Monday, October 26, 2009

Detroit Needs Teach For America

I'm considering applying for Teach for America after I graduate, so I have been doing a decent amount of research on the program, and the other day I discovered a troubling story.

The Backstory

In 2001, Teach for America came to Detroit. Student enrollment dropped, and teacher layoffs became necessary. Naturally, some argue, the newest teachers with the least seniority were the first in line to get the axe. In 2004, Detroit's 34 Teach for America teachers left.

Detroit Schools' Decline

It's apparent to anyone following the situation that Detroit schools have been on a steady decline for a very long time. Want visual proof? Check out this info-graphic from the Wall Street Journal, depicting the 50% drop in enrollments over the past decade.

It's not a pretty picture. But that's just the enrollment. The poor student performance is even more shocking. The school district reports that 58% of it's students graduate, but the real numbers are probably much lower. A study by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that less than 25% graduate.

Teach For America's Impact

You can measure the impact of Teach for America quantitatively. A study by the Urban Institute shows "The impact on student achievement of having a Teach For America corps member was at least twice that of having a teacher with three or more years of experience relative to a new teacher. A 2009 follow-up, employing a larger sample of corps members and additional comparison groups, corroborated the initial findings."

However convincing these numbers may be, I think the most compelling evidence for TFA's impact is anecdotal. After Detroit kicked them out, the parent of a student in a TFA teacher's classroom had this to say:

Patrice Mosley, whose daughter Precious is in Gall's class, said losing Gall could make her rethink whether to look for a new school for her son. "He's a creative teacher, a caring teacher," Mosley said. "For this school to lose him is horrible."
If a parent considers switching schools after a teacher leaves, you can bet that is one amazing teacher.

Why Teach for America's Critics are Wrong

The most common objection to Teach for America's strategy is that they recruit people who just use it as a stepping stone to other career goals.

The first thing to remember is that TFA teachers have proven success, so this gripe is essentially a personal one. It doesn't say anything about the quality of instruction these teachers give to their students.

Why does it matter if TFA teachers leave after two years? If they are good teachers, it shouldn't matter to us whether or not they stay. The point is to bring idealistic young people into struggling schools so they can inspire a sense of hope and ambition in the students who probably haven't had many people encourage them to believe in themselves. The only real education is a self-education. You have to be inspired to want to achieve and believe in your abilities to actively pursue a self-education. Some are lucky to be born into people who encourage them to believe in themselves. A rare few find it themselves even in discouraging environments. Most are capable of it if they are inspired by someone.

This is the single most important task of an educator. Learning isn't a transaction where the teacher implants knowledge into the student's heads. The students have to want it. The task of the educator is to make the students want to learn. Without that, they are just wasting their time.

I can understand why teachers would be offended by young hot-shots coming in, "taking" their jobs, and then skipping town for greener pastures. It would have been a tough decision for Detroit Public Schools to lay off veterans and keep the rookies. But, as Crain's Detroit reports, that tough decision has been made by every other major school district, even those with strong union influence.

I hope Mayor Bing, Robert Bobb, and other leaders in Detroit will do everything they can to bring Teach for America back to their fallen city.

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