Teach for America on hot seat

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Teach for America teachers

John Booz

Teach for America teachers

Fewer than half of the teachers hired in Chicago Public Schools through the national program Teach for America stay on the job for three years, the commitment required of teachers in other alternative certification programs.

Data from Teach for America show that 43 percent of its teachers who started in CPS in 2001 stayed on the job in 2004. Of those who started in 2000, 39 percent stayed for a third year.

Those statistics raise concerns for CPS, which is looking to cut teacher attrition and is planning to track the retention of teachers in all its alternative programs. As a result, district officials have asked Teach for America, which recruits graduates from some of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities, to come up with ways to improve its long-term retention.

Toni Hill, director of CPS’ Routes to Teaching office, praises the program but cautions that the district may have to “re-evaluate” its partnership if retention does not improve. She explains that the district agreed to Teach for America’s standard two-year commitment when it began partnering with the program four years ago. CPS now reimburses Teach for America $4,500 per teacher to cover training costs; the district hires about 75 teachers each year.

Teachers have career options

“Teach for America candidates are outstanding,” says Hill. “They have high GPAs, have participated in extra-curricular activities and come from the best schools. The problem is retention. We want teachers who will stay.”

Principals voice similar concerns. “These people are really good—well-trained, highly motivated—so they leave to pursue advanced degrees or positions in other fields,” says Principal James Breashears of Robeson High in Englewood, who, during the past two years, lost five of six Teach for America teachers. “That’s the downside, that they have so many possibilities. It’s hard to keep them.”

Indeed, Shay Fluharty, a new teacher from Florida who will be teaching Spanish at Harper High in West Englewood this year, says she does not envision staying in the classroom.

In five years, Fluharty says, “I’m going to either [enroll in] law school or become an activist for reforms and help make changes outside the classroom.”

Executive Director John White of Teach for America’s Chicago office says the program will work on boosting retention and strengthening its partnership with CPS.

“There is more work to be done,” says White. Teach for America will come up with a plan for recruiting a more stable pool of teachers who will remain in the district beyond their two-year commitment, he adds. “We’ve done this in other places [Houston and Los Angeles] and will do this in Chicago.”

Experts also point out that Teach for America is not designed to turn out career teachers. Still, White says, “Nationally, over the course of 15 years, 60 percent of Teach for America teachers remain in public education—40 percent as teachers, 20 percent as leaders in administrative capacities.”

Teach for America’s main purpose, he adds, is to “recruit top college graduates to work in under-resourced schools, and produce a crop of young leaders who are committed to a life-long fight for equal opportunity.” In Chicago, some alumni have started schools, are National Board-certified, and have become leaders in the district, White says.

Teach for America alums created KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, a nationally growing chain of charter schools aimed to get students to college. Last year, two KIPP schools opened in Chicago.

“Teach for America does not set [retention] as a goal,” says Daniel Humphrey, the associate director of the Center for Education Policy at SRI International, an independent nonprofit research organization. “They view their program not as one to deal with teacher shortages but as a leadership program.”

Kids need stable teachers

However, Barnett Berry, president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., questions that approach.

“Is this program for children, or for the bright kids to have something to put on their resumes when they apply for law school? Kids need teachers who will stay and build a stable faculty,” Berry says. “This is a problematic cycle: new teachers, under-prepared teachers, high turnover, unstable faculty and inconsistent improvement.”

Berry adds, “We know that any school improvement effort worth its salt is going to take at least five years to take hold, and will take teachers to move the process and programs in the right trajectory.”

Along with cutting attrition, CPS wants Teach for America to provide more teachers in shortage areas and make participants who will be working in Chicago more accessible for training in the district during the summer. Currently, Teach for America trains all its teachers at institutes in Houston, New York and Los Angeles. The program is considering creating another institute in Chicago.

Teach for America’s training includes observations of experienced teachers in the spring and a five-week summer program that includes classes in curriculum planning, lesson planning, student assessment, classroom management and literacy development.

Some educators say the training fosters poor retention because it does not prepare graduates for the difficulties of teaching in low-achieving, underserved urban and rural areas.

“These are bright, dedicated kids who want to do good, so why not prepare them?” says Berry. “You are putting under-prepared teachers in classrooms and they leave before they learn to teach. And some would probably be really good, but they don’t get to find out.”

Principal Constance Means of Barton Elementary in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood agrees that training needs to be beefed up. “You don’t get the same experience student-teaching for one summer in the Bronx. Student teaching should be a year for everyone.”

A major concern is classroom management skills. A national study found that teachers from the program were more likely to report problems with student disruptions and physical conflicts than their colleagues in the same schools.

Despite the drawbacks, principals who have hired Teach for America participants report positive results.

“They have lived up to expectations and then some,” says Principal Leonard Kenebrew of South Shore High, who adds that his Teach for America teachers have great content knowledge and creativity.

At Grant Elementary on the Near West Side, Principal Doris Hobson Staples says three Teach for America teachers “started with me as a new principal and it was a wonderful experience. The students loved them.” Two of the three quit after two years, but Staples says, “I would hire from the program again.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.