Here's a quiz: Which of the following rejected more than 30,000 of the nation's top college seniors this month and put hundreds more on a waitlist? a) Harvard Law School; b) Goldman Sachs; or c) Teach for America.This is such a shame. TFA pays for the training of these young, dedicated teachers and then places them in the most challenging situations. These young, often Ivy-League educated graduates vie for the opportunity to tackle teaching in some of the most at-risk schools in the nation. The program has been an amazing success. In fact, I had thought that the limit on the number of applicants accepted was designed as sort of a mechanism to increase the desirability of winning a place by creating a false scarcity. I should have known that teachers unions were the true cause. They can't stand the thought that anyone could become an excellent teacher without going through education programs.
If you've spent time on university campuses lately, you probably know the answer. Teach for America -- the privately funded program that sends college grads into America's poorest school districts for two years -- received 35,000 applications this year, up 42% from 2008. More than 11% of Ivy League seniors applied, including 35% of African-American seniors at Harvard. Teach for America has been gaining applicants since it was founded in 1990, but its popularity has exploded this year amid a tight job market.
So poor urban and rural school districts must be rejoicing, right? Hardly. Union and bureaucratic opposition is so strong that Teach for America is allotted a mere 3,800 teaching slots nationwide, or a little more than one in 10 of this year's applicants. Districts place a cap on the number of Teach for America teachers they will accept, typically between 10% and 30% of new hires. In the Washington area, that number is about 25% to 30%, but in Chicago, former home of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, it is an embarrassing 10%.
This is a tragic lost opportunity. Teach for America picks up the $20,000 tab for the recruitment and training of each teacher, which saves public money. More important, the program feeds high-energy, high-IQ talent into a teaching profession that desperately needs it. Unions claim the recent grads lack the proper experience and commitment to a teaching career. But the Urban Institute has studied the program and found that "TFA status more than offsets any experience effects. Disadvantaged secondary students would be better off with TFA teachers, especially in math and science, than with fully licensed in-field teachers with three or more years of experience."I went through an education school because, at the time I became a teacher, there were few opportunities for lateral entry. I can well understand why someone would seek another way to become a teacher without sitting through useless classes. I've never met any teacher who thought that ed classes were of any value to them as teachers. Anything valuable that I learned in the program could have been summarized in a few weeks in a summer workshop. Which is, coincidentally, the training that is given to TFA teachers. I have known several TFA teachers and they have all, uniformly, been dedicated and talented teachers. What a shame that there should be artificial limits placed on the number of such teachers allowed in any school district. Why have we allowed our education system to have gotten into the state that the interests of the teachers unions is what drives policy in our schools?
It's true that only 10% of Teach for America applicants say they would have gone into education through another route, but two-thirds stay in the field after their two years. One program benefit is that its participants don't have to pass the dreadful "education" courses that have nothing to do with what they'll be teaching. Those courses are loved by unions as a credentialing barrier that makes it harder to get into teaching.
UPDATE: Here's a story from Boston on the resistance to TFA teachers in light of the cuts necessitated by the recession.
Boston officials say the recruits will help fill 100 to 200 vacancies created by retirements and resignations in subjects or grade levels where layoffs will not occur. Those slots cannot go to the teachers losing their jobs in other program areas, they said, because they lack proper state certification to teach in those disciplines.Consider that languate - "educational mercenaries." Is that the language of someone who has the best interests of the students in mind or preserving jobs of union members? Perhaps it would help to read some of these points from a Myth vs Realities argument from Teach for America advocates. And also the results of research into the efficacy of the program. Perhaps there is something in the idea that putting an intelligent and dedicated teacher with a degree in the subject being taught in a classroom might outrank putting someone with an education degree, but no degree in the content into the classroom. This is one advantage that charter schools have over the traditional public schools; they can hire teachers who follow a less conventional pathway to the classroom. It is time for state legislatures to, as the Detroit News editorializes for Michigan's legislature, to loosen up restrictions on how one may become a teacher.
While Teach for America recruits are not fully certified, they often have a bachelor's degree in the subjects they are asked to teach, arming them with greater content knowledge than, perhaps, a veteran teacher who did not major in that subject in college.
"We absolutely do not plan to bring recruits into program areas where we would have layoffs," said William Horwath, acting assistant superintendent for human resources in the Boston public schools.
The argument reflects a national debate over Teach for America, a nearly 20-year-old community service program that enlists soon-to-be college graduates into the teaching ranks with the hope that they make the profession a career. This year the program has experienced a 42 percent surge in applications as college seniors, some inspired by President Obama's call to public service, confront one of the worst job markets in years.
But many teachers' unions and some education observers accuse the recruits of merely padding their resume and then fleeing the classroom at the expiration of their two-year commitment. That has prompted some critics to dub the program "teach for a while." They contend that the recruits lack proper training because most have not gone through traditional teacher training programs in college, instead receiving just five intensive weeks of summer training.
In Detroit, the teachers' union is trying to block an effort by some education advocacy groups to revive that city's Teach for America program after it shut down about five years ago amid municipal budget cuts, shrinking school enrollment, and fierce union opposition.
"We don't need educational mercenaries," said Keith Johnson, the union's president. "We don't feel people can ride in on their white horses and for two years share the virtue of their knowledge as a pit stop on their way to becoming corporate executives. Some don't last their first year."
In spite of teacher layoffs sweeping across the country, the program expects to fill a slightly higher number of slots in the fall, including its first positions in Cambridge and Chelsea. Union officials in those two cities could not be reached for comment.
Many school districts find the program extremely helpful in recruiting teachers for hard-to-fill areas - such as math, science, special education, and English as a second language instruction - or tough classroom assignments at low-performing schools, where students with a host of needs can create educational and disciplinary challenges.
In an Urban Institute study that examined North Carolina high schools between 2000 and 2007, Teach for America recruits were found to be more effective than teachers from traditional teacher training schools in boosting student achievement. The report, released this month, attributed some success to the strong academic credentials of the recruits, but acknowledged that many of the recruits teach for only a few years.
New Detroit Federation of Teachers union President Keith Johnson often says he wants the most talented teachers in Detroit classrooms. He needs to back up his verbal commitment with action. He can start by supporting Teach for America.Amen! Ask any experienced teacher about those ed classes they took and whether that material could have been successfully condensed into a summer program.
A trickier obstacle: Michigan doesn't allow people to become teachers through an alternative pathway such as Teach for America's rigorous training program, rather than a traditional teacher certification program. (The nonprofit wants such a pathway because many of its members still want to teach after they finish their two-year service.)
Granholm should push policymakers to quickly address this problem by pointing out that traditional teacher-preparation programs do not equate with teacher quality.
Michigan should be moving toward a teacher certification system that weighs teachers' impact on student achievement, rather than on the classes that they take.
As the Washington Post noted in December, applicants for the program are way up in part due to the economy, but also because of the program's record as one of the premier outlets for young people who want to become involved in helping helping others.
"Teach for America may fit a perfect niche," said Peter Levine, director of a research center on civic engagement at Tufts University. "You get to work on a social problem on the public payroll, but you're going through a nonprofit, which many young people prefer to working for the government."Our leaders are always talking about the importance of young people learning to give back to their communities as well as the crucial role of teachers in our society. Let them now put their votes where their mouths are and drop restrictions that limit this estimable program. And while they're at, they could consider why the education establishment is putting up roadblocks to this worthy program.
Here is more on TFA and the Detroit schools from The Blog Prof.