Reach the Children
Teach for America sends bright college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools. Not everyone likes the idea, but when you’re putting out a fire, you don’t ask where the water’s coming from.
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Saavedra says the turning point came a few months into the school year when he reached out into the community and called the parent of every child. “That’s when I started getting better results. Coming from a mom or dad, ‘Do your homework and behave in class or else’ meant something entirely different than it did from me.” By year’s end, his students averaged a 1.6-year growth in reading levels.
“It wasn’t quite where I hoped it would be, but it was still significant,” says Saavedra.
He is now near completion of his two-year commitment. While unsure if he will stay at Batalla, he says this year’s seventh-grade English class is on track to do even better, becoming in the process an example of what TFA can do for troubled schools.
Teach for America is the brainchild of Wendy Kopp. In 1989, she proposed the idea as her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Her contention was that many young people wanted a way to make a difference in the world. She suggested that top college graduates in various academic majors would choose teaching over more lucrative opportunities if an elite teacher corps existed. In 1990, 21-year-old Kopp raised $2.5 million to launch a grass-roots recruitment campaign. A year later, TFA had 500 men and women teaching in six low-income communities. Today, TFA has 6,200 corps members working in 30 urban and rural school districts, making it the largest provider of teachers to low-income communities in the country.
In effect, TFA is similar to the Peace Corps. Volunteers must pass a rigorous screening that can be as difficult and competetive as the admission process at an Ivy League college. Those who make it spend five weeks at a summer institute being trained in course work and clinical classroom practice. They then commit to teach for at least two years in a placement school.
In Connecticut, where the program began in the fall of 2006, there are now 150 TFA teachers in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford elementary and middle schools. Next year TFA expects that number to reach almost 200.
“We’re seen as a recruitment agency that supplies very high-quality teachers for the classroom,” says Edna Novak, regional TFA executive director. School districts pay TFA a $2,500 fee for each corps member they hire; the corps members then receive a salary and benefits package, paid by the district, that is comparable to that of other beginning teachers.
Certainly, TFA has coaxed some exceptionally talented people, like Saavedra, into the teaching profession. But whether this effort of tossing some of the nation’s brightest college graduates into its worst schools after only five weeks of training is ultimately worth the cost is a matter of debate.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent education professor and close adviser to President Obama, has categorized TFA’s methods as “bad policy and bad education.”
Last June, in an edition of Phi Delta Kappan, she wrote, “Many schools serving the most vulnerable students have been staffed by a steady parade of untrained, inexperienced and temporary teachers, and studies show that these teachers’ lack of training and experience significantly accounts for students’ higher failure rates on high-stakes tests.”
State Rep. Andrew Fleischman (D-West Hartford), who as House Chairman of the Education Committee was responsible for spearheading legislation that brought TFA into Connecticut classrooms, disagrees. “If there was any data showing TFA corps members doing a poor job,” he says, “I would share those concerns. But the data is to the contrary.”
Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that TFA corps members are as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, traditionally trained young teachers, and in some cases even veteran teachers. But there are also independent studies showing that TFA teachers can have trouble adjusting to the classroom, especially in the first year. It is a good bet that the TFA program will spark some controversy wherever it goes.