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Learning Curve

( - Newsweek, April 10, 2006.)

Top college grads have grown used to success. Then they try Teach For America. Are they ready for class?

By Gillian Gillers

Summer 2006 issue - Nick Pyati got good grades in high school and at Columbia University. He'll start Yale Law School in 2007, and he hopes to run for national office someday. But as a first-year teacher at a low-income high school in the Bronx, Pyati feels inadequate. "I was expecting it to be very hard, but it's harder than I thought it would be, and in a way I've never experienced before," Pyati says.

His feelings are echoed by other first-year Teach For America recruits, who describe their experiences as "exhausting," "frustrating," and "utterly intense." Still, every year thousands of college seniors apply to the program, which offers two-year teaching jobs at the nation's toughest schools. Teach For America received about 19,000 applications this year-up 10 percent from last year-for a 2006 "corps class" of fewer than 3,000. Despite the program's popularity, between 10 and 15 percent of each corps class drops out before completing the required two years. Some teachers quit because they feel unsupported by their schools; others are overwhelmed by the challenges of the classroom. Not all teachers are struggling-the lucky ones land in schools with helpful administrations and manageable classes. And many teachers say the job becomes easier and more rewarding the second year. Still, for idealistic college graduates hoping to close the achievement gap in education, the daily grind of teaching under difficult circumstances can be disheartening.

Pyati deferred his admission to Yale Law School to join Teach For America because he wanted to "do something valuable." But after teaching for seven months, he still struggles to relate to the students, who deal with problems of poverty and violence that he never faced. He is frustrated by a colleague's attempts to undercut his authority in the classroom. And he has trouble inspiring students to learn. "It's not enough that I want it for them, and it's not enough that I work hard," he says.

Pyati is among 3,500 Teach For America recruits now teaching in low-income public schools in 22 regions across the country. The organization selects college seniors and recent graduates, trains them, and assigns them a region, subject and grade, depending on their interests and the needs of the school district. Recruits are then hired and paid directly by the schools. During their two-year tenure, recruits receive support from regional Teach For America offices. Staffers-mostly Teach For America alumni-visit classrooms and meet individually with teachers on a regular basis.

Teach For America's mission is two-fold. The organization aims to help in the classroom, while creating a cadre of alumni with a lifelong commitment to public education. Wendy Kopp, founder and president of Teach For America, acknowledges that a national teacher corps may not be an obvious solution to educational inequity. But, she says, "Our kids in low-income communities have been so far from what their potential is for decades. Decades. Huge problems demand outside-of-the-box and, in some cases, counterintuitive interventions."

College seniors flock to the program; the acceptance rate has hovered around 17 percent for the last four years. Some applicants plan to pursue careers in education and see Teach For America as an entry point. Others want to bide time before work or graduate school and know that Teach For America is good on a resumé. All express an interest in improving public education.

The Classroom

For those set on making a difference, first-year teaching can be frustrating. Harvard University graduate Abby Fee, who teaches special education to seventh and eighth graders in a New Orleans suburb, says her students call her names, punch her, and once stole money from her wallet. She spends more time managing behavior than teaching. "You have all these grandiose ideas," she says. "And then you get there and you're like, holy shit, my kids won't even sit in their desks Š It makes the high-minded goals of Teach For America seem really far away and kind of impossible."

At first, Fee had trouble connecting with her students. "They were like, 'Get out of my face, white lady. Who are you? You're not from here,'" Fee says. "Whether I'm an outsider mostly because I'm white or I'm young or I'm not from Louisiana, I don't know." Fee puts her finger on the divide between Teach For America recruits, who are largely white, middle-class graduates of selective colleges, and their students, who are nearly all minorities living in low-income communities. Many teachers say racial and class differences are irrelevant; others say they affect relations with staff and students.

Caitlin Farrell, a first-year teacher in Brooklyn, seems to be having an easier time than Fee-maybe because she is teaching second grade, or maybe because she came in with lower expectations. "I was really scared," says Farrell, who graduated from Dartmouth College. "I thought that teaching in a low-income area or in an urban area would just be an insurmountable challenge. I had these nightmares of walking into a classroom where there were no supplies, where the kids were throwing staplers." Neither is true, she says. Farrell often gets frustrated or loses her patience, but she likes seeing "light bulbs" go on when her students make progress. "I'm not just getting somebody else coffee," she says, "I'm teaching seven year-olds how to read." She says the job is rewarding, but exhausting.

The Luck of The Draw

Teach For America's leaders realize that first-year teaching is hard, and so this year the organization spent 20 percent of its nearly $40 million budget on finding the right people. Some 35 recruitment directors focused on 140 top colleges, where they held information sessions, put up posters, and emailed listservs. Josh Griggs, an eager recruiter at Yale and Columbia, talked to students and professors in his hunt for senior standouts. He then emailed the seniors to set up individual meetings on campus. In the month before applications were due, Griggs sometimes met with as many as nine seniors in one day.

Elissa Clapp, who directs the national recruitment effort, says Teach For America looks for high achievers, community leaders, and students who have overcome challenges. Recruiters especially target math and science majors, athletes, and minorities, although the selection process does not favor these groups. "We put so much energy into the recruitment," says Kopp. "We look for people with certain personalities." Still, even the most qualified applicants can end up struggling if their schools are unsupportive. Danielle, who asked to withhold her last name, says she has clashed with the staff at her East Coast school. She had a particularly tough time co-teaching a third grade class this fall with an older teacher. "I would say something, and she would tell the kids to do the opposite," Danielle says. Wary of meddling in school politics, Teach For America was reluctant to intervene. But when Danielle considered quitting, the organization agreed to help her change classrooms.

Now Danielle is working in the back of a classroom with third and fourth graders. The main teacher grudgingly accepts her presence. "A lot of the older teachers don't think they need any help," Danielle says. One teacher told her, "Oh, you guys are babies," referring to the school's recruits. "Yeah, I am really young," Danielle says, "but I need to be taken seriously."

It could be the luck of the draw. Andrew Elliot-Chandler, who is teaching fifth grade in the Bay Area, says he feels supported by everyone at his school. He is especially thrilled with his school's principal, whom he calls "The Man." "While I do not evangelize for my faith, I do so incessently for my principal," Elliot-Chandler wrote in a blog about his teaching experience ( Flexible, encouraging, and wise, "The Man" is the main reason Elliot-Chandler has promised to teach at his school for five years.

The Two-Year Commitment

60 percent of Teach For America alumni who stay in education as teachers, principals, policy advisors, and members of reform groups. 34 percent of alumni teach for a third year. But most Teach For America teachers leave the classroom after the required two years. Debra Schum, principal at East St. John High School outside New Orleans, doesn't like watching them go. "It takes almost two years to get people acclimatized to how our particular school operates," she says. "It seems like just when we get them where its hunky-dory great, that's when they have to go back."

Pamela Grossman, a professor at Stanford School of Education, put it more bluntly. "While the teacher is learning, you have to make sure the kid is getting the best possible experience. You know, kids don't get another chance at first grade," says Grossman, who voices mixed support for Teach For America.

Elliot-Chandler would empathize. He worries that a mere two-year commitment can hurt schools. "You're sort of blind your first year," he says. "You're just trying to keep your head above water ... I worked my tail off in college [at the University of Chicago], and it wasn't a tenth of what I had been doing last year just to stay afloat."

The difference between first and second-year teaching is "like night and day," according to Elliot-Chandler. This year, he knows better where to direct his energy so he does not need to work as hard. He also projects more confidence in class. Reflecting on his first year, Elliot-Chandler says, "Was I incompetent? No. But did I have enough training?" He does not answer the second question.

Preparing to Teach

Teach For America provides an intensive five-week training course for all recruits during the summer before their first year. Recruits teach summer school, and take classes on classroom management, learning theory, literacy development, leadership, and diversity. Commonly described as "teacher boot camp," the training demands 70 hours per week. After they begin teaching, most recruits are required by state law to pass subject-area tests and take courses during the year. Many recruits receive their teacher certification after their two years.

Several studies have measured the effect of preparation on teaching ability. A study published this fall in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives found that certified teachers produce higher achievement gains than uncertified Teach for America recruits in fourth and fifth grade reading and math. By the time Teach for America recruits do receive their certification, most are preparing to leave the classroom. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford School of Education who co-authored the study, says Teach for America is not a viable long-term solution to educational inequity. "I would say it's a well-intentioned Band-Aid, and God knows we need Band-Aids when we're bleeding," she says. "But there's a bigger issue to be solved here." A better approach, Darling-Hammond says, is for districts to improve salary and working conditions and subsidize teacher education, in order to recruit a better-trained, more permanent team of teachers.

Still, Darling-Hammond admits that most Teach for America recruits work in schools that would otherwise hire equally inexperienced teachers. A 2004 study by the firm Mathematica Policy Research found that Teach for America recruits are as good at teaching reading-and better at teaching math-than their schools' other teachers who have relatively low levels of formal training. "It isn't as if we're sitting around with an extravagant surplus of brilliant teachers and deciding who to include," says Marvin Bressler, emeritus professor of sociology at Princeton and Wendy Kopp's thesis advisor. "Let's recruit everybody who's willing to do this."

Also, principals who hire recruits seem largely satisfied. According to a 2005 study by the research firm Kane, Parsons & Associates, 74 percent of principals surveyed thought that Teach For America recruits were more effective than other beginning teachers. Some 63 percent thought Teach For America recruits were more effective than the overall teaching faculty.

Debra Schum, the Louisiana principal, echoes these results. Schum says the 10 Teach For America teachers at her school are enthusiastic and dedicated. They do not hesitate to call a parent, make a home-visit, or hold after-school tutoring sessions. "They pretty much-in my opinion-go the extra mile to do whatever it takes to get students motivated to learn," she says.

John Poineau, assistant principal at Philips Academy High School in Chicago, was more tempered in his praise. "I'm not going to say every candidate is the same quality," he said. "Sometimes they don't know really what they're getting into." But overall, Poineau is pleased. It helps that Teach For America recruits take hard-to-fill positions that would otherwise go to temporary substitute teachers.

Looking Ahead

When Teach for America turned 15 this fall, the organization announced its next big goal. By 2010, Teach For America aims to increase its corps to 8,000 teachers and expand to 30 regions across the nation. "We are aspiring to become the top employer of top recent college graduates," Kopp says. "We are very, very committed to reaching these goals." Next year, the program will send teachers to three new regions-New Haven, Memphis, and Hawaii, says Clapp. When this article went to press, Clapp was planning to accept between 2400 and 2800 teachers for next year's corps class.

Teach For America will also work on retention. Clapp says between 10 and 15 percent of each corps class drops out before the two years are up. "We are losing people and we want to know why and we want to know how we can prevent that," she says.

Harvard graduate Mark Stanisz, a first-year science teacher in Philadelphia, has an answer. "People who leave-I don't think it's because they don't believe in the kids, it's just many of them are comparing themselves to this standard that they can never reach." The standard is reflected in Teach For America's mantra: "One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education"-the very saying that initially attracts recruits to the program. Stanisz cautions against idealism: "If you go into the classroom and think, 'I'm going to save the world,' you are going to crash and burn. Really crash and burn."

Abby Fee still has trouble managing behavior in her Louisiana classroom, and she continues to feel daunted by Teach For America's ambitious mission. But she is working to adjust her expectations. Instead of thinking "I have to close the achievement gap," she thinks, "I can raise this student's reading level." Or, "I can help that student pass his standardized test."

In Teach For America's war against inequality, every foot soldier's efforts count. But life in the trenches isn't easy.

New Yorker Gillian Gillers is a junior at Yale. She thinks teachers in low-performing schools should get a salary hike.