With limited training, Teach for America recruits play expanding role in schools

Jamila Best graduated from Howard University in the spring. Monday will be her first day teaching special education in a D.C. charter school. After taking part in a Teach for America boot camp this summer, she says she's ready for the job.
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

Four months ago, Jamila Best was still in college. Two months ago, she started training to become a teacher. Monday morning, the 21-year-old will walk into a D.C. classroom, take a deep breath and dive into one of the most difficult assignments in public education.

Best is one of 4,500 Teach for America recruits placed in public schools this year after five weeks of summer preparation. The quickly expanding organization says that the fast track enables talented young instructors to be matched with schools that badly need them -- and the Obama administration agrees. This month, Teach for America won a $50 million federal grant that will help the program nearly double in the next four years.

But many educators and experts question the premise that teaching is best learned on the job and doesn't require extensive study beforehand. They wonder how Best and her peers will handle tough situations they will soon face. Best, with a Howard University degree in sociology and psychology, will teach students with disabilities at Cesar Chavez Parkside Middle School in Northeast Washington. She has none of the standard credentials for special education.

"I'm ready to go," Best said last week at the public charter school as she put finishing touches on her lesson plans. "The challenges will come."

Teach for America, based in New York, was founded in 1990 by a Princeton graduate who hoped to expose future leaders to the problems of education. It enlists college graduates from a variety of academic backgrounds and career interests, not just education majors.

The recruits commit to teach for two years in low-income urban and rural public schools. The program was formed to match needy schools with elite teachers from schools such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. Its alumni include the founders of the KIPP charter school network, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, as well as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Class appeal

In an economy in which options have narrowed for new graduates, competition is intense. Applications are up by a third, and just 12 percent of this year's applicants were accepted. Starting pay for teachers rivals that in many other industries; new teachers in D.C. public schools will make $49,000 this year, and possibly more if they participate in a voluntary performance pay program.

More than 200 of its recruits are starting this week in the District and Prince George's County.

"What's terrific about it is that it makes teaching sexy for a group of people for whom teaching would not ordinarily be sexy. And it attracts bright people," said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University.

But he said five weeks of training is not enough. Nor is it adequate, he said, to know the subject matter: Teachers also must know how to connect with children.

"For inner-city kids, it's a huge disadvantage to have a teacher who doesn't know how to teach," Levine said. And even if the teachers rapidly improve, they just as rapidly quit. Almost half of Teach for America instructors leave the profession after their two-year commitment, according to a 2008 Harvard study. Such turnover, Levine said, "ensures a continuous array of rookies."

In late June, about seven weeks after graduating from Howard, Best entered the Teach for America institute in Philadelphia. There she taught summer school, took pedagogy classes and learned the organization's leadership philosophy -- all in half of the 10 weeks that the Army requires for its basic training. She rose early for breakfast and lesson prep before catching a 6:45 a.m. bus to an aging elementary school where she spent the bulk of the day.

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