Teach for America Targets Low Performing Schools

A group of enthusiastic new teachers from Teach for America are trying to break through the reading math barrier where veteran teachers have failed.

In the next few years, with a $50 million federal boost, Teach for America recruits could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation’s highest need school districts, writes Christine Armario at the Associated Press.

“These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers,” said Julian Davenport, an assistant principal at Holmes Elementary, where three-fifths of the staff this year are Teach for America corps members or graduates of the program.

But there have been mixed results, with many comparing the quality of the Teach for America teachers as that of a regular novice.

“I think ultimately the jury is out,” said Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an instructor to the first class of TFA corps members.

But this is a big issue. A Harvard study of students in Texas found that a teacher’s level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a greater influence on student performance than any other factor.  While research from North Carolina on teacher training programs showed that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.

Teachers, however, have to train somewhere — and Teach for America teachers are praised for their work with both poor and special education students. Critics believe the high turnover rate married with limited training perpetuates the same inequalities that Teach for America has set to eradicate.

There’s no doubt that programs like Teach for America are growing in popularity, as applications for slots have doubled since 2008. Over the past two decades, there have been thousands of college graduates that have taught for two years in some of the most challenging classrooms in the country.

And the system looks to grow internationally, as with Teach for America’s guidance, groups are being established in India, Chile and other places with deep educational inequalities.

“There’s no question that they’ve brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA.

Most countries, including those where students perform higher in math and reading, send the strongest and most experienced teachers to work with the lowest performing students, writes Armario.

“The U.S. has done the reverse.”

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