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Reading the Small Print: NCLB Declares Teach for America

Ohanian Comment: Buried in this story is this interesting piece of information: Philadelphia plans to add 120 Teach for America teachers next school year. Under federal law, TFA teachers count as highly qualified, which helps the district meet requirements. Interesting, The Feds don't regard Vermont's teacher of the year, who went on to become the national teacher of the year, as "highly qualified."

Teach For America brings bright, energetic college graduates into tough, inner-city schools to fill teaching positions that otherwise might be vacant, but it has its shortcomings.

The national program, which is new to the Philadelphia School District this year, encourages turnover in schools that can least afford it by asking its recruits to commit to stay for only two years, according to a new book on the program. And it suffers from a "cultural divide" because few members come from low economic backgrounds like those of their students.

These are among the assessments in lessons to learn: voices from the front lines of teach for america, written by Molly Ness, a former teacher in the Oakland, Calif., corps. She interviewed more than 100 corps members based at schools around the country.

Ness, 26, said in an interview this week that, despite some weaknesses, Teach For America overall was positively affecting the nation's education system. Most members have college degrees in areas other than education and have little to no teaching experience before enrolling in the program.

"These are classrooms that couldn't fill vacancies," said Ness, a doctoral student in literacy education at the University of Virginia. "And now we have lots of people competing for positions."

Teach For America was started in 1989 by Wendy Kopp, a Princeton grad who created a national teacher corps to help the nation's poorest urban and rural schools. The initial 1990 corps attracted 2,500 applicants for 500 positions in six regions. In 2002, the organization received 16,000 applications for 1,700 positions in 20 areas, including New York, Chicago and Miami.

Ness added that many alumni go on to other education-related jobs, carrying with them the group's message on closing the achievement gap among racial and economic groups. One former member successfully organized a slate of candidates, including himself, to take over a school board. Others have opened charter schools, worked in medical clinics, and established credit unions in low-income areas.

"TFA is affecting systemic change from all these different areas of society," she said. "We're just starting to see this trickle-down effect."

TFA brought 118 teachers to Philadelphia's hardest-to-staff schools in the fall. Seventeen - about 14 percent - have since quit. That compares with 83 of the more than 1,100 regular district teachers hired this year - about 7 percent - who have quit, said Tomas Hanna, the district's director of teacher recruitment and retention.

In the organization's defense, Hanna said its teachers were in the most difficult teaching assignments. Because placement is largely ruled by seniority, vacancies typically occur in these schools.

Hanna said principals were pleased with TFA: "Even when they struggle, these are kids who try to figure it out."

The district has about 50 teaching vacancies, compared with about 100 this time last year, he said, crediting TFA with helping to close the gap.

Hanna said the district would add 120 TFA members next school year. Under federal law, TFA teachers count as highly qualified, which helps the district meet requirements.

Ness, author of lessons to learn, said Teach For America should ask members to stay longer than two years. She quoted a principal: "Teaching is a profession that requires five years to learn."

Ness also said teachers needed more support and training once they were in their schools.

And she said the organization discouraged members from feeling down about the circumstances in which they are teaching: "TFA sometimes has this notion that if we hold our students to high expectations, that's all we need to ensure success."

More than 30 percent of Teach for America recruits are minorities, but the group must work to diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of its members, she said.

"We're taking for the most part young, upper-middle class, highly educated, often white people who have kind of no cultural connect to the problems that are specific to East Oakland," she said of the California corps.

TFA spokeswoman Melissa Golden said the group supported Ness' efforts to write a balanced report, but disagreed with some of the criticism.

The organization requires a two-year commitment because it is trying "to build a movement to eliminate education inequity in our country." It encourages its alumni to move on to fields related to that mission.

She also said a 2003 survey showed that more than two-thirds of principals believed TFA members were better trained than other new teachers, while nine out of 10 said that TFA training was at least as good.

— Susan Snyder
The hits and misses of Teach For America
Philadelphia Inquirer


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