Big expansion, big questions for Teach for America

By Christine Armario

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 27 2011 6:51 a.m. MST

ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, NOV. 27 AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken Sept. 1, 2011, MaKalya Brooks does a drill at Holmes Elementary School in Miami. In a distressed neighborhood north of Miami's gleaming downtown, a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced instructors from Teach for America is trying to make progress where more veteran teachers have had difficulty: raising students' reading and math scores.

J Pat Carter, Associated Press

MIAMI — In a distressed neighborhood north of Miami's gleaming downtown, a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced instructors from Teach for America is trying to make progress where more veteran teachers have had difficulty: raising students' reading and math scores.

"These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers," said Julian Davenport, an assistant principal at Holmes Elementary, where three-fifths of the staff this year are Teach for America corps members or graduates of the program.

By 2015, with the help of a $50 million federal grant, Teach for America recruits could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation's highest need school districts. The program also is expanding internationally.

The expansion comes as many districts are trying to make teachers more effective. But Teach for America has had mixed results.

Its teachers perform about as well as other novice instructors, who tend to be less successful than their more experienced colleagues. Even when they do slightly better, the majority are out of the teaching profession within five years.

"I think ultimately the jury is out," said Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an instructor to the first class of TFA corps members.

They provide an important pipeline of new teachers. But critics cite the teachers' high turnover rate, limited training and inexperience and say they are perpetuating the same inequalities that Teach for America has set to eradicate.

"There's no question that they've brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA.

But, she said, "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."

Over the past 20 years, the program has sent thousands of recent college graduates to teach for two years in some of the most challenging classrooms. Applications to the program have doubled since 2008. Foundations have donated tens of millions.

"When we started this 20 years ago, the prevailing notion backed up by all the research was socio-economic circumstances determine educational outcomes," founder Wendy Kopp said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've seen real evidence it does not have to be that way."

Yet, for example, just 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students scored as proficient or above in reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Increasingly, the question of how to overcome the challenges of poverty is focusing on effective teaching. But such teachers are hard to find at the least advantaged schools

"The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they aren't there," said 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.

A Harvard study of students in Texas found a teacher's level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a bigger influence on how well students perform than any other factor.

North Carolina research on teacher training programs, including Teach for America, found that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.

If inexperienced teachers don't perform as well, then why pair them to teach students who struggle the most?

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