A lesson for Teach For America

By Simon Brown / Columnist

On the first Monday after finals week, the Pitt population experienced its first official day of winter break, and the first unofficial day of “application season,” when students frantically prepare for internship, fellowship and job hunting. No doubt, a considerable number joined the 50,000 students nationwide competing for the coveted Teach for America positions, inspired by the group’s message of educational equity.

On the same day, the microphones at the meeting of the Pittsburgh Public Schools yielded over and over to parents and teachers demanding the district rescind its recent contract with Teach for America, all in the name of educational equity. 

The speakers had their way. Two days later, the newly seated board revoked the contract, which would have employed thirty Teach For America corps members — college graduates with seven weeks of classroom training — as teachers in the district. 

Why, then, does an organization so committed to an equal education for under-resourced schools face such strict opposition from the parents and teachers most concerned for the future of their community schools? The answer lies not in the organization’s motives, but in its methods. If Teach For America wants legitimacy in the communities it takes such pride in serving, it needs to work beside, not against, other teachers.  

The Teach for America program began in 1990 as an avenue to fill under-staffed and under-funded public schools with accomplished college graduates, regardless of their teaching credentials. Unlike the vast majority of certified teachers, these corps members do not progress through the intensive student-teaching requirements for a degree in education. 

Despite limited credentials, corps members receive a salary comparable to any incoming teacher — but the cost of hiring to the university is significantly reduced. Multi-million dollar donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation foot much of the bill for participating districts.

When the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors signed the initial contract in November, it agreed to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 for each fully compensated corps member. 

To the superintendent and supportive board members, this presented a golden opportunity to hire much-needed science teachers on a dwindling budget. 

To the majority of the board, however, this posed only another cost-cutting excuse to place unprepared 22-year-olds at the head of classes that require more experience and confidence than any other. 

Ultimately, the people of Pittsburgh spoke in tune with the board. Clearly, for all its noble intentions, Teach For America  cannot rely on its low-cost contracts to garner approval from parents and teachers. Rather, the program and its supporters must seriously consider the objections of the community rather than writing them off as the political motives of the teachers’ union.

These objections are understandable, especially considering the  demands of parents sending students to low-income neighborhood schools. A study conducted last year by Great Public Schools, a local education advocacy group avowedly opposed to Teach For America, found that nine out of ten community members polled responded that “experienced teachers are very important to the success of a school.” 

Though Teach For America corps members can certainly be effective teachers, it’s not clear that seven weeks of training is adequate experience.

The public’s emphasis on experience corresponds to a concern about stability. The Teach For America program works largely on a two-year contract after which a majority of students leave the program, though a significant number remain in educational professions. Nevertheless, the corps works exclusively in low-income districts, which see the highest turnover of teachers from all backgrounds because of the challenges that come with teaching students who have little access to state or federal aid.

Not only can a committed teacher develop sustaining relationships with students, which can benefit them all through high school or middle school, but they can also improve overall education, according to a Stanford University report.

Why, critics ask, would a program that is noncommittal by nature take responsibility for schools that already suffer from high teacher turnover?

To assuage both concerns, Teach For America should follow the example of other teaching programs for college graduates such as Blue Engine in New York City and City Year, which place corps members alongside teachers rather than in lieu of them. Both programs stress collaboration by employing corps members for one-on-one tutoring with students during and outside class time. 

Moreover, a reorganized strategy such as this would ease Teach For America’s entrance to any community reluctant to put its 18-year-old children solely in the care of a 22-year-old corps member. It wouldn’t jeopardize the basic mission of the program. Talented graduates will still have the opportunity to teach in a classroom, receive feedback from a seasoned educator, combat school overcrowding and, ultimately, take responsibility for a class. 

Perhaps then, parents, teachers and corps members will all mean the same thing when they say educational equity.

Write Simon at [email protected].