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Considering the Alternatives

  • leeandclass

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The School Reform Commission has just voted to renew contracts for The New Teacher Project and Teach for America, a month after tabling similar resolutions. The two programs, aimed at placing new teachers in challenging schools, are part of an ongoing attempt to recruit and certify teachers in non-traditional ways.

Alternative certification came of age in the late '80s and early '90s when high teacher turnover and White flight from cities left urban districts largely non-White and poor.  Some new teachers opted to teach in suburban districts for higher pay or more support. Others left the profession altogether. Many alternative certification programs were created to address the demand for teachers in high-need areas.

Teach for America will celebrate its 20th group of new teachers this year.  The brainchild of then-Princeton senior Wendy Kopp, its mission is to narrow achievement gaps by placing high-achieving recent college grads in traditionally underserved schools.  The new teachers, called “corps members,” (CMs) attend a 5-week summer institute before starting to teach in the fall.  I joined the New York City corps in 2002.

The highly-selective program boasts that its recruits measure up: a recent study suggests that student outcomes are three times greater than a veteran teacher. TFA’s high visibility and status draw graduates from all disciplines who might have otherwise never have considered the profession.  At times this advances an any-bright-person-can-do-it mindset that rubs traditional educators the wrong way, at least initially.  What’s more, new corps members also have the benefit of a tight alumni network and elite university partnerships in exchange for committing to work at their assigned placements for two years.  With such brief training and short commitments, programs like TFA spark debate over new teacher quality and retention.

Though TFA assigns corps members to difficult schools, it’s often these schools where teacher know-how is most vital. To their credit, CMs receive support from their university classes as well as ongoing professional development through TFA and the school district.  In some cities, corps members work with a mentor as well.  But even with all of this assistance, intern-certified teachers may not be equipped to handle the dilemmas that surface from learning as they go.

As a former corps member and a current TFA mentor, I’ve witnessed how the scenario plays out in real time.  Corps members, mostly young and white, descend on schools in low-income areas to “do their time.”  Some do it well; some quit.  Others stay on and tread water, counting the days until their commitment ends.  Either way, after two years the vast majority of schools are left hunting for teachers again. 

TFA pushes corps members to achieve measurable gains. But I wonder about the results that can’t be measured: humility and respect for communities and families, for example, or the impact of loss once teachers complete their commitment.

Are programs like Teach for America essentially revolving doors for folks more interested in a community service experience than an ongoing allegiance to teaching? Do they in any way address the problem that the neediest schools are often left with teachers who have the least expertise? It truly seems like a catch-22: tough schools with vacancies must either opt for a new teacher or be faced with the possibility of having no teacher at all.

What are your thoughts on alternative certification programs like TFA?  We invite you to weigh in here. You can also email me at aleshaj@thenotebook.org.

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