A big chunk from the the NYTimes Magazine:
. . . .In some circles, there is a perception that Teach for America’s corps of teachers do not come back, that many of them view their teaching stint as a résumé-burnishing pit stop before moving on to bigger things — that T.F.A. stands for “Teach for Awhile.” The numbers are telling. More than a third leave after their two years, and another 10 percent drop out well before. T.F.A. says that more than 60 percent of its alumni stay in education, though its definition of education is a broad one. In the organization’s view, it takes allies in every field to close the achievement gap. T.F.A.’s sights are set on the boardroom and Capitol Hill. This is what it calls “the second half of the movement,” beyond the classroom.
One new program, for example, coaches alumni in how to run for political office. Their goal is to get 100 leaders into elected office by 2010. “We have to have advocates in every sector to work on educational inequity,” Elissa Clapp, T.F.A.’s senior vice president for recruitment, told me in June. “It’s naïve to think that we can solve this problem only through teaching. We are completely agnostic about what people do after their two years.” T.F.A.’s agnosticism is central to its cachet. Most college seniors are blissfully without a clue as to the future, much less ready to sign on for a life in the classroom. T.F.A. soothes their qualms by emphasizing the two-year commitment. Recruiters have an impressive arsenal of statistics at their fingertips to prove that they can get you just about anywhere. “Our alumni,” Clapp said, “are living proof that these two years could actually be a career accelerator.”
Kilian Betlach is not your average T.F.A. teacher. After graduating from Boston College in 2002, he applied to the program. He was dealt a shock during the summer training: “I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t having success. I left feeling like this had been a mistake.” That fall, he was assigned to a public school in San Jose, Calif., where, for the length of the first year, he felt in over his head. “I was just squeaking by,” he told me. Despite the difficulties, he has stayed on far longer than most; he has just finished his sixth year as a teacher and doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon.
“Every day that first year,” Betlach said, “I was like: ‘Oh, my god, I’m a teacher. I’m not ready for this.’ But I got better with time. We all do.” Still, he is troubled by what he refers to as “T.F.A.’s message about teaching.” In six years with T.F.A., he said, “I never was encouraged to stay on as a teacher. It’s almost as if the program perpetuates the idea that if you went to Harvard, a teaching career is below you. As soon as you join T.F.A., the focus is on being an amazing teacher. Then, all of a sudden, it stops. And you start getting e-mails from Goldman Sachs.”
AT TIMES, T.F.A.'S recruitment model, with all its emphasis on high achievement rather than a strong commitment to teaching, does suggest that great teachers are born, not made. But what it takes to excel in college may not be what it takes to command the attention of a class full of children, and making up the difference may require more than five to seven weeks of training over the summer. Traditional master’s-degree programs in teaching tend to take at least one year, along with substantial time as a student teacher. T.F.A., however, usually responds to state certification requirements by having its teachers work toward certification during their first year of teaching. Still, the summer training program is an intensive indoctrination. Trainees are shuttled about in yellow school buses, fed box lunches and given frequent pep talks. Schedules run from early morning to late in the night. When I sat in on parts of the summer institute in Houston, I noticed that some trainees were nearly asleep. Others scribbled into their notebooks furiously. All of them wore nametags; it was like freshman year all over again. T.F.A. insists that its content is just as good as that of traditional programs. “It’s a trial by fire,” one current trainee told me. “If you can’t handle the sprint, get out.” Some do drop out.
The question of what it takes to be a good teacher has inspired a series of spirited data wars between T.F.A. and its critics. Most often cited (by the critics) is a 2005 study examining the links between student achievement and their teachers’ certification status. In a study of more than 132,000 students and 4,400 teachers in the Houston public-school district, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, and three colleagues found that students taught by certified teachers outperformed those taught by noncertified teachers in reading and mathematics. Uncertified T.F.A. teachers had negative impacts on student achievement on five of six tests. Tellingly, their effectiveness improved when they gained certification.
T.F.A. has called the Stanford study flawed, arguing that its sample sizes were small and questioning whether it was subject to adequate independent review. (The organization’s P.R. team is formidable.) Teach for America points to a 2004 study carried out by Mathematica Policy Research that shows T.F.A. teachers’ student scores matching those of a comparison group of novice and veteran colleagues in reading and slightly better in math. Over two months of talking to T.F.A. staff members, I was referred to this study no less than 13 times. Another study points to the fact that principals clamor for T.F.A. teachers; 74 percent considered T.F.A. teachers more effective than other beginning teachers.
Darling-Hammond’s explanation for the numbers is not exactly flattering to T.F.A. “The principals who are saying ‘I love T.F.A.’ are responding to the fact that teaching standards in schools that hire uncertified teachers are typically low,” she told me this summer. “This is a country that spends so little on the neediest, and here we are perpetuating a cycle of underprepared teachers. If one takes the lowest possible standard and accepts that as a goal, then Teach for America is great.” . . .