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Published in Print: April 25, 2001, as Offspring Spreads Upstart's Influence

Offspring Spreads Upstart's Influence

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Given today's tight teacher market, word that a district had snared 240 applicants for 30 openings might prompt some to ask what planet it was on. And yet, that's the ratio achieved this winter by the East Baton Rouge public schools, a Louisiana system serving a mostly low-income community that many educators might consider a hardship post.

Kaya Henderson, 30; a regional manager for the New Teacher Project, shows off some of the 1,200 applications received for 100 openings in the new D.C. Teaching Fellows program. "We were confident we could generate an applicant pool of 400 to 500," she says. "But 1,200 has just blown us away."
—Allison Shelley

The secret to the district's success was the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit consulting group. With the organization's help, the 57,000-student East Baton Rouge district adopted new marketing strategies, while creating a summer- training program for noneducation majors interested in teaching.

Considering its particular specialty, it's not surprising that the New York City-based organization has grown from a staff of three to nearly 50 in four years. Recently, it signed on school districts in Hartford, Conn.; San Jose, Calif.; and Denver, to name a few.

The growth of the New Teacher Project is yet another illustration of the expanding influence of Teach For America, the private Peace Corps-style program that recruits recent college graduates to teach for at least two years in an urban or rural school. Teach For America spun off the consulting group in 1997 to spread what it's learned about training and recruitment, and by all accounts, the venture has found an eager audience.

"The reason I believe they're so successful is that they are not bound by the constraints of tradition," says Clayton Wilcox, the acting superintendent in East Baton Rouge. "They don't know what's not possible."

The New Teacher Project lends its expertise in two ways. First, it seeks to streamline and better coordinate districts' overall hiring processes. But the bulk of its business involves setting up new training and recruitment programs that replicate the Teach For America model.

Several such ventures have been unveiled in recent months. They go by such names as Teach Baton Rouge and the D.C. Teaching Fellows program.

In Massachusetts, the project helps train many of the recruits in the state's high-profile signing-bonus initiative for new teachers. Its largest contract is to run the New York City Teaching Fellows program, which brought in 325 new teachers last year, and will expand to recruit and train an additional 1,500 this year.

No two projects are identical, but they share core elements: a marketing campaign targeting noneducation majors, an extensive selection process, and a few weeks of training—organized by the consulting group in which recruits help teach summer school students. Once in their own classrooms, the novice teachers start working toward becoming fully licensed.

Each of the projects has generated far more applications than there are openings. The fellows' initiative for the District of Columbia attracted more than 1,200 inquiries for a mere 100 positions. Says Kaya Henderson, the regional manager who oversees the Washington program: "We were confident we could generate an application pool of 400 to 500 people, but 1,200 has just blown us away."

The group's philosophy is that, for too long, teacher recruitment has meant little more than processing applications. Striving to be more assertive, the project bases its marketing on focus groups and works aggressively to reach its target audience. Rather than join career fairs for people interested in teaching, the District of Columbia effort leafleted local coffee shops, bookstores, and volunteer groups that tend to attract professionals.

Project organizers have learned that many people in the middle of their careers tend to be motivated by a sense of idealism similar to that of the newly minted college graduates Teach For America targets. Instead of downplaying the challenges faced by teachers in the districts it works with, the New Teacher Project flaunts them. The message is: "Now, you can be part of the solution."

"When I helped as an interviewer in New York, almost every single person I spoke with said, 'I've been working for 10 or 15 years and always felt something was missing,' " said Michelle Rhee, the New Teacher Project's president and chief executive officer.

Supported primarily by the fees it charges clients, Ms. Rhee's $3.8 million organization also helps school systems rope in traditional recruits. In East Baton Rouge, it picked some 20 young education school graduates in the district to work as part-time talent scouts. They return to their alma maters to encourage others to seek work in the district when they graduate—an effort aimed at stemming the tide of new teachers who leave Louisiana each year to work in Texas, where districts pay more.

"The higher salaries are there," says Meredyth Hudson, who manages the East Baton Rouge project. "But it's also that they've been wined and dined. Every student at one of our focus groups here said they'd received materials from Texas, Florida, and Georgia, and nothing from Louisiana."

But this propagation is a cause for concern for some. The worry is that Teach For America promotes a naive, even dangerous, notion that good teachers are more born than they are made.

"It's like sending a medical school graduate straight into the operating room, and saying, 'For the first five or six operations, you'll be a little ragged, but you'll get the hang of it,' " says Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education.

Because of the difficulty many systems face in finding enough teachers, though, Elmore says the world is probably better off for having Teach For America. The alternative would be to use long-term substitutes or to rely solely on schools of education—many of which, he says, have yet to raise substantially the quality of their own training.

The true measure of the New Teacher Project may come in the next few years, as its clients wean themselves from its help and assume responsibility for managing the processes it helped put in place. The consulting group stresses that districts must give their recruits ample support and training once they're in the classroom, and it recommends ways of doing so.

Time will soon tell if those promises are kept.

Vol. 20, Issue 32, Page 36

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