Big expansion, big questions for Teach for America

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, program 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.

That growth comes as many districts try 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, there’s a serious offset: 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.

Teach for America teachers work with not just the poor, but also English language learners and special education students. 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.’’

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Wendy Kopp started Teach for America while studying public policy at Princeton. For her senior thesis, she developed a plan to place top college graduates in the poorest schools. She sent the plan to dozens of Fortune 500 executives. Within a year, she had raised $2.5 million and had 2,500 applications.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of recent college graduates have taught for two years in some of the most challenging classrooms in hopes of helping close the achievement gap. Applications have doubled since 2008. Foundations have donated tens of millions.

With Teach for America’s guidance, groups are being established in India, Chile and other places with deep educational inequalities.

Many countries, including those where students perform higher in math and reading, send the strongest and most experienced teachers to work with the lowest performing students. The U.S. has done the reverse. There are nearly twice as many teachers with fewer than three years’ experience in schools where students are predominantly low income and minority.

Family income is one of the most accurate predictors of how well a student will perform. Just 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students, for example, scored as proficient or above in reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

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

How to overcome the challenges of poverty is at the center of the debate over education reform, with an increasing focus on effective teaching.

Highly effective teachers are hardest 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.

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Teach for America believes it can create a corps of such teachers in a short time.

Research, however, shows that beginning instructors improve with experience.

A Harvard study of students in Texas found that a teacher’s level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a greater influence on student performance than any other factor. North Carolina research on teacher training programs, including Teach for America, showed 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 with students who struggle the most?

“When they started, we were staffing our high poverty schools … with anything that breathed,’’ said Haycock. But, she added, “Saying their solution is better than what came before it is not to say it’s the right thing.’’

Wagner noted that his master’s degree in teaching from Harvard hardly prepared him for the challenges of being a first-year teacher. “Unless and until we have a dramatically different system, and a universally high quality system for preparing teachers, I think TFA is a stop gap, and an important one,’’ he said.

Read more at Boston.com

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