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North Carolina superintendent defends Teach For America

My colleague Valerie Strauss published an essay a few weeks back by Matt Barnum suggesting that the Teach For America program had outlived its usefulness. Barnum, a former TFA teacher, said the organization had done good work in the past, but now stood in the way of creating a corps of good teachers who would stay longer than two years. Warren County (N.C.) school Superintendent Ray V. Spain sent me this response to Barnum, which I thought was interesting enough to post here. We haven’t discussed TFA in a while. Comments welcome.

by Ray V. Spain

As a superintendent, I am always glad to see questions of teacher preparation and training come center stage. Often though, as these debates unfold, I cringe. The latest emerged last week, when an alumnus of Teach For America declared that the program had “run its course.” In doing so, he fell victim to an all too common trap – the siren call of the silver bullet.

Every day, Teach For America corps members and alumni work to meet the needs of the children and families in my district. Silver bullet? No. Critical aspect of the pursuit of educational equity in our highest-need schools and communities? Absolutely. From where I sit, Teach For America hasn’t “run its course.” It’s hitting its stride.

Like so many rural districts, mine faces a true teacher shortage – particularly in subjects like math, science and special education. Teach For America helps to address this – offering our principals access to a national pipeline of diverse, accomplished candidates committed to excellence. Best yet, research shows that, once hired, these corps members make a measurable difference.

For each of the last three years, the University of North Carolina has compared teacher prep programs statewide and found that corps members have a consistent, positive impact on student achievement. And so, while I’m sorry to hear this particular alum’s reflections on his time in the classroom – teaching is certainly not for everyone – the data tells a very different story.

Meanwhile, the work we’re seeing in the classroom is just one piece of the puzzle. After completing their two-year commitment at a higher rate than other new teachers in low-income communities, alumni of the program work to tackle the problem of educational inequity from every angle. Some do it at the blackboard – alumni like Eric Grebing at Warren County Early College who is working towards his master’s degree in education and is now in his fourth year in the classroom. Some, like Ryan Hurley, transformation coordinator at Northside Elementary School, go on to become principals, administrators, or district-level leaders with whom I am proud to partner. Others still leverage their leadership on behalf of their former students by tackling issues in health, poverty, policy and access. And while last week’s piece suggests that districts like mine would be better off with fewer of these advocates, I disagree.

The problems for which Teach For America aims to be part of the solution are deeply entrenched and undeniably complex. And for as long as we look to see them phased out in a flash, Teach For America – like any other solution – will fall short. But if we are willing to take a longer lens, to confront honestly the multi-faceted effort it will take to give our children what they deserve, the value of the diverse talent, energy and innovation that corps members and alumni bring comes into focus.

When I read reflections like this one, I try not to linger too long on what it would be like to do this work without the corps members and alumni I have come to know over the years, or to try to secure the money and expertise to address the need they fill. I strive to set aside thoughts of what I’d have to pay teachers to pull them away from nearby counties where life is more convenient and need remains considerable.

Instead, I aim to focus on the fact that they’re here, every day, working alongside parents, fellow teachers and principals to chart a better future for our kids. Teach for America has certainly not runs its course in Warren County Schools and many of the communities it serves. My district’s experience with Teach for America has been overwhelmingly positive and with a corresponding positive impact on student achievement. I look forward to continuing our work together.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.



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