A piece of the puzzle: Teach For America, Dayton and its schools

Enticing our top college graduates to teach in America’s classrooms is a serious challenge, bordering on an epidemic in some of our poorer communities and neighborhoods. According to the 2010 McKinsey reportAttracting and Retaining Top Talent in US Teaching,” just under one in four of our entering teachers come from the top third of their college class. For high-poverty schools even fewer entering teachers (a mere 14 percent) are top third talent.

In the Buckeye State, the Ohio Board of Regents’ data corroborate McKinsey’s finding that neither the best nor brightest are entering Ohio’s classrooms as teachers. According to the Regents, the average composite ACT of an incoming teacher-prep candidate was 22.75, below the average ACT score of the overall incoming freshman class for relatively selective universities. The middle 50 percent of incoming freshman to the Ohio State University, for example, had composite ACT scores between 26 and 30.  

What deters the best and brightest from entering (and staying) in our classrooms is, of course, a complicated issue with many hypotheses: low pay, stressful working conditions, rigid  certification requirements, lack of prestige, and archaic remuneration systems that fail to reward high-performing teachers and backloads benefits are all plausible explanations.

Since 1989 Teach For America (TFA) has worked to improve this bleak human capital situation, and has brought the nation’s top college graduates into a small, but increasing slice of America’s highest need classrooms. In 2012-13, more than 10,000 young men and women are teaching in 36 states through TFA. These are graduates of the nation’s finest universities, including the Ohio State University with 55 alumni and Denison University with 18 participating in TFA this year. TFA members are generally these schools cream-of-the-crop—the average GPA of an incoming TFA member is over 3.5-and these young people have rigorous academic degrees ranging from economics to engineering to history.

This marks the first year TFA has been in Ohio. Fifty TFA members are teaching in the Cleveland region and 30 more work in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas (five work in Fordham sponsored schools and we proudly help fund their Dayton efforts). Thus far, in Dayton, TFA corps members have only entered charter school classrooms, but this is starting to change. In February, Dayton Public Schools (DPS) approved hiring eight TFA teachers to work in their schools in 2013-14. This personnel decision, recommended by Dayton Superintendent Lori Ward and approved by the Dayton Board of Education, occurred as some 200 DPS teachers are expected to retire between now and the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Thus far, in Dayton, TFA corps members have only entered charter school classrooms, but this is starting to change.

Despite the stellar academic qualifications of TFA members, skeptics worry about whether these teachers will be effective in the classroom. In a recent Dayton Daily News story, Dave Romick of the Dayton Education Association was cool to the idea, questioning whether TFA teachers will be effective, and whether TFA is a long-term solution to DPS’ staffing woes.

The research evidence on effectiveness suggests Mr. Romick shouldn’t worry, and in fact should work with the district to increase the number of TFA corps members. TFA members, on average, impact student achievement just as well, and often more than, teachers who have completed a traditional teacher-prep program—sometimes even veteran teachers. For the mounting evidence, consider studies conducted by the Urban Institute, Mathematica for math achievement in particular, the University of North Carolina, and the Tennessee State Board of Education, which have each found TFA members to outperform their traditional peers. For example, the University of North Carolina study, published in 2012, found that, compared to new, traditionally-prepared teachers, TFA members have significantly stronger impacts on student achievement.

While the academic qualifications of TFA members are equal to and sometimes superior to traditional education school graduates and the evaluative research is positive toward TFA and its impact on student achievement, there remains justifiable concern about whether TFA members will stay or leave when their two-year teaching terms end. A 2011 Phi Delta Kappan survey found that 61 percent of TFAers continued as public school teachers and that 44 percent stay at their initial site placement immediately after year two. However, by year five, only 15 percent remain as a teacher at their initial site.

This statistic should prompt Dayton’s district and community leaders to develop a strategic plan to retain and nurture the talents of TFA members—whether in a classroom capacity or in other leadership positions—for the long-haul. Several TFA alumni have built on their classroom experiences and have launched some of the most effective educational organizations in the nation. For example, David Levin and Mike Feinberg, the co-founders of the successful KIPP charter schools, are TFA alum; as is Sarah Usdin, the founder of New Schools for New Orleans, a non-profit that invests in high-performing charters schools in the Bayou State. These are organizations that have improved the educational opportunities of high-need youth and are closing achievement gaps.

Dayton is a city badly in need of an infusion of smart, hard-working young people—in its public school system in particular.

Dayton is a city badly in need of an infusion of smart, hard-working young people—in its public school system in particular. Eight TFA teachers in Dayton Public Schools is a modest investment in human capital.  Instructing 150 students or so, won’t lead the entirety of Dayton Public Schools to the land of milk and honey, next year or even the year after. But, why deny these 150 students the opportunity to learn under a talented, hard-working top college graduate? Why not try to keep these original eight in their schools for the long-term or find them leadership roles in Dayton’s education sector and beyond?

And, why not aim to increase the size of TFA incrementally over time—so long as it’s a program that proves itself worthy of the students of Dayton? Increasing the supply of intelligent, highly-motivated teachers in high-poverty areas is one piece of the education reform puzzle, and a large one at that. Teach For America helps greatly, and as such, deserves the full support of Dayton Public Schools’ administration and educator community.  

Correction (4/1/13): A previous version of this post remarked that TFA was only in charter schools, throughout all Ohio. Cincinnati Public Schools, however, is working with TFA and the post has been revised to reflect this correction.

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