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.
If inexperienced teachers don’t perform as well, then why pair them with students who struggle the most?
“When they started, we were staffing our high-poverty schools … with anything that breathed,” said Haycock. But, she added, “Saying their solution is better than what came before it is not to say it’s the right thing.”
Wagner noted that his master’s degree in teaching from Harvard hardly prepared him for the challenges of being a first-year teacher. “Unless and until we have a dramatically different system, and a universally high-quality system for preparing teachers, I think TFA is a stop gap, [though] an important one,” he said.
A steep learning curve
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.
For Ryan Winn, it was a picture of a recruiter’s third-grade class in Phoenix that persuaded him to apply. The recruiter told him that half the students were expected to drop out by the eighth grade.
“That struck me as incredibly unfair, and I was upset about it,” said Winn, a teacher this year in Memphis, Tenn.
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At Holmes Elementary in Miami, the classrooms of Teach for America teachers are filled with posters reminding students of the ambitious goals set for them.
“I have to make a change,” said Michael Darmas, a first-year teacher at Holmes. “I have to make a difference.”
Teach for America training starts with thick packages of readings and then five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who have fallen behind and are taking remedial coursework in order to advance to the next grade.
The fledgling teachers are overseen by another instructor. That could be a more veteran public school teacher, or a current or former Teach for America corps member.