Staying the Course

Too many Teach for America members make a difference -- then leave. Is the program worth it? But after five years, the differences are starting to add up.

Teach for America is in its fifth year in Memphis, and more than 250 high-performing college graduates have taught in Memphis City Schools.

A new study by the Tennessee State Board of Education shows that the celebrated and highly competitive program aimed at bringing the smartest college students into public school teaching has been a mixed bag.

On the one hand, Teach For America (TFA) corps members have made a positive difference in student achievement in math, reading, science, and social studies. They did better than both beginning and veteran teachers in the study. And they outperformed graduates of teacher-training programs at all of Tennessee's public and private colleges and universities. Of the 41 teacher preparation programs in the study, only TFA had an across-the-board positive impact.

On the other hand, the majority of TFA teachers fulfill their two-year commitment, then leave the profession. Only 9 percent of TFA's first Memphis corps of 45 teachers stayed in teaching for four or more years. That's way below the 50-63 percent four-year retention rate of teachers from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, UT-Martin, and Middle Tennessee State University. It is also below the 36-50 percent retention rate of teachers from private Christian Brothers University and Belmont University. Only Vanderbilt University (7 percent) had a lower retention rate.

TFA corps members get placed in some of the most challenging schools. They get crash courses in teacher training leading to certification while they work and in summer sessions. They also get the benefits of esprit de corps and support and counsel from professional TFA staff and local sponsors who "adopt" a teacher for a year or more. More than 90 percent of Memphis corps members have stuck it out for two years.

Is it worth lavishing attention on advantaged college graduates who are likely to teach for only two or three years?

Disclosure: My wife and I sponsored two TFA corps members who are still living in Memphis and we are close to a third. They filled a void in our lives after our children moved away. One is teaching at an alternative school, one is teaching at a charter school, and one is changing careers after four years with TFA.

I am a fan of TFA for the simple reason that I would rather children had a knowledgeable, if inexperienced, teacher for the 180 days in a school year than a not-so-good experienced teacher. Like every MCS parent, I've seen both kinds. Ideally, the best teachers would make a career of it after learning from their rookie mistakes. But even if they stay only two years, that's 360 hours of math or English or science with a highly motivated teacher who is under pressure to get results.

I'll take that deal, especially knowing that there's a fresh corps of replacements on the way and a decent chance that the retention rate will continue to improve.

"What I'm hopeful about is that from the 2006 class to the 2007 class our retention rate doubled," said Athena Turner, executive director of TFA in Memphis and a former science teacher at Kingsbury High School.

The main reasons corps members give for leaving are feeling overwhelmed by teaching and taking courses at the same time and failing to make a connection to the broader Memphis community. Last year, TFA changed its certification procedure to give members more free time.

If they stay in their Tennessee classroom for three years they get a professional license.

While few corps members from the first two years are still in classroom teaching in Tennessee, 67 percent are working with organizations that impact students in low-income areas.

"We are starting to bring back more Memphians to our corps," said Turner. "In the 2011 corps we already have four Memphians, including a Harvard graduate, coming back."

Her goal is to have at least 300 TFA alumni working in Memphis in 2015. One way or another, that's a step in the right direction.

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