MORE THAN 300 of Virginia’s best and brightest college graduates are on today’s front lines of bringing quality education to disadvantaged students, teaching in hard-to-staff schools as part of the innovative Teach for America (TFA) program. That none of these teachers is in a classroom in the commonwealth is due to the state’s antiquated mode of teacher certification. Let’s hope Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) succeeds with his proposal to remove the barriers that prevent Virginia school districts from partnering with TFA.
There are two ways to receive alternative certification as a teacher in Virginia, and TFA meets neither criterion. The governor’s plan, part of his K-12 education agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session, would allow TFA members to enter the classroom under a two-year provisional license, which could prod the organization to set up operations in the state.
Mr. McDonnell, officials say, reached out to Teach for America to see what role it could play in Virginia because a significant achievement gap still exists for many students from minority or low-income families in the state. TFA, which operates in 36 states plus the District, has had proven success in boosting student achievement and shrinking that gap. Struggling schools in Petersburg and southwest Virginia are seen as in particular need of TFA’s ability to increase the teacher talent pool. But no sooner had the governor released his plan than teachers union officials pushed back with old and discredited criticism of TFA, saying that it produces teachers who aren’t really effective and who don’t hang around after their two-year commitment with the program is up.
Numerous studies on TFA present an overall picture of its members having an impact on student achievement that exceeds that of other teachers in the same high-needs schools. Reviews conducted in Tennessee, for example, found TFA to be among the top teacher-preparation programs in the state for three consecutive years. Of the group’s 28,000 alumni, about two-thirds are working full time in education (one-third in teaching and one-third in capacities such as principal or instructional coach), according to a TFA spokesman.
McDonnell administration officials said that they are cautiously optimistic about prospects for a certification bill and that if it passes TFA could begin operating in Virginia as early as the 2013-14 academic year. The General Assembly should join the governor in putting out the welcome mat for a group with the potential to do so much good for Virginia and its neediest students.