Putting the debate about a possible Teach For America Ohio site in context

Last night lawmakers in the Ohio House Education Committee heard testimony regarding House Bill 21 ?legislation that would, among other things, grant a professional educator license to Teach For America alums teaching in Ohio. For the second week in a row, the conversation steered into interesting territory about the merits of TFA (last week, Terry and two teachers from Fordham-authorized, high-performing charters testified on the bill's behalf). This week the bill was amended so that the provision would not only let alums get licensed here, but would also open up alternative licensure pathways so that the actual program could take root in Ohio, something which Fordham has been pushing for years. This piece of legislation would finally bring it to fruition.

As an alumna of the program and someone who's lived in other states and cities not only amenable to TFA but actually thrilled about it, these conversations among lawmakers continue to shock me. Many lawmakers admitted that prior to last week's testimony (during which bright alums like Abbey Kinson and Jenna Davis wowed them with stories of their kids achieving stellar academic results), they'd never heard of the program. Others illustrated glaring ? if accidental ? misperceptions about the program.

Ohio's battle to bring TFA here is a long one. Attempts to lock them out are probably not unlike what goes on in other states, though the fact that Ohio is one of just a handful of states without the program exemplifies the fact that folks here tend to be insular and grossly unaware of innovative and successful programs that are mainstream in other parts of the country. Ohio also has an over-supply of teachers in many grades and subjects, and consequently TFA represents more of a competitive threat; the traditional education community despises the idea and ? like last night ? will spin the research in whatever way makes TFA teachers sound as ill-prepared as possible.

The misperceptions that came out during last night's debate, as well as arguments against Teach For America (delivered by the dean of University of Dayton's ed school) deserve some clarification, even if the bill ends up making its way toward smooth passage.

Teach For America is not new or untested. As the TFA reps reminded everyone last night, TFA has a 20-year track record and exists in 33 (soon to be 36) states in communities that need them most. Last year alone, 46,000 applicants applied, including 1,500 from Ohio alone. Ninety percent of corps members complete their two-year commitments (that's higher retention that other teachers in similar schools); 60 percent stay after their two-year commitment, and two-thirds of alumni stay involved in education in some capacity. As Rep. Brenner asked, ?Would you be in business in 35 states for 20 years if your model didn't work?? The clear answer is no.

Teach For America is not merely a solution to teacher shortages. Several lawmakers seemed to fixate on the notion that Ohio already has enough teachers. We are an exporter of teachers, so why would the state open alternate pathways except in shortage areas (math, science, special ed., etc.) As Christina Grant from Teach For America clarified, its mission is ?to build a movement of leaders committed to ending inequity,? and with Ohio's brain drain problem, why in the world wouldn't we want to retain top talent in urban and rural classrooms instead of letting other states siphon it away? According to Grant, last year ?Teach For America was the number one employer for the 2010 senior class at Denison University, Kenyon, Oberlin, and College of Wooster.?

The quality of research about Teach For America matters more than the ?pile? of research. Andy Rotherham has a must-read column today in TIME that dispels a lot of common myths about TFA, among them that the research about its effectiveness is ?mixed.? Kevin Kelley, dean of the education school at University of Dayton, argued that TFA teachers are less effective than traditionally-certified ones, especially in reading. Citing figures from a study of New York teachers, he successfully cast doubt in the hearing about TFAers' classroom effectiveness. But lawmakers should be reminded that the quality of research matters tremendously. Rotherham did a great write-up last year cautioning against ?study laundering? and highlighting the studies of TFA with the most rigorous methodology. These are ones Ohio lawmakers should pay careful attention to. You can see a full list of research, including a grading of studies' methodology (according to rigor) by Education Next, on TFA's website. Rotherham sums it up perfectly in his latest column:

Pretty much every article about TFA states the boilerplate assertion that the research about its effectiveness is "mixed" or "inconclusive." Actually, that's only true if you think the best way to consume research is to literally pile all the different studies up and see which pile is higher. Again and again, the most rigorous studies show that TFA's selection process and boot-camp training produce teachers who are as good, and sometimes better, than non-TFA teachers, including those who have been trained in traditional education schools and those who have been teaching for decades. "The weight of the evidence suggests that TFA teachers as a whole are at least as effective as other teachers in the schools they end up in," says University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, one of the nation's leading researchers on teacher effectiveness. Another solid indicator? The marketplace. Superintendents and principals, who are on the hook for results, can't get enough TFA teachers.

Teaching is not a jobs program. Along with wondering why TFA would want to place in non-shortage areas came the assertion (from several lawmakers) that this ?could shortchange Ohio teachers? or be a threat to in-state grads of traditional teacher colleges who are currently facing ?stiff competition.? There is only one way to say this: lawmakers, and the rest of us, should be more concerned with students in low-income communities and their achievement than we are about letting our Ohio grads get teaching jobs. Ohio's unemployment rate could skyrocket to 35 percent and this would still remain true. Putting the most effective teaches in classrooms that need them, not providing jobs for adults, is paramount.

Creating new talent pipelines doesn't have to represent an incrimination of the rest of the education community. Teach For America's representatives did an excellent job explaining that Ohio could always use more great teachers, and bringing in TFA doesn't mean that the ones we currently have aren't sufficient. Though the instinct among the education community is to get defensive and perceive TFA's message as an indictment of them, traditional certification pathways, etc. this is not the case. TFA brings in talented individuals who are committed to teaching in low-income schools where many traditional educators don't want to work. Ohio has committed to turning around the lowest five percent of its schools and should staff them with teachers who are committed to the challenge.

Teach For America produces not just great teachers, but leaders committed to closing achievement gaps ? of which Ohio has plenty. Missing from last night's debate entirely were statistics about Ohio's achievement gap. According to some lawmakers, there are ?plenty? of teachers here already, but the question we should be asking is whether there is a need for groups like Teach For America, whose sole purpose is to close achievement gaps, and not whether there are x number of jobs open for them. Ironically, though the dean of education and UD described the superior training of traditionally-certified teachers, he failed to bring up the fact that Dayton Public Schools are among the worst in the state. Not a single school in DPS is rated Excellent (A).? In terms of achievement gaps, 42 percent of white eighth graders in Ohio scored proficient on the reading portion of NAEP, while just 13 percent of African American students did so. In math, the gap is worse ? a 30-percentage point difference. Teach For America teachers across America are closing such gaps in their classrooms, and with passage of this bill they could be in Ohio doing the same as early as this fall.

In short, Teach For America ? along with hundreds of Ohio college students and alums of the program ? are chomping at the bit to begin working in some of Ohio's toughest schools. It's time that we let them.?

- Jamie Davies O'Leary

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