A new look at Teach for America and the value of experienced educators

Earlier this year, Gov. John Kasich decided to let Teach for America — a well-known and controversial teacher development program — come to Ohio in great numbers. TFA is designed to fill inner-city schools with bright and energetic, but inexperienced college graduates.

Trouble is, TFA’s successes have been sporadic and have yet to fulfill the promise its founders and funders have made to close the achievement gap better than the traditional teacher training options. A recent examination by the Associated Press points this out.

One of the article’s most salient points was the following:

“Its teachers perform about as well as other novice instructors, who tend to be less successful than their more experienced colleagues. Even when they do slightly better, there’s a serious offset: The majority are out of the teaching profession within five years.

‘I think ultimately the jury is out,’ said Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an instructor to the first class of TFA corps members.”

What TFA’s experience has taught us is that while energy, passion and intelligence can overcome a lot, when it comes to teaching our most challenged learners, experience cannot be trumped. A post-Waiting for Superman mythology has arisen recently (most pronounced during the Issue 2 fight here in Ohio) that claims that the only thing standing in the way of our children’s success is teachers unions and those pesky experienced (and expensive) teachers. For it is they who keep those energetic, inexperienced (and cheaper) teachers from giving our kids what they need. That’s why we shouldn’t pay for experience, Kasich & Co. claim, for, in their worldview, experience merely begets laziness.

Or not.

“A Harvard study of students in Texas found that a teacher’s level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a greater influence on student performance than any other factor. North Carolina research on teacher training programs, including Teach for America, showed that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.”

Seems like experience does matter, doesn’t it? To students, at least, if not to those who want to break the backs of teacher unions.

Another problematic aspect of Gov. Kasich’s total commitment to TFA is the easing of licensing requirements for TFA participants. Prior to Kasich’s Administration, then-State Superintendent Deborah Delisle required similar licensing procedures for TFA as for other teachers. However, despite the evidence linking scores on licensing exams with student success, the Kasich Administration will now rely solely on TFA’s 5-week training program. From the AP story:

“Most who apply for Teach for America have not studied education or thought about teaching, but consider it after speaking with a recruiter or program graduate.”

If that isn’t disturbing enough, try this chilling paragraph on for size:

“Many countries, including those where students perform higher in math and reading, send the strongest and most experienced teachers to work with the lowest performing students. The U.S. has done the reverse. There are nearly twice as many teachers with fewer than three years’ experience in schools where students are predominantly low income and minority.”

Until we incentivize our experienced, great teachers to teach our most challenged learners, we run the danger of being a world laggard. We don’t have the population size to allow any kids to not reach their full potential, even if it means paying teachers, gulp, more money.

Why is it we accept the principal that you get what you pay for in every aspect of our lives, except education?