Q: One of the most compelling arguments that local TFA opponents make is that the TFA program was originally intended for areas where it was hard or impossible to find state-certified teachers to teach, and that Huntsville doesn’t have that problem. In fact, over the past two years the HCS system has laid off hundreds of certified teachers under its Reduction in Force (RIF) program. While some of those have been rehired, there are still plenty in the area that are out of work. Are you arguing that HCS is not receiving enough applications from certified teachers and so you need TFA volunteers to fill a gap?
A: We will be using Teach for America to address the problem of persistent low performance in several schools with high rates of poverty. Within the Huntsville system we have such schools that have been in school improvement for up to seven years. Traditional approaches to raising achievement in these schools have not worked and other approaches are required. In addition to low performance, these schools are characterized by high teacher turnover. To leverage the strengths of Teach for America teachers, namely leadership and a focus on closing the achievement gap between poverty, and non-poverty students, we intend to assign Teacher for America teachers in groups of four to six teachers in selected elementary schools, six to eight teachers in selected middle schools and eight to ten teachers within selected high schools along with new school leadership. Since Teach for America teachers will arrive in our district as a team, this approach will allow us to directly address the challenges of low performing schools which include low expectations of students and weak school culture. The traditional approach of assigning individuals teachers to schools has not proven effective in addressing issues of culture and expectations.
Q: Another complaint about TFA is that the vast majority of those who enter the program have no education training or background and that the five-week institute they complete is insufficient experience when you are placing these recent college grads in arguably the toughest teaching environment (i.e Title I schools). How do you respond to those who argue that this displays a lack of respect for the current teacher training (and state-certification) process?A: Teach for America was created to attract and prepare top college graduates from across the nation to teach in schools with high levels of poverty and low levels of student achievement. Last year Teach for America received over 48,000 applications for 5,200 teaching positions. This level of selectivity is without peer and brings unparalleled levels of talent to schools for which we have traditionally seen very few applications. Beyond being highly selective, Teach for America provides initial and ongoing professional development to new teachers focused upon the challenges of teaching in high poverty schools – a focus not found within traditional teacher preparation programs. These attributes set Teach for America apart with regard to addressing challenges we face in our high poverty schools.
Within Alabama there are several routes to teacher certification ranging from traditional teacher preparation programs to the Troops to Teachers program. These alternatives are designed to bring talented individuals into K-12 education to meet the varied needs of students. While Alabama has not conducted a review of the effectiveness of its teacher certification or preparation programs, other states have. In November 2011 the state of Tennessee published its review of teacher program effectiveness (2011 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, State Board of Education, November 1, 2011). This review found that out of over twenty teacher preparation and certification programs in Tennessee, only three “tend to produce teachers (traditionally and alternatively licensed teachers combined) with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers – Teach for America Memphis, Teach for America Nashville, and Lipscomb University.
Beyond attaining certification in Alabama as Highly Qualified teachers, Teach for America teachers will also benefit from focused ongoing professional development from Teach for America during their first two years with Huntsville City Schools. This professional development is conducted on Saturdays and is focused upon the specific challenges associated with raising student achievement in high poverty schools. Each Teach for America teacher is assigned a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development who observes them teaching, provides regular strategic feedback, collects and evaluates student data, and supports their overall professional development. Again, this focus is not found within traditional teacher preparation programs.
Our focus is upon results with regard to raising student achievement. We are measuring student achievement growth against the national common core standards every nine weeks. We will measure the results obtained by Teach for America teachers and teachers from traditional programs. We will make future teacher selections decisions with these results in view. We are not wedded to specific teacher programs or certification pathways. We are wedded to the objective of reversing years of low performance in several of our schools characterized by high rates of poverty and doing so to the betterment of children now in these schools.
Q: Recently, the hiring of teachers in the HCS system was moved from individual schools to the central office. We were told that this was done to eliminate the issue of some schools receiving an abundance of applications for one job while another school receives only a few. Teachers will now be placed where they are needed rather than where they necessarily wish to go. If that’s the case, wouldn’t that solve the issue that the contract with TFA was supposed to solve?
A: We are taking a diversified approach to meeting the instructional needs of our schools. By hiring at the district level, we anticipate raising our selectivity with regard to new hires and gaining the ability to provide all of our schools a deeper pool of new teacher talent. This approach will compliment and not supplant our focused assignment of Teach for America teachers in high poverty schools that have a history of low student achievement. These Teach for America teachers will come to us as a team and will be assigned to schools as teams to lay a foundation of high expectations and teamwork with new school leaders. We cannot replicate this capacity using individual teachers. For too long individual teachers and school leaders have been overwhelmed by the challenges they face when introduced to low performing schools in a traditional piecemeal approach.
Q: A recent nation-wide analysis of TFA teacher turnover shows that while a majority of TFA teachers stay in education beyond their two-year commitment, more than half of those teachers leave their initial placement school in the third year, and by the end of the fourth year, only 14% are still in their original school. This is a troubling statistic given the fact that those placements are made at schools most in need of a stable and experienced faculty. How are you working to guarantee that our Title I schools don’t become a revolving door of inexperienced teachers?
A: Our low performing, high-poverty schools are already characterized by high teacher turnover. For example, many of our high poverty schools already see 200 to 300 percent higher turnover than other schools. By using our Teach for America teachers in teams and by supporting their development in the education profession we anticipate reducing turnover in our high poverty schools. Additionally, we plan to provide our Teach for America teacher support not normally found in high poverty schools. This support includes direct involvement with corporations and community groups who sponsor these teachers as well as participation in Huntsville young professional organizations.
Q: There seems to be a lot of confusion over how recent college graduates without any education training (beyond the five week course) are able to teach in public schools without state-certification. Will there be allowances made for other applicants who have college degrees or even advanced degrees and are looking to teach? Perhaps some type of alternative teacher certification program similar those in states like Texas and North Carolina?
A: We seek to hire highly talented staff who can deliver results in the form of raising student achievement. Teach for America has a track record of delivering such teachers. By reviewing our student achievement data, and student growth, we will focus on hiring teachers from programs that deliver results.
Jennifer is the creator and co-editor of Rocket City Mom. She is also a compulsive writer, avid reader, occasional singer and former communications wizard turned toddler wrangler. You can often spot her and her little ones cruising the kiddie hot-spots in their "Rocket Van".