Has Teach for America betrayed its mission?

Thu Aug 16, 2012 2:16am EDT

Trainee math teacher Mia Shaw from the Teach for America program teaches a class at George Washington Carver Middle School in Los Angeles, California July 18, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Trainee math teacher Mia Shaw from the Teach for America program teaches a class at George Washington Carver Middle School in Los Angeles, California July 18, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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(Reuters) - When Wendy Kopp, just out of Princeton, founded Teach for America in 1989, she dreamed of recruiting 500 elite college graduates to teach the nation's neediest children. "My dear Miss Kopp," a college advisor told her, "you are quite evidently deranged."

Kopp pressed on, and this fall Teach for America will send a record 10,000 teachers into classrooms from New York to California. The nonprofit boasts $300 million in assets and collects tens of millions a year in public funds, even at a time of steep cuts to education budgets. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praises it for having "made teaching cool again." And TFA veterans have emerged as the most influential leaders of a bipartisan education reform movement.

But critics, including a handful of disillusioned alumni, contend that policies promoted by TFA-trained reformers threaten to damage the very schools they once set out to save. They argue, too, that TFA's relentless push to expand has betrayed its founding ideals.

The organization that was launched to serve public schools so poor or dysfunctional they couldn't attract qualified teachers now sends fully a third of its recruits to privately run charter schools, many with stellar academic reputations, flush budgets and wealthy donors. TFA also sends its rookies, who typically have just 15 to 20 hours of teaching experience, to districts that have recently laid off scores of more seasoned teachers.

Meanwhile, TFA has backed away from a claim that nearly half its teachers achieve outstanding academic gains with students, leaving the pivotal question of its effectiveness unresolved.

Camika Royal, who taught for TFA and has worked for them in various capacities for 13 years, says she once believed the organization's goal was to strengthen troubled schools. Now she fears it is feeding a perception that public education is in ruins, and only an elite cavalry can rescue America's children.

"I can't stand the self-importance," Royal said.

RECRUITING AND FUNDING

In the early years, TFA nearly collapsed several times from insolvency. Then it began to land grants from corporations and foundations. Among its biggest funders: the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune.

A tax exempt nonprofit, TFA reported annual operating surpluses of $35 million, $114 million and $37 million in its last three federal filings.

Kopp, who earns $375,000 a year, supervises 1,800 employees -- including a small army of recruiters. Eager to bring in more low-income and minority candidates, TFA no longer sticks to elite colleges; recruiters also urge veterans and mid-career professionals to apply. TFA retains its competitive prestige by rejecting 90 percent of applicants.

The recruits are paid a standard starting salary by their school district during their two-year teaching stint.

To offset costs, TFA requires each district that hires its teachers to pay it a negotiated fee, typically $2,000 to $5,000 per teacher per year. Before agreeing to send recruits to a region, TFA often lines up additional subsidies from local businesses, philanthropies or state government.

In Mississippi, for instance, TFA laid out a plan to send 700 recruits to the impoverished Delta -- but said it would need $12 million from the state, plus $3,000 per teacher from local school districts, to subsidize that growth. The legislature came up with just $6 million this year, enough to bring in 370 teachers. Still, local TFA director Ron Nurnberg said he considered that a victory, given that the state was "cutting everyone else's budget."

A few states have recently reduced grants to TFA because of fiscal pressures, but taxpayer funding still brought in $64 million in fiscal year 2009-10, about a third of TFA's revenue, tax records show.

The teachers' unions and some community leaders argue that public money could be better spent at a time when schools are laying off teachers and cutting academic programs.

TFA supporters disagree. "It's an incredibly good investment," said John White, a TFA alumnus who now runs the education department in Louisiana.

DISPUTED DATA

Within three years, TFA aims to have 15,000 recruits in the field, teaching 930,000 kids. In support of that goal, the Obama administration awarded TFA a five-year, $50 million federal grant in 2010.

To get the grant, TFA presented internal data showing that 41 percent of its first-year teachers and 53 percent of its second-year teachers advanced their students' performance by an impressive 1.5 to 2 years in a single school year.

But TFA's former research director, Heather Harding, told Reuters these statistics were unreliable. Only 15 percent of TFA recruits teach subjects and grades that are assessed by state standardized tests. So to measure growth, many teachers rely on assessments they design themselves.

That means the teacher efficacy claim "is not a particularly rigorous statistic," said Harding, now a senior vice president at TFA. "I don't think it stands up to external research scrutiny."

External research has been decidedly mixed.

TFA touts a 2004 study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc in which nearly 2,000 students in 17 low-performing elementary schools were randomly assigned a TFA recruit or another teacher. Many teachers in the control group at these troubled schools were not well-trained, the study noted.

Students in TFA classes did better in math than their peers, gaining the equivalent of an extra month of instruction, though they still ranked in the bottom fifth of students nationally. TFA teachers had no impact on reading.

Other studies have shown that TFA teachers depress young students' reading scores. Harding said TFA has improved training for recruits who will be teaching reading because it has been a "problem spot."

A study last year in Tennessee shows how hard it is to draw a bead on TFA effectiveness. TFA recruits assigned to teach kids ages 9 through 13 in Memphis outshone even veteran teachers in raising test scores in all subjects. Those teaching older kids didn't. In Nashville, TFA teachers boosted high-school algebra scores but had no impact on middle-school math or reading.

TFA says the best indication of its success is its annual survey of principals. About 90 percent report that TFA rookies on their staff are at least as good as veteran teachers. Nearly half say they're better.

CRASH COURSE

The enthusiasm of TFA recruits was on display last month at a training camp in Los Angeles where 22-year-old Kelli Schultz bounded around a summer-school classroom coaxing 12-year-olds to discuss narrative tone. Schultz can't wait for her full-time job so she can try out TFA tips like promising students a pizza party if they outperform a rival school on standardized tests.

"I don't know my students yet," she said, "but I love them already."

Conventional teacher training programs require hundreds of hours of student teaching. TFA recruits teach one summer-school class a day for four weeks, not necessarily in the subject area or age group they will be handling in the fall. Veteran teachers observe from the back but do not intervene (though some can't resist holding up notes urging the rookies to explain a point more clearly or discipline a wayward student).

Recruits also spend hours in workshops and coaching sessions to learn skills like lesson planning and classroom management.

Midway through the five-week training, Mia Shaw, a 22-year-old Stanford graduate, projected calm authority as her students breezed through an algebra worksheet. A TFA coach praised her rapport with the kids but fretted that she hadn't prepared them for the tougher questions on state tests.

Down the hall, Juan Salinas, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, was struggling to engage his class in a discussion on punchy writing. No one would speak up. "For a dollar?" he finally pleaded, drawing a few hands.

TFA recruits teach everything from phonics to physics to special education for the learning disabled.

About 90 percent complete their two-year commitment, TFA reports. TFA does not have firm statistics on how many stay in teaching beyond that.

Concerns about minimal training and rapid turnover have led some parents and politicians to try, usually without success, to block TFA from their districts. "They get their badge of honor teaching for two years and they leave," said Jitu Brown, a community activist in Chicago.

'SHOCK TROOPS' FOR CHARTERS

TFA's rapid growth has left it "scrambling for every placement," Kopp said. Increasingly, that's meant sending recruits to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

TFA placed 33 percent of recruits in charters last year, up from 13 percent in 2007-8. This year's figures are not yet available.

At Rocketship Education's charter elementary schools in California, 85 of 108 teachers are either TFA recruits or recent alumni. So are a third of teachers at the much larger KIPP network. KIPP was founded by two TFA alumni and is run by Kopp's husband, Richard Barth.

Critics, led by unionized teachers, find TFA's embrace of charters troubling.

They point out that the charters with the strongest academic results often have vastly more resources than neighborhood schools, thanks to deep-pocketed donors. They serve predominantly low-income kids, but as a whole their populations tend to be less disadvantaged and more motivated. When these charter students ring up good test scores, nearby public schools look increasingly bad by comparison, which can feed momentum to shut them down, fire their teachers, or turn them over to private management.

That cycle leads Michael Fiorillo, a teacher and union activist in New York, to charge that TFA recruits "are being used as shock troops to privatize public education."

TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein sees the shift to charters as a betrayal of the mission.

"When I entered TFA, we wanted to be on the front lines. We wouldn't have accepted a job teaching in a school that was doing well," said Rubinstein, who now teaches math in a top-performing New York school.

Kopp says there was an intense debate at TFA about placing recruits in charters. She ultimately concluded it was wise.

One reason: TFA aims to turn recruits into leaders who will drive "transformational change" in education. Charter placements let them see what is possible in a high-performing urban school, Kopp said.

LEADERSHIP PIPELINE

TFA has been astoundingly successful in its mission to develop leaders.

Alumni, many still in their mid-20s, serve as principals at scores of charter schools. They run nearly 100 public school systems, including districts in Washington D.C. and Newark, New Jersey, and state education departments in Tennessee and Louisiana.

They also drive some of the most influential education advocacy groups, such as StudentsFirst, founded by TFA alumna Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools.

Rhee and other TFA alumni promote a common set of policies: expand the number of charter schools; abolish or weaken tenure; tie teachers' jobs and pay to their effectiveness at raising student test scores.

Union leaders reject the reform agenda, saying it won't work and simply serves to scapegoat teachers. They push instead for a renewed focus on what they see as the biggest obstacle to academic success: poverty.

But TFA refuses to accept poverty as an excuse, arguing that any kid can succeed if teachers demand and relentlessly pursue excellence.

"I'm here to tell these kids that they have potential. They haven't been told that before," said Hsuanwei Fan, 22, who will be teaching science in Los Angeles.

TFA reformers often refer to their own accomplishments as they work to shut schools and oust teachers who don't measure up.

"When you experience success with a group of students who typically are assumed to not be able to achieve at high levels ... it becomes impossible to accept when other people make excuses," said Kevin Huffman, who taught 5- and 6-year-olds in Houston for TFA in the early 1990s.

Huffman, now the education commissioner in Tennessee, recalls that he worked ferociously, 60 and more hours a week, to boost his students' test scores. That was possible for a driven 22-year-old who knew he would only be teaching a few years. It would be much harder, he acknowledged, for a mid-career teacher with a family.

Still, Huffman remains convinced the lessons he learned at TFA can transform public education, if he can just figure out how to scale them. It is, he said, "a heck of a challenge."

(Editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther)

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