012-2013 school year. And the program is also expanding internationally.
So, what is the problem, you might ask? Well first, Teach for America has had mixed results in terms of teacher efficacy and career longevity. According to statistics, these teachers perform about as effectively as other inexperienced teachers. But that isn’t saying much, since novice teachers tend to be less successful in the classroom than more experienced teachers. Additionally, most of these corps members leave the teaching profession within five years.
Using its own review of external research regarding their members, Teach for America concludes that its members achieve student gains that are “at least as great as that of other new teachers,” with some studies showing they did better, and others showing they did worse. Teach for America does not release data to the public regarding information they gather on how their teachers are performing. “We just don’t feel it’s responsible to show,” the program’s developer, Wendy Kopp said. “There are so many flaws in our system.”
But one finding that is consistent is the program’s high turnover rate. The organization reports that 33 percent of its graduates are still teaching, but in many districts, turnover rates are much higher. North Carolina, for example, reported that after 5 years, only 7 percent of Teach for America corps members were still teaching in the state.
Kopp and those at Teach for America argue that turnover rates are high in general across low-income schools, which is true, but among other teacher preparation programs, theirs has one of the highest turnover rates.
The other huge concern with Teach for America is the limited training and experience they have received before being thrust into a classroom. This inexperience and lack of training, critics say, perpetuates the same inequalities that Teach for America is supposed to eradicate.
Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA, said, “There’s no question that they’ve brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession.” But, she added, “Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher. For poor kids, education has to work every single year.”
For me, that is one of the major issues I have with Teach for America. I don’t care how intelligent these graduates are; without proper training and intensive classroom experience with students to learn how to communicate that knowledge to kids in a way that they will understand, you should not be in a classroom. Period! And there is no way that can be accomplished in one field experience, which is apparently all corps members get.
Let’s get real! These “teachers” aren’t being placed in schools where conditions are advantageous for instruction. They are being placed in some of the toughest schools which have a record of extremely low performance. I question how effective experienced teachers can be in these schools, let alone these novice young people.
I am sure that there are some naturally good teachers in Teach for America who are able to eventually overcome their lack of preparation and become excellent teachers. Please don’t think I am denigrating these young people, or their desire to make a difference in the schools where they are placed. I applaud their efforts, but I don’t feel they are being given the opportunity to become awesome teachers before they are zapped into a classroom with no real preparation or tools of the trade.
Let’s face it, if Teach for America was as effective as it claims, why aren’t more schools turning around when these teachers are placed there? And why do so many of these young people quickly gravitate to other careers, abandoning the students who need good teachers?
Expand Teach for America? Work out the problems that keep the program from being truly effective before expanding something that seems to be rather mediocre at best. Could it be a successful program? Absolutely! Is it currently successful? You be the judge.