As school districts across North Carolina cope with state budget cuts, the organization Teach For America is offering a ray of good news: It’s expanding the ranks of newly minted teachers it sends into some of the state’s poorest school districts.
Nationally this year, Teach For America will send out a record 10,000 new teachers – a 10 percent increase over 2011 – to work in 46 regions in 36 states. In North Carolina, the TFA teaching corps is expanding from from 150 to 230.
Teach For America Eastern North Carolina, which is based in Durham and serves 10 counties, focuses on underfunded and underperforming school districts.
“In the area we serve 48,000 kids who are living in poverty. We decide where we work based on where we are needed,” said Robyn Fehrman, the executive director of Teach For America Eastern N.C.
In poor school districts, Teach For America teachers are especially welcomed because they are carefully selected for their academic ability and their commitment to teaching in challenging circumstances. In North Carolina this year, TFA accepted only 17 percent of graduates who applied for the post-college teaching work.
Laurie Baker, principal of Warren Early College High school, said TFA teachers are especially coveted in small, rural districts like hers that have difficulty luring top teachers.
“One of the reasons why TFA is so attractive is because it is very competitive, so schools know they are getting good teachers,” she said.
Josh Carson, a Davidson College graduate and former Teach For America member who taught at North Hampton County High School West in Gaston, said his two years as a TFA teacher were deeply fulfilling.
“I was really blessed with the time spent with Teach For America,” said Carson, who now works as a math teacher at Henderson Collegiate Academy in Henderson. “It was an experience I would go back to.”
Addressing ‘education inequity’
Founded in 1990 by Princeton University senior Wendy Kopp as part of her undergraduate thesis, Teach For America has grown steadily despite recessions and budget cuts. Last year, according to the Teach For America website, more than 9,000 corps members taught 600,000 students. Many of the organization’s 24,000 alumni also remain involved in education.
Teach For America seeks to ensure that the most qualified teachers have access to the most underprivileged students.
Drawing from their motto “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” the group subscribes to the idea that good students can’t exist without good teachers. “Our main goal is to address the problems that come with what we call education inequity,” Fehrman said. “Education inequity is a gap in achievement between students in poverty and their more affluent peers.”
Every summer, Teach For America takes a select group of recent university graduates and puts them through rigorous teacher training during summer sessions. After the sessions, teachers are placed in underprivileged classrooms where they work for two years. Participants in the program are paid an average salary of $30,000.
North Carolina has a long history with the organization. The group’s Eastern N.C. branch was one of the organization’s original chapters. In the 22 years since the establishment of its Eastern N.C. branch, Teach for America has built a reputation among North Carolina school districts for producing top new teachers.
“We look for highly qualified teachers, diverse teachers, and teachers who are masters of their craft,” said Cynthia Byrd, principal of Weldon Middle School in Halifax County.
The group’s funding is derived from public dollars and private donations. School districts that partner with the group also pay a fee to use TFA teachers.
Not free from scrutiny
Despite its noble aims, Teach For America has drawn criticism from teachers unions and some education experts. Teachers unions have complained that the group enables districts to replace veteran teachers with teachers making starting salaries. There also has been criticism that the group’s mission ignores the importance of classroom experience and assumes that bright young people can serve in difficult schools with only concentrated training.
But the effectiveness of the TFA concept has found support in an academic study and in testimonials from local educators.
Gary T. Henry, a professor specializing in public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a small group of six researchers, released a report this year about the effectiveness of new teachers. The report identifies Teach For America as one of the most effective teacher preparatory programs in the state.
“I wanted to assess whether teachers who trained through less traditional routes were more effective than teachers who trained through more traditional routes,” Henry said.
The study compared teachers from UNC’s teacher preparation system with Teach For America and 10 other programs. It discovered that Teach For America surpassed UNC in 73 percent of teacher effectiveness tests and tied UNC in the remaining 27 percent.
“The study was quite clear,” Henry said. “TFA is very effective in raising test scores.”
Henry’s study is backed up by the real world experiences of school officials like Ray V. Spain, superintendent of Warren County Schools.
“Teach For America has been a godsend,” said Spain in a meeting with The News and Observer last month. “We’ve seen consistent results with our test scores among TFA teachers and normally they do better than other teachers.”