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

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A01

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.

Almost an hour a day was devoted to teaching first-graders. At midday, she and other recruits gathered in a stuffy room where books are usually stored. They snacked on sandwiches and potato chips as they learned how to plan lessons, grade students, interpret test data and teach new material, among other things.

The campus hummed with people on a mission. Teachers pulled children out of class for tutoring; advisers met with trainees to dissect their classroom performance; elementary students surged through the hallways.

Best, who grew up in New York, is considering a career as a school psychologist. She said she is concerned that minority children, especially African American boys, are shunted too often into special education. She hopes a stint as a special education teacher will help her figure out why.

Learning by doing

One day last month, Best led a room of first-graders through a lesson in spelling and phonics.

"Destiny, share with me a word," Best said, asking a girl who was wiggling in her chair to say, then spell, one of the vocabulary words. Destiny pulled off "C-A-T."

Best called on students one by one, making sure all were focused on her.

"I don't think Damian is listening to me right now," she told a boy who had scooted into the aisle between neat rows of desks. When another boy put his head down, she nudged him to attention with a hand on his back. All of the students perked up when she led them in a chant of the vocabulary. The students seemed more engaged than in some nearby training rooms.

After the period was over, another recruit stepped up to the front, and Best joined eight adults in the back who had watched her the whole time. Some were trainees. One was a veteran Philadelphia teacher. Another was a Teach for America tutor who would meet with Best later to critique lesson plans and classroom management.

The institute, one of eight across the country, also tries to inculcate a philosophy that leaders outside the classroom should be leaders inside as well. It encourages attention to data, assertiveness and self-confidence in pushing through whatever challenges arise. That creed might help explain Teach for America's ascent. The organization has more than doubled since 2005. The federal grant will help bolster its annual recruiting to 7,500 by 2014. That's still a drop in the bucket of the estimated 349,000 public school teachers that will be hired that year, but an increasingly influential one.

Most of the people running the summer institute are alumni of Teach for America -- and young. Many of the tutors are corps members who spent two years in the classroom. Rebecca Maltzman, head of the site that trained Best, started as a Teach for America recruit five years ago.

Looking back, Maltzman said she was not at a disadvantage the first time she led a class.

"A lot of how you learn to teach is by teaching," she said. Maltzman started teaching in Camden, N.J., alongside a new graduate from education school. "I had as much or more knowledge," she said.

Dueling studies

In 2004, the Mathematica Policy Research group reported that students taught by Teach for America recruits topped their peers in math and equaled them in reading. Teach for America cites that study as evidence that its teachers don't need education school.

But researchers from the University of Texas and California State University reached a more skeptical conclusion after a review of almost two dozen studies. They reported in June that the evidence suggests that Teach for America recruits start at a disadvantage. After several years, they perform equal to or better than their peers, but they often leave the profession before the benefits of their experience can make an impact in the classroom.

The report also noted that school districts must spend more money on recruiting as a result of Teach for America's churn. In addition, the organization charges school districts an average of $2,500 for each teacher it provides, and districts spend extra money to train teachers once they arrive.

Some education school leaders say Teach for America sets its recruits up for a hard fall.

"They promote these corps members as adequate to the task of teaching in some of these most challenging assignments after just five weeks of training," said Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "It creates a situation that will likely soon drive the passion out, in favor of 'How do you keep your head above the water?' "

Last week, Chavez Parkside Middle was abuzz, with boxes of books shifting around and new students dropping by to enroll. Administrators said Teach for America recruits account for a quarter of their faculty.

"I came from a traditional background," said Raymond Weeden, the principal. He graduated from the University of Virginia's education school as a skeptic of Teach for America. Now he's a convert.

"If I can find people with the right values, I can mold them to be great teachers," he said. He estimated he hires 10 percent of his teachers from traditional programs and the rest through alternative channels. The school's teachers spent the first three weeks of this month in workshops. Every week during the school year, they have a few hours of professional development. Teach for America recruits also attend night classes run by the organization.

Best said she was looking forward to the first day.

"I'm not worried," she said. Teach for America "is not the only resource. You can go to other veteran teachers. My mom has been sending me a lot of articles. When you meet these children, and they're in front of you, what are you going to do?"

On Monday, she will begin to answer.

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