Claremont Teaches America

CMCers in Teach for America attempt to close achievement gap
Gone are the days when Deloitte and Goldman lured the most Claremont McKenna seniors to start their careers on the corporate ladder. For the past two years, Teach for America (TFA) has dominated on-campus recruiting to convince graduating seniors to trade in their potential cubicle for a classroom. TFA’s commitment to closing the achievement gap has attracted 18 members of CMC’s Class of 2011 – out of 24 offers – to accept two-year stints teaching in some of America’s poorest performing schools. Given Teach for America’s popularity, the Port Side evaluated its recruiting and organizational successes by asking recruiters, current corps members, and alumni about its impact on our campus and the education reform movement.

On September 20, 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded TFA a $50 million grant under the Investing in Innovation (i3) competition. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funded the $650 million program to support evidence-based innovative programs that aim to close the achievement gap. One of 49 grantees out of 1,700 applicants, TFA proposed to expand by more than 80% by September 2014 to grow annual placements to 13,500 first and second-year teachers.

Nine graduates from CMC’s Class of 2010 accepted offers from TFA, and the College ranks as 17th among small colleges with less than 2,999 undergraduates in contributing to the corps. Yet, CMC ranked fourth among these schools for the greatest percentage of corps members in its graduating class, trailing Kalamazoo (12), Grinnell (13), and Spelman (18) respectively. The corps’ expansion could explain the fact that CMC has doubled its lot of graduating seniors entering the corps, with another round of offers still coming in April. Comparisons across campuses will be difficult until TFA concludes this final round of offers.

CMC’s culture of leadership aligns with TFA’s value on highly effective teachers who are successful pedagogues in a challenging context. Diana Seder, Director of CMC’s Career Services Center, asserted, “TFA is all about leaders. What makes a good leader is doing what it takes to get the job done. That is a CMC kid period. It’s a natural thing – a perfect match.”

When asked about the type of student that TFA looks for, Seder said that ASCMC representatives and Resident Assistants tend to stick out. Teaching as Leadership, Teach for America’s leadership rubric, mirrors the Resident Assistant job description. Both involve reinforcing rules and consequences, creating a welcoming environment, and persisting in the face of challenges.

Teach for America’s plentiful recruiting does have its costs. Seder warns students that applying to TFA early on may preclude them from other job choices, stating, “I don’t necessarily approve of their early deadlines. I don’t want any student’s job search to be compromised because they have to commit so early.” TFA’s five deadlines span from August 27 to February 15. With applicants finding out their acceptance status as early as November 9, Teach for America maintains their admission criteria remains consistent across deadlines, but urges students to apply as early as possible.

Evaluating the impact of TFA’s corps on narrowing the achievement gap requires an understanding of its economic and developmental roots. America’s achievement gap often emerges by age two. African-American children entering kindergarten trail Caucasian students by 0.64 standard deviations in math and 0.401 in reading. Toddlers of parents with professional careers hear an average of 2,000 words per hour while those with parents on welfare hear an average of 600 words per hour.

One cannot expect corps members to solve economic disparities. It appears that TFA’s effectiveness must be observed both in and outside of the classroom. Only one independent, randomized study examining TFA exists. Published by Mathematica Policy Research in 2004, the study found that corps members’ students significantly outperformed those taught by more experienced teachers in math, but performed at the same level in reading. Mathematica’s study formed TFA’s basis of evidence to win one of four of the i3 competition’s four scale-up grants.

While studies raised questions about the effectiveness of TFA’s corps during the nineties, it has proven that continuously increasing its impact remains a core value. From tweaking trainings to altering admission criteria, TFA has honed its organization to reflect the best practices of highly effective teachers. In 2007, 24 percent of TFA teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization’s internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent. That data relies largely on school tests, which vary in quality from state to state.

Critics argue that TFA’s turnover harms communities by giving them a teacher with five weeks of training who plans to leave after two years. Morgaen Donaldson and Susan Moore Johnson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education studied TFA’s retention rates among corps members and found that 35% of existing corps members left between the beginning of year 2 and year 3. Defying the odds, 61% stayed in the teaching profession more than 2 years and 24% are predicted to stay beyond 6 years. Yet, turnover still exists in the nation’s lowest-achieving schools and TFA does little to reverse it.

Megan MacPherson, a second-year corps member in Oakland, shared with the Port Side how TFA shifted her career path towards teaching. She viewed her commitment as a job before graduate school, but says, “I’m planning on teaching until I’m too tired to teach anymore. I’m disillusioned with the system and frustrated with the lack of progress in district, state, and federal policy, but despite all that, there’s enough redemption in being a classroom teacher to keep me in this fight.”

MacPherson raised one area where TFA has consistently missed their goal: diversity. In 2009, the organization aimed to have 29% of its incoming corps members come from a low-income background, but only attracted 24.5%, decreasing 1.6% from the previous year. TFA also missed its goal of having 7.5% and 10% of corps members as Latinos and African-Americans, but ended the year with 6.6% and 9.3% respectively. The corps’ lack of diversity reflects the demographics of the teaching profession, but perpetuates a homogeneous alumni group as leaders of the education reform movement.

Jake Wyrick ’11 turned down an offer from TFA to teach Pre-K. He explained that it was a financially crippling option, stating, “I was offered a job with a salary below the poverty line in the area, and the training needed can cost thousands of dollars. My fear is that TFA is becoming an opportunity for more wealthy students to postpone reality and bolster their resumes. TFA also creates a cult-like atmosphere, always referring to ‘The Movement.’ In addition to being odd, it furthers a type of group-think in which they try to make you feel bad for standing up with individual problems.”

TFA has spurred a culture of education reform across geographic bounds, contributing to the successful models of urban education. Roughly 10% of corps members considered education as a career before TFA, but nearly two-thirds of alumni work in the education sector. TFA alumni have founded some of the most successful charter school organizations in the country: the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Aspire Public Schools, and Rocketship Education. It appears that alumni have the greatest impact once they leave the classroom for the policy or social entrepreneurial sectors.

With a degree in Economics and Japanese in hand, Ted Morris ’93 graduated from CMC with plans to work in international finance. His TFA experience led him to return to education and eventually found Futuro College Preparatory Elementary School as its School Director. He views an expanded teaching corps and more TFA alumni – including those who move on to other careers – as positive and a step toward addressing how the current educational system fails our children.

With 20,000 alumni, TFA has assembled a base of some of the nation’s most promising leaders. Still, one wonders how their uniform training and shared experience in some of the nation’s poorest communities will impact the innovation both inside and outside the education reform movement. The corps’ group-think could stifle the creativity that, for example, lead to Larry Rosenstock’s High Tech High, a successful project-based charter school in San Diego that takes an interdisciplinary approach to learning.

The organization’s expansion has an obvious impact on CMC students’ future careers. Alumni achievements seem to outweigh TFA’s short-term impact in the classroom and high turnover. Nevertheless, it’s lack of diversity and homogeneous experience could have unforeseen consequences for education reform movement’s future leaders.

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

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