Big expansion, big questions for Teach for America

“It was a real steep learning curve,” said Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes.

When the summer is over, teachers are sent to their assigned districts, which pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member they hire, in addition to the teacher’s salary. Many don’t find out exactly what they’ll be teaching until shortly before school begins.

In interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members, many described classroom triumphs. Several also acknowledged feeling dubious about their abilities as first-year teachers.

“I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me,” said Brett Barley, who taught in the San Francisco Bay area. “I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful.”

Most of the fourth-graders Barley taught entered reading and writing at second-grade levels. About 30 percent weren’t native English speakers; two were classified as blind.

“The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels,” Barley said.

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In her book, A Chance to Make History, Kopp tells the stories of several Teach for America teachers who achieved remarkable success in the classroom. But it’s not hard to find teachers who come out with a very different story about their experience.

Megan Hopkins, a Spanish major in college who was placed in Phoenix as a bilingual teacher, said she did not receive any training on teaching English language learners.

“I had no idea how to teach a child to read,” Hopkins said. “I had no idea how to teach a second language learner to read in Spanish, much less in English. After five weeks of training, I really had no idea what I was doing. I felt that was a big disservice to my students.”

Teach for America encouraged her to set a goal of advancing her students one-and-a-half grade levels. She didn’t know how to go about building such a measurement, but was able to develop one with other teachers.

Hopkins said she was praised “up and down” for increasing student reading levels, but she questioned the results. One student, a native Spanish speaker, could read fluently in English, “but if you asked him what he read, he had absolutely no idea.”

High turnover

Teach for America, in its own review of external research, concludes that its teachers achieve student gains that are “at least as great as that of other new teachers.” In some studies they do better, and in others they do worse.

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