Alums Take on Failing Schools

“Wrapped up in math tutoring right now; think I could call you at around nine?” asked Kelly Gleischman, a first-year Teach For America (TFA) corps member. Gleischman was busy with after-school teaching at Hyde Middle School in Washington, D.C. all Friday night.

Luke Henesy ‘10, another first-year corps member, was similarly engaged. He was running from Boston’s Paul Revere High School to dinner with friends, but then he would hit the sack. Hensey promised he’d be free Saturday morning to speak about his TFA experience.

An organization that values perseverance and high expectations over formal teaching credentials, Teach for America has been attracting an ambitious lot. TFA corps members, who in 2009 had an average GPA of 3.6, commit to at least two years of teaching in one of 130 under-performing schools across the nation.

But do students fresh out of college have what it takes to teach under-privileged kids from the nation’s lowest-performing schools?

“I never could have imagined how hard teaching would be,” said Katie Noble ’10. Noble graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford with University Distinction. She currently teaches biology and chemistry to upperclassmen at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy.

Gleischman affirmed that TFA is the most challenging experience she has ever had. Nevertheless, she puts her personal struggles in the classroom into perspective. “Educational inequity is one of the greatest civil rights issues we’re facing as a country – and is thus one of the most pressing issues of our generation,” she stated.

After completing a five-week training program known as summer institute, TFA corps members dive into their new teaching roles. Henesy, who teaches algebra and applied math, believes that summer institute adequately prepared him for the journey ahead. He stated that over the summer he “taught kids who’d already had a go at it, and didn’t pass. It’s a TFAer’s job, without having much teaching experience, to get students to pass. Corps members are able to do this, and the success stories were so inspiring and numerous that we definitely had to have been doing something right.”

Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford School of Education, commended corps members for their dedication. She stated that “many will be in leadership roles in their community, and many will understand deeply some of the challenges of urban education. Hands-on, real-life experience is powerful if you are going to be in a position of policy changing.”

However, TFA critics contest whether a two-year commitment to student achievement is enough to make a substantial impact in closing the achievement gap. Second-year TFA corps member Marcella Chibbaro ’09 could see herself pursing education policy in the future; Gleischman has similar interests. Henesy’s immediate plans after TFA are to begin work at Bain and Company.

Stanford professors, including Linda Darling-Hammond of the School of Education, published a study in 2005 regarding the effectiveness of the TFA model.  The study, based on Houston schools’ student achievement data, found that TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, but perform about as well as other uncertified teachers.

Regardless of relatively short, intense training, TFAers are living up to their two-year commitment in comparison to current national standards. In 2009, 92% of first-year corps members returned to teach for a second year, while only 86% of all new teachers and 83% of new teachers in low-income communities stayed for a second year. Corps members also receive one-on-one coaching and have access to a bounty of online resources throughout the academic year.

Henesy and Gleischman emphasized that leaving the classroom didn’t mean they were abandoning education forever. After working for a few years and potentially going to business school, Henesy is seriously considering starting his own charter school organization. He believes that having the unique background of a former public school student, teacher, and businessman will give him the tools he needs to establish a successful charter school model.

Chibbaro was uncertain about the route she’d take after her final year as a math teacher at Brooklyn’s Achievement First Endeavor School. She noted that the decision whether to stay in the classroom, to assume a more administrative role as a school dean, or to go to law school greatly depends on how the second semester at school unfolds.

Stipek also highlighted that “TFA has raised the status of being a teacher, even if you go to Princeton or Stanford. But [TFA] is to some degree too much of a revolving door in that it’s not keeping people in the teaching profession. My preference would be to invest in improving teacher professional development and to making teaching credentials affordable for students.”

The bottom line is that the American education system is in the doldrums. In March of this year, President Obama identified the high school dropout rate as a national “crisis” that cannot be ignored. Every school day, about 7,000 students drop out of school – a total of 1.2 million students drop out of school each year.

So what does it ultimately take to ensure our students become proficient, to offer them the opportunity to succeed in the workforce and in life? Children can’t afford to wait for a search to find the perfect answer.

According to Noble, “The goal of TFA isn’t necessary to produce life-long teachers, it’s to maximize the impact that teachers can have in the amount of time that they’re willing to dedicate. Would it be better if all of them stayed in teaching? Definitely. Is having dedicated, hard-working people in the classroom making progress? We’re closing the achievement gap.”

Henesy pointed out that the “the whole idea behind TFA is to build a network of leaders that are dedicated to creating a systemic change in the educational system in our country.”

Chibbaro noted: “Look at the people right now who are involved with education policy, charter school development, and innovative methods of education reform. Let’s just say that more than a few are TFA alums.”

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