A superb teacher can change a life for the better. A poor teacher, and worse, a series of poor teachers, can have a substantial negative impact on a child and that child's academic potential. It is very difficult to correct the educational damage inflicted upon students who have several poor teachers in a row.
Like No Child Left Behind, it is easy to applaud the concept of Teach for America. Both titles bespeak what our nation claims to stand for in education: a passion for imparting knowledge to all our children, equity for all students' performance, and dedication and commitment from instructors to the ideals of universal education across the country.
Teach for America does get high marks in several areas. It has brought attention to the pervasive need for high quality teachers. Its innovative use of marketing has helped our entire country, and certainly our policy leaders, realize that there is a shortage of qualified teachers, especially in urban and rural areas.
Thanks to the level of attention generated in part by Teach for America, much-needed philanthropy is helping to fill this gap in quality. Foundations and other philanthropic organizations have shown themselves more than willing to provide funds to support and improve the state of America's educational system. Funding for education has also come from major corporations like Cisco, Visa, FedEx Corporation, Bank of America, GE and Google.
Teach for America has not, however, emerged as the panacea for our country's ailing educational system as many had hoped when it was launched with great fanfare almost 20 years ago. And under its current structure it cannot be viewed as the key weapon in President Obama and Secretary Duncan's education arsenal.
While its critics within traditional education circles have blasted Teacher for America for its superficial pre-service preparation, it is its lack of commitment to retaining recruits that is more troubling. No organization can thrive if it is constantly recruiting and training its core employees, no matter how smart or dedicated they are as novices.
Although some Teach for America recruits are committed to a career in education, they are the exception rather than the rule. The program has been organized as a short-term, résumé-building stint, rather than a program that develops teachers for the long haul. According to TFA, only one out of 10 incoming members says that teaching is a top career option. Since its inception in 1990, TFA has brought more than 20,000 individuals into classrooms. Today only 6,200 members are teaching.
It has been shown that teachers, like all professionals, become more effective the more they practice, particularly when given consistent mentoring and focused feedback about their performance. Many studies have shown that it is around year four that teachers become proficient in the complex nature of teaching their subject matter effectively to the students in their classes.
Teach for America recruits are only required to commit to two years. To be as effective as it should and could be, Teach for America should ask its recruits to commit for at least three years, and the organization needs to be held accountable for retention. One method of achieving this would be to have TFA require its teachers repay any funds they have received if they leave earlier.
It must also be noted, and applauded, that Teach for America has drawn from the ranks of intelligent, successful students from premier universities who are willing to spend some time in the profession of teaching. The corps members of Teach for America come from a rich variety of backgrounds, majors and career interests, and they have demonstrated high levels of past achievement in academics, extracurricular activities and/or work and family responsibilities. For example, according to Teach for America, the average GPA for a recruit in 2008 was 3.6.
If only we could turn these talented, committed and high achieving college graduates into teachers for the long haul. How do we inspire them to make that commitment, provide the tools and the training necessary to do it effectively, and then compensate them adequately for excellent work?
We have been concentrating on the wrong questions. It is beside the point to ask whether Teach for America is better or worse than the traditional School of Education route. The point is whether students are learning. President Obama, Secretary of Education Duncan and other educational policy makers should demand evidence of effective, sustained learning for students as a basis for increased federal funding. What is important is to examine the effectiveness of specific instructional strategies and then look at who is delivering those strategies.