This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:
#4)“Teach For America is making progress toward ending educational inequity”
As a Teach For America alum, I've seen some of the inner workings of this nonprofit and experienced the ups and downs of teaching as a corps member, and I mean it when I say that this program is doing a heckuva job in its mission of ending educational inequities.
Teach For America is a national teacher corps of recent college graduates. Through a rigorous selection process, it selects individuals that have the highest potential to become great teachers in classrooms for schools that may be under-resourced, in a struggling low-income community, or modeled on lower expectations of students. Its selection process (as are its efforts to train and support corps members) is based on its Teaching As Leadership framework, which links the ability to be a great teacher to characteristics of great leadership, like propensity for setting an ambitious vision for success and masterfully planning, executing, and reflecting on progress toward this vision.
Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America, proposed the creation of such a national teacher corps in her 1989 undergraduate senior thesis, seeing that many in her generation (as it is now) wanted a chance to be a part of something meaningful, and while our educational system was in the midst of a standards-based reform movement, achievement gaps were persisting, and the window for leading a social movement toward ending educational inequities was wide-open.
There are many positives that Teach For America brings to education, some of which include:
* Making teaching in challenging areas desirable to recent college graduates
A movement of future leaders fresh out of college competing to be the best teachers for the most troubled schools in our nation. Wendy Kopp was a genius for envisioning this. As they get closer to graduation, many university students are planning out their futures and thinking of how they might give back to their respective communities. Will they volunteer? Will they donate money? The idea of giving back by being the best damn teachers they can be for children who have had less opportunities to succeed than they did is surely tempting.
The program is as prestigious as a top-tier university—and just as difficult to get into. Teach For America successfully makes the case that good teaching and good leadership go hand-in-hand as evidenced by the successful partnerships made with top graduate schools and employers, running the gamut of future opportunities in everything from law and business to science and engineering. It all comes down to this: if you want to be an effective leader, you need to learn how to teach.
* Enlisting people outside of education majors, such as scientists and mathematicians
Teach For America runs on an alternative credentialing program, which is in accord with NCLB for being a process toward becoming “highly qualified teachers”. Alternative credentialing programs allow a person without a background in education to pursue a teaching credential while teaching. Here where I live, I had to take a general math and English proficiency test, a science proficiency test, and a US government test. After passing all three, I then went through an intensive training with Teach For America over the summer, and immediately after took a teaching foundations exam. After all of that, I was allowed to enroll in a 9-month credentialing program that allowed me to get an intern (emergency) credential and teach in a classroom, working toward the next step of teacher credentialing.
What makes this such a great strategy is that it can pull people into teaching that would have never thought it to be a career. This holds especially for the math and sciences. After all of our focused coursework at the university level, it would be a huge barrier to teaching if we then had to pursue an additional degree before being able to utilize our math and science understanding in the classroom. Most would then more rather go on to science and math-specific graduate schools, since at least we know what science and math is like, but education? Alternative certification allows those with science and math degrees a more realistic path toward becoming teachers.
* Modeled on data-driven accountability and a part of the nation-wide accountability effort
Teach For America holds all of its corps members accountable for making academic gains with their students, and teachers are pressed to use data to inform instruction and make decisions on how best to serve our students. This use of student data will help impact the greatest change because good data can give an unbiased assessment of student learning, and it can allow the teacher and his Teach For America director evidence for what changes to implement in the classroom. Teach For America's efforts here mirror the national education accountability effort that is gaining traction, with monies from the recently passed stimulus plan going toward programs like Race to the Top, Obama's competitive grant program that allows schools extra funds if they hold teachers accountable to their students' data.
* Intensive summer training allows teachers to hit the ground running when they get to their placement schools
Everything about Teach For America is urgent, as is its pace during the summer Institute that all corps members must attend before beginning their 2-year teaching commitment. During that summer, teachers live, breath, and sweat education, by putting in long hours in education classes, discussion panels, and of course, teaching summer school classes. Every minute of a corps member's life is observed by someone who knows what he or she is doing, and constructive criticism comes at a brisk pace without rose-colored glasses. There is a lot to learn about teaching, and the summer is certainly not enough to learn it all, but the training ends only after that sense of urgency is completely diffused into the work ethic of its inducted corps members, and the pace for excellence carries on well into their teaching careers.
* Stellar alumni retention efforts to keep the movement alive in those finished with their 2-year commitment
After finishing a commitment to teach, even those who chose not to continue teaching will always have that inner fire burning to advocate for underprivileged children and to have a positive impact on our education system. This sense of urgency carries on after leaving the classroom, and Teach For America alumni bring their educational insight into many different roles and positions in the workforce. Alumni directors of Teach For America claim that the alumni movement is equally important to Teach For America's role in ending educational inequities, and I would agree, as changes needed to improve education must come from both inside and outside of the classroom.
Despite these positives, there are some in education circles who criticize Teach For America and blame it for perpetuating many educational woes, but these critics seemingly do so in bad faith:
Claim: “Teach For America brings teachers who have no real teaching experience to classrooms where students desperately need good teachers.”
This claim rallies the troops against alternative certification programs in general, but specifically is an elbow designated for Teach For America. Just recently a district court threw out an appeal in the lawsuit against Teach For America (PDF) over the “highly qualified” NCLB teacher provisions, a lawsuit that asserted this very claim. The assumption that this allegation makes, that teaching experience is required for a teacher to be successful in his first years, is flawed.
Individuals who are accepted into Teach For America are likely to show great leadership and thus likely to become great teachers as evidenced by the Teaching As Leadership framework, which was formed after analyzing the qualities of many successful and mediocre teachers. Before even getting into the program a person must exemplify these desired characteristics that they can utilize as a teacher later on.
The research we have would also tend to disagree with the allegation. A Mathematica study in 2004 found that students of Teach For America teachers scored as well or higher than students of non-TFA teachers in reading and math, and the authors concluded that “the success of TFA teachers is not dependent on their having extensive exposure to teacher practice or training.” General comparisons between university-based credentialing programs and alternative certification programs have shown mixed conclusions, leading us to believe that teacher effectiveness does not likely hinge on extensive teacher preparation programs prior to teaching, but falls on other teacher qualities.
All students need and deserve good teachers, but teaching experience should not be a barrier to teaching as it is not the underlying factor in effective instructional practice.
Claim: "Teach For America is not helping retain teachers for the long run."
“Teacher retention” is indeed absent from Teach For America's mission statement, but that is likely a good thing. The vision that the program works toward is closing achievement gaps between different student subgroups throughout the nation, which doesn't require making teaching a career choice. TFA teachers all throughout the nation are making significant progress with their students in their first 2 years of teaching. Adding additional years of commitment would hurt the program's appeal to college graduates uncertain of more time away from other career choices they may be drawn toward. And indeed, the program actually puts a lot of value on its alumni as they are the ones promoting the mission in other aspects of society.
Even despite this 2-year commitment, 61% of TFA teachers choose to continue teaching into the third year, a retention rate similar to that of other non-TFA new teachers. While teacher retention may not be the underlying goal, Teach For America is not harming current teacher retention rates, either.
Claim: "Teach For America is a bandage, not a cure, for the problems facing our educational system."
This one I never really understood, as I think Teach For America itself would also agree that it is not any type of “cure” for what ails our education system. Just as the achievement gap had been engendered and persists for a multitude of reasons, so plentiful are the needs of public education that have to be filled to close these gaps. Getting good teachers into places that desperately need good teachers is one logical way to help close these gaps. Making teaching a more valuable option to future leaders from top-tier universities is another logical way to help close these gaps. Empowering future leaders with a burning desire to advocate for their students' successes in many different arms of society is yet another logical way to help close these gaps. Teach For America seeks to fix what is broken on a number of different levels, and to attack it for what it doesn't do would be foolhardy.
Overall, Teach For America is making a lasting impact on education, and the program will only increase in scope and impact on today's, and tomorrow's, schools and students.