Why Teach for America works
Twenty years after the program started, Teach for America is still producing teachers. The program could hold clues into how to improve the US education system in general.
This story was originally covered by PRI's Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.
"You are quite evidently deranged," Wendy Kopp's thesis advisor told her when she came up with the idea for Teach for America (TFA). Two decades later, the program operates on a $212 million budget and has a staff of 12,000.
The organization, whose goal is to "eliminate inequality in schools," hasn't survived without controversy. Many complain about the short training period that new teachers receive -- just five weeks. TFA teachers sign a two-year commitment and receive the same salary and benefits as teachers with a master's in education. Some union teachers have filed lawsuits to curtail the program, saying they are being "squeezed out of jobs."
Teach for America works because the program hires strong teachers, according to Andrew Rotherham, New York Times educational columnist, Eduwonk blogger, and educational consultant at Bellwether Education. He acknowledges that the program is not fail-proof, but says the teachers hired through TFA do as well or better than the average teacher in a similar high-poverty school. "And I think this has less to do with the Teach for America, per se, than just the generally poor quality of teacher selection and teacher preparation. What you're really seeing, I think, in the data, is that Teach for America does a good job in a field that largely does a bad job."
He explains that the method through which people become teachers in the US is problematic. "Abundant research shows the route into teaching is less important than the candidate," Rotherham says. "And considering the amount of money we put into teacher licensure and teacher preparation, we need to be talking about a much different way of doing this. Policies are really disconnected from what we know from the research right now."
Many of the complaints about the Teach for America program are actually general complaints about starting a career in teaching. Teach for America teachers leave the field at the same rate as the average teacher in the same high-poverty school district.
Rotherham continues the parallel:
Teachers in general say they don't get enough support in their first couple years. The common surveys show this again and again. This is irrespective of route. They traditionally get the hardest assignments because of the way seniority works. So, you're coming into it, you're not well supported, and you're often getting the most challenging students and situations within a school. So, TFA's programs, I think, and their initiatives are admirable.
Rotherham would like to see the "quite evidently deranged" experiment taken further:
What would happen if you coupled TFA's selection model with even more ambitious training, more ambitious support? What might the results look like? We don't know, and in part, we don't know because we have this unwillingness of the education establishment to really engage -- have these conversations and see what we can learn and what we can do better. And instead, it's just this back and forth attack year after year after year, and it's incredibly counter-productive.
"Here and Now" is an essential midday news magazine for those who want the latest news and expanded conversation on today's hot-button topics: public affairs, foreign policy, science and technology, the arts and more.More "Here and Now".