Teach for America started out as one of those brash, outside-the-box ideas that foundations and corporate sponsors love. Its premise was simple: that America's brightest graduates should teach its poorest children.
Soon, top college graduates were signing on for two-year stints in some of the toughest classrooms in the nation. But the venture was difficult to sustain. It ran into severe criticism and nearly floundered after its first few years.
Now, 10 years later, TFA is refocused and thriving - and challenging conventional wisdom that you just can't get top people into poor rural and inner-city schools.
"I really like Teach for America, warts and all. For me, it's a powerful demonstration of the fact that there are lots of highly able, well-educated young people who feel a calling for teaching," says Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that promotes school reform.
"For people like me who worry about intellectual capital or lack thereof in inner-city schools, it's a way to jack it up fast," she adds.
By almost any measure - test scores, credentials, percentage of teachers teaching in a field they are prepared to teach - those who teach poor kids rank below teachers in more privileged schools. For years, educators said that it didn't matter, as family background or socioeconomic status determined if children learn. But new research signals that schools - and particularly teacher quality - do matter.
If the New York-based group had limited itself to solving the teacher-recruitment problem, it might have avoided harsh criticism. But TFA also proposed a new training strategy: fast and on the job. Candidates would not sit through semesters of teacher-ed courses, they said.
It's this effort that rattled some in the teaching establishment. If corps members could be successful in the nation's toughest classrooms with just five weeks of preparation and ongoing mentoring, what was the point of education schools?
TFA founder Wendy Kopp seems puzzled by the controversy. "What's important is the impact corps members have on children's lives. The challenges facing [poor] students are so extreme, and it's so difficult for school systems to find talented, committed people," she says.
Her 1989 senior thesis at Princeton University in New Jersey, which launched the proposal, morphed into awards, offices, and a payroll in a just a few short months. But Teach for America only made it to the decade mark by heeding its own advice to beginning teachers: When a lesson plan isn't working, change it.
"A few years ago, it was not clear we could go on. Start-up funds had dried up and the organization's $8 million annual budget had to be completely converted to new sources. We had $1.2 million in debt," Ms. Kopp says.
In addition, broadsides from the education establishment were taking a toll. A 1994 article in the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan described TFA as a substandard program: "bad policy and bad education." Potential donors turned cold.
In response, Teach for America cut the budget and dropped 60 staff in local offices. It developed closer ties with local teachers colleges and local funding sources to support professional development. Kopp shelved speeches on reforming teacher education, launching systematic change, and creating better citizens.
"We had gotten diverted by well-intentioned things that would be good for the world but not our core mission," she says.
TFA also moved its training institute to Houston - and shifted its emphasis from teaching theory to student achievement. Corps members were assigned summer-school classes to teach. The emphasis shifted to finding teaching strategies to ensure that students met set goals.
The shift paid off. TFA is in the black and has raised $3.5 million toward a $10 million endowment. Regional funding from the communities where members are teaching now covers 60 percent of the budget. Some 1,400 members are teaching in 13 underresourced urban and rural communities. Kopp plans to have 2,000 corps members teaching at any time.
"The number and caliber of the college graduates who have joined our corps this year, and the amazing things that alumni are doing, indicate that Teach for America is one of the most catalytic forces in urban and rural education today," Kopp says.
She's also in a stronger position to face her critics. The leading criticism boils down to an attack on the "bright-person myth" of teaching. "Even very bright people who are enthusiastic about teaching find that they cannot easily succeed without preparation, especially if they are assigned to work with children who need skillful teaching," writes Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York and TFA's most outspoken critic, in "The Right to Learn" (Jossey-Bass, 1997).
Ms. Darling-Hammond cites several Teach for America members who say that their training did not prepare them for the classroom. Such programs ignore critical courses on child development, learning theory, and teaching methods, she argues.
In response, Teach for America cites polls from school principals who have supervised TFA members. The most recent was reported in July 1999:
*More than 3 out of 4 principals rate corps members as better than other beginning teachers in their school.
*Nearly two-thirds rate them higher than the school's overall teaching faculty.
About 1 in 3 principals says the downside of having corps members is that they leave too soon; fewer (1 in 6) cite lack of educational experience.
The real test for Teach for America - and its critics - is whether trainees can produce gains in student achievement.
The Houston Independent School District has done preliminary studies on this question, which have not been made public. The most recent survey compares the performance of students in classrooms with teachers certified through traditional programs, alternative-certification programs, and Teach for America.
"Classrooms with alternatively certified teachers did better and students with Teach for America corps members did best of all," says Susan Sclafani, chief of staff for educational services for the Houston Independent School District.
What's not clear is whether corps members are effective because they are well-trained or because they're smart and enthusiastic. Principals in the survey praise motivation more frequently than teaching skills. Several in the TFA survey also comment on the need for better training in how to teach literacy or deal with students with learning difficulties.
"What we found is that Teach for America corps members helped a lot of our schools reenergize the faculty," says Ms. Sclafani. "The biggest difference is the reaction that if students are not learning, I must not be doing something right, so let me find different strategies."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society