Can Teach For America close the achievement gap?

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Teach For America (TFA), which recruits “top college students” for a Peace Corps-like two-year teaching stint in low-income communities, claims on their website to be “leading some of the most successful efforts to close the achievement gap in communities nationwide.” They say their teachers are “providing tangible evidence that the achievement gap can be closed” and are “more effective than other teachers, including certified and veteran teachers.”

Since the Twin Cities, with one of the nation’s highest achievement gaps between Black and White students, is now host to several TFA corps members with more expected to arrive in the future, we asked program officials and other educational leaders to tell us exactly what might make TFA more effective than other teachers in closing this gap — assuming they in fact are.
“We can solve this [achievement gap] problem,” TFA Founder Wendy Kopp assured a group of community and education leaders during a visit to St. Paul in April. The MSR had requested an interview with Kopp, but a TFA spokesperson instead referred us to TFA Twin Cities Executive Director Daniel Sellers.

“I think Teach For America is one source” foclosing the achievement gap, Sellers said in an interview with the MSR earlier this month.

TFA corps members are now in 33 area schools, including 13 Minneapolis Public Schools, and Sellers said that number will increase by two in the next school year. “We’ve grown from 40 teachers in the first year to 90 teachers last year, and will grow to 100 teachers next year,” he pointed out, adding that the majority of the local TFA teachers “are making a huge impact on the lives of their kids.”

“What you see are [TFA] teachers with high expectations, focused on results, using data, and really doing whatever it takes to make sure that our students are on the path to college,” said Hiawatha Leadership Academy Executive Director Shannon Blankenship. “Sixty percent of my staff is either current TFA or alumni. There is a TFA teacher in every grade of my school.”

On the other hand, a 2005 Stanford University study concluded that TFA teachers were “generally less effective than certified teachers.”

“I actually never have looked at the data between our TFA teachers and our non-TFA teachers,” continued Blankenship, who estimates his school student population at nearly 70 percent Latino and 20 percent Black. Last year only 20 percent of his students were proficient in reading and math, he said. “By the end of the year, 70 percent had scored proficient or better in reading and math. And the teachers that taught those students were Teach For America teachers.”

Yet a 2010 report by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice report concluded: “TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.” Minneapolis Roosevelt High School Assistant Principal Vernon Rowe, whose school has a TFA member teaching math and drama, told us, “No one teacher can close the achievement gap.”

The term “achievement gap” misidentifies the problem of educational disparity in urban schools, University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds said. “It puts the onus on the children for their failure to meet testing standards or to live up to expectations set by the school. I think that term absolves schools, school systems, and those who work in the schools of their responsibility of addressing some of these educational disparities.”

Asked about TFA, Levy-Pounds said, “Most of what I’ve heard has been positive.” However, she expressed concern about teachers, whether TFA or not, “who [are] under-equipped to teach Black children. We assume simply because someone has a college degree or they have been an education major, that qualifies them to go in and teach children of color. I disagree with that notion.”

“It’s the teachers’ understanding of the [students’] culture” that is important, said Barbara Elvecrog, who teaches both TFA and non-TFA students at Hamline University. The majority of her adult students, around 10 percent of them persons of color, are seeking to become certified as teachers after earning a college degree in another field of study. Cultural diversity is a priority among the topics she focuses on.

According to TFA’s Sellers, “Students grew an average of two years in math and 1.9 years in reading in just one year in the classroom” of a first-year TFA teacher at one local school. Another first-year TFA teacher “saw more than 40 percent of her students” pass the state high school MCA tests compared to zero percent a year ago, Sellers said. However, when asked, Sellers was unable to provide data supporting these claims.

The Great Lakes report also noted that high attrition rates of TFA teachers is attributed to the belief that these teachers “have not made an explicit commitment to teaching” compared to those who completed traditional four-year teacher education programs.

“I’m sure that there are some people for whom this is something different…,” countered Sellers, “but the overwhelming majority of our folk, whether they join Teach For America staff or serve as a corps member, are staying in education.” He added that at least 10 percent of TFA members “see themselves as staying in education long-term” and two-thirds of the 7,000-plus TFA alumni work as full-time educators.

Whether those who stay in education do so in schools in low-income communities and communities of color, however, is not known.

Rowe pointed out that he doesn’t see many Black TFA teachers. In response to that criticism, Sellers said, “We will have two African American team members on our [full-time] staff [for the next school year]. We also are going to grow the number of African American corps members and the number of corps members of color.

“Next year we will have about 20 percent of our corps identified as people of color. While that is not good enough, we will continue to strive to do better,” said Sellers.

New TFA teachers for the next school year will begin their two-month training in Chicago in June, and will be installed in classrooms at the start of school in September, said Sellers. He admitted that TFA doesn’t have any magic formula for solving the current educational inequities that exist in urban schools.

“I don’t think there is a short-term solution that works,” he noted. “We know that there is no silver bullet theory to solving this problem.”

“It is important for young people to have people who look like them standing as role models in front of the classroom,” concluded Levy-Pounds. ”I’m not saying that only Black teachers can teach Black children, but I believe that we need an increase in the number of Black men and women who are at the helm of the classroom, who are helpful to supplement the curriculum to ensure that it is reflective of a child’s culture and heritage, and also able to teach from a perspective that the children can relate to and understand.”

We didn’t really get a clear answer to our question what, if anything, might make TFA teachers “more effective than other teachers, including certified and veteran teachers,” at reducing the Black-White achievement gap as the program says it can do. But significant improvement does seem unlikely if TFA or other programs addressing the gap fail to recruit and train more Black teachers for our schools, whether “top college students” or traditional education majors. If there’s anything close to a silver bullet, it may be greater cultural competence among those charged with educating African American children — wherever they come from.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to