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Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That? | The Nation

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Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That?

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Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder, has called it a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization.” (Photo by Sebastian Derungs, courtesy World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Rita Green didn’t know too much about TFA before the organization came to Seattle. Not because she wasn’t involved in her children’s education: at the time, Green served as the vice president of the parent-teacher-student association at Rainier Beach High School, where her son was a junior.

Green kept an open mind, hoping they might add more faculty of color to the school’s mainly white staff. The student body is predominantly African-American, Pacific Islander and Latino. At Rainier Beach, parents sit on hiring teams, which interview and recommend staff members. Green was part of a selection committee reviewing applications.

TFA targeted Rainier Beach because of its low graduation rates and scores on standardized tests. But when Green began reading the résumés of TFA recruits, she said that she was shocked to see unrelated jobs listed as experience, including “waitress at Red Robin.”

“The first thing I questioned the district on,” Green recalls, “is ‘How dare you send these applicants to teach our kids? Just because they’re kids of color, you think you can dump anyone on us?’”

District administrators and TFA’s national staff acknowledge that its recruits are cheaper than teachers with experience or advanced degrees. Michael DeBell, a member of the Seattle school board, helped bring TFA to the district in 2010. It wasn’t a question of lacking qualified teachers, DeBell said, with between five and 100 people applying for every open teaching position. Rather, he said, “it was a simple matter of fiscal challenges and political optics—about not paying extra” for new hires.

As TFA moves into wealthier schools and districts, the debate over its recruits’ quality is likely to intensify. Critics say that inexperienced corps members shouldn’t be placed in front of those children who need the most academic help, while supporters say the recruits are just as good—if not better—than other new and experienced teachers.

Only two large-scale studies have looked at the effectiveness of TFA recruits versus other teachers. Both were conducted by the independent research group Mathematica; the first study, in 2004, examined the elementary school level, and the second study, released in September, looked at secondary school math. Both studies showed that students with a TFA teacher scored at least slightly higher on math assessments than the students of other new teachers. The recent secondary math study showed that students gained an extra 2.6 months of learning, a finding that held when TFA teachers were compared with experienced teachers. In elementary level reading, TFA teachers were no more effective than other new teachers, although less rigorous studies have shown TFA teachers may depress student reading scores.

The bulk of education research, looking at student test data, has shown that experience doesn’t make a teacher good, but it does make good teachers incrementally better, especially early in their career.

Another growth strategy that TFA has used for years is increasing the number of recruits in special education and limited-English-proficiency classes, notoriously understaffed subjects that require specialized training, by 15 to 20 percent annually. Little research exists examining TFA’s effect on students in these areas. Last spring, however, TFA found itself pitted against a group of forty-seven alumni over whether recruits in California should undergo additional, state-mandated training to help new teachers meet the needs of the state’s large population of English learners.

TFA argued that the extra training wasn’t necessary and that requiring it was unlawful and an obstacle to hiring. The alumni, in the first coordinated public rebuke of TFA from within its own ranks, wrote that the program’s five-week training was inadequate, and that to consider its recruits qualified to teach English learners “is a lie…. While we deeply value our commitment to TFA, we must stand up for the 1.4 million EL students today struggling in California’s classrooms.”

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