Teach for America heads the class

Dec. 16, 2010, 12:02 p.m. | By Natalie Rutsch | 13 years, 6 months ago

College graduates improve education in low-income districts

When an educator brings up school reform, the words "achievement gap" are never far behind. In a time when a dismal half of low-income students graduate high school, the need for dramatic educational reform has never been more urgent.

In his Nov. 18 visit to Blair, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed Teach for America (TFA), a program aimed at closing this achievement gap. TFA places America's best and brightest college graduates, carefully selected from a pool of nearly 50,000 applicants in 2010, on two-year paid teaching assignments in low-income rural and urban school districts. While TFA isn't a sufficient solution on its own for America's educational conundrum, TFA is undoubtedly a worthwhile initiative, a positive step toward improving schools.

Unlike Duncan, some educators criticize TFA as a "resume builder," a program for unprepared college students uncommitted to the educational field. But TFA selects top college graduates and gives recruits training and support. Success rates in the classroom attest to the qualification of TFA corps members. The TFA impact is two-fold: It both addresses the immediate need for teachers and gives college graduates an invaluable perspective on America's educational needs. After their experiences in TFA, corps members can continue to create positive change in the educational sphere or use their understanding of scholastic shortcomings to effect change in other fields.

Samir Paul, an '06 Blair alumnus, is in the midst of his first year of a TFA assignment in District of Columbia Public Schools. Like some TFA corps members, Paul is not an education major. Instead, he and many other corps members come with a high content knowledge in the specific subject they teach. Paul studied computer science at Harvard University, which he said gave him a solid math background to teach Algebra II and other math courses in his D.C. high school. In addition, Paul is currently in graduate studies in education at American University. In most states, corps members must take ongoing coursework at a local college or university while teaching or pass a content-knowledge test and/or have taken specific college courses to complete a major or minor.

With a college education, TFA recruits don't go into their teaching positions blind. Also, the program helps prepare corps members and support them throughout their assignment. The summer before they begin teaching, TFA members go through a summer institute, which Paul described as an intensive educational crash course. TFA corps members spend five weeks in educational courses and gaining first-hand experience in a summer-school classroom. And during assignments, corps members are well supported. "There are no fewer than five or six people I could go to for advice, resources and ideas," Paul said. His support system includes mentors in his school and in TFA.

As with traditionally certified teachers, there are both effective and ineffective TFA teachers, but success rates do look favorably upon the corps members. According to a 2008 study from the Urban Institute, data from North Carolina high school students found that students taught by TFA teachers performed better on state-required final exams compared to students taught by regular teachers, particularly in science and math.

TFA teachers also make an impact in education after their two-year teaching assignments have ended. According to a 2008 Harvard University study, 60.5 percent of TFA corps members voluntarily remained in the teaching profession for more than their assigned two years and 35.5 percent stayed in teaching for more than four years. Additionally, 43.6 percent of TFA corps members voluntarily remained in the low-income schools where they were initially placed for more than two years, a sign that TFA graduates are interested in helping the neediest districts.

Even those who don't continue to work in education leave the program with an educator's perspective. A significant argument in educational reform is that in order for schools to improve, communities surrounding poorly performing schools must change. Equipped with an understanding of the problems students face, TFA alumni who go into non-education fields can make the changes to the courts, doctors' offices, markets, churches and community centers that will contribute to successful schools. "Part of the point of Teach for America is that not everyone will stay in education," said Paul.

For example, a 2009 alumni report reveals over 500 TFA alumni serving in government, politics or advocacy. There are at least 500 people working to make high-level changes who have been on the front lines of America's toughest public schools and won't easily forget their TFA experiences or America's educational reform needs.

Teach for America isn't the be all and end all of educational reform. But with a young, driven teaching force that can effect change in the classroom and the community, it is a step in the right direction.

Natalie Rutsch. Page editor More »

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