The New Recruits

By Millicent Lawton — June 14, 2019 7 min read
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Wendy Kopp’s senior thesis at Princeton University raised its share of professorial eyebrows.

It embodied a sweeping, idealistic vision of a national teacher corps that would lure recent graduates of selective colleges to teach in inner-city and rural classrooms plagued by teacher shortages. The idea was also greeted with some skepticism later, when Kopp sought corporate and foundation support for the plan after her 1989 graduation.

But her thesis got an A, initial funding rolled in from the Mobil Foundation and Union Carbide Corp., and today, Kopp’s teacher corps, known as Teach For America, has grown into a $5 million reality.

Last school year, Teach For America shepherded nearly 500 recruits into schools nationwide, garnered three front-page articles in The New York Times, and attracted a flood of other media attention.

But Kopp’s ambitious thesis—now about to play out for a second year in the lives of some 1,200 new and returning corps members as well as thousands of schoolchildren—has continued to cause much exercising of eyebrows.

Many hail the program—which asks volunteers to make a two-year, Peace-Corps-like commitment—as a bold and admirable effort to bring an otherwise untapped talent pool into teaching. A group of high-profile benefactors, ranging from the Xerox Corp. to Texas entrepreneur H. Ross Perot and actor Paul Newman, have seen fit to bankroll the project.

Others, however, fiercely deride the idea of placing pedagogically underprepared teachers in charge of the education and development of the many at-risk students who populate inner-city and rural areas.

The 24-year-old Kopp openly acknowledges that TFA’s eight-week preservice summer institute held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles cannot make expert teachers of its graduates. But she adds, “I don’t think there is a preservice program in the country, whether it’s four years, or one year, or eight weeks, that can prepare someone to be an expert teacher the moment they walk into the classroom.”

This fall, the program’s recruits will walk into classrooms in New York City; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Houston; and New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., as well as in rural Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas. These novices, working under existing alternative- certification provisions, will be paid a first-year salary, ranging from $15,000 to $29,000. In no district will they displace fully certified teachers.

The TFA training program focuses on the basics: the psychology of learners, how to create an effective lesson, and classroom discipline. It tries to instill the “basic theoretical background and teaching techniques” that corps members need to run a classroom, Kopp says.

This year, the project attracted about 750 candidates—recruited from 150 college campuses and culled from 3,100 applicants—for the six-week lecture-and-seminar component of its summer institute. For five of those weeks, recruits spend half days practice-teaching in the year-round Los Angeles Unified School District.

During the first week of the institute, the atmosphere bubbles with the enthusiasm and anticipation of the new corps members. “I think I’m about to begin the most exciting two years of my life,” says 22-year-old Mark Levine, a Haverford College graduate who hopes to get students excited about his specialty, physics.

Joining the novices for one week of professional development workshops are between 200 and 400 returning “second-summer” corps members. These teachers spend time reflecting on the past year, swapping ideas for lesson plans, and boning up on teaching techniques.

Critical feedback from some of these corps veterans has spurred a wave of changes in this year’s institute: a less self-congratulatory and more child-centered tone, a more structured curriculum, and faculty at the summer sessions and placement sites with classroom experience. Unlike last year’s inaugural institute, the new corps members will spend the final two weeks of their eight weeks of training in their assigned districts.

“We approach this whole thing with the idea that we’re going to do a lot of things wrong,” says Kopp. “We’re going to listen a lot, and we’re going to change anything as soon as we figure out there’s a better way to do it.”

Lisa Peterson, a 1990 Yale University graduate who taught at William Fischer Elementary School in New Orleans, says last year’s TFA institute did a “decent” job preparing her. But she admits that she found it difficult to reconcile the “progressive” methods the institute taught with practices in her school. “People over the summer told me one thing,” she says, “and people in New Orleans told me another.”

Described by one corps veteran as “avant-garde,” the institute curriculum emphasizes, among other things, the importance of cultural sensitivity and multicultural approaches to learning and cooperative learning rather than academic tracking or grouping.

Indeed, a distinctly iconoclastic air pervades the institute, whether manifest subtly in seminars held on the grass beneath a shady tree or more explicitly in the remarks of guest lecturers like Ruben Zacarias, associate superintendent for school operations in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who tells the first-year corps members, “Don’t worry about methodology.” Zacarias assures his audience that it is an “advantage” to forgo traditional teacher education, and he draws thunderous applause when he adds, “If you’re doing it by the book, you’re doing it wrong.”

Not surprisingly, TFA has not been warmly received by those both inside and outside the teacher education community who put stock in rigorous teacher preparation.

“I have a real problem with Teach For America,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Teachers prepared in this [emergency credentialing] fashion, with very little attention to getting a grounding in how children grow and develop, are less effective with students.”

Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, agrees, and adds that another drawback to the program is the mere two-year commitment it requires of recruits. It “conveys the idea,” he says, “that teaching is something you do for a few years before you move on to `important work.” Wise calls that an “absolutely deadly message to be transmitting to college-age youth.”

But Carl Grant, a professor of curriculum and instruction and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, finds much merit in the program. “We should support [Teach For America],” says Grant, who was the director of last year’s TFA summer institute but is no longer affiliated with the group. “If it succeeds, hallelujah. If it doesn’t, the profession learns from it.”

Despite the challenging classroom conditions that many TFA teachers face, the program’s attrition rate so far does not differ considerably from the national average, according to Ian Huschle, the group’s director of communications, planning, and development.

Of the 489 corps members who started last fall, 53 failed to complete the year—an attrition rate of 10.8 percent. That is roughly comparable to the national rate of 9 percent, Huschle says, and stacks up “very favorably” with the 25 percent to 50 percent attrition rates of the communities that employ TFA teachers.

By most accounts, TFA recruits have been well-received by administrators, union officials, and teaching colleagues in these communities. Superintendent Josephine Schwindt of New York City’s Queens District 27 says that the 25 teachers her system hired through the project “all brought an enthusiasm and a motivation to the job that was really stirring to all of the staff.”

Ron Gregory, assistant superintendent of the Vance County (N.C.) Public Schools, was also pleased with his TFA recruits, even though two of the seven decided not to finish the school year. One TFA member has been so successful teaching high school Spanish that her principal is having trouble coping with the demand for the subject. “Everybody wants to take Spanish,” Gregory says.

Several veteran corps members, interviewed at random from among those attending the summer institute, describe their experiences in generally positive terms, but pepper their comments with adjectives like “crazy,” “difficult,” and “intense.”

Some complain that they received too little instruction in lesson planning and too little post-institute support. The complaints of others echo those of seasoned teachers: poor student behavior, too much paperwork, and bureaucratic headaches.

Denise Janssen, a 1990 Pennsylvania State University graduate who taught 3rd grade at the Jesse Owens School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, ran into a variety of difficulties in a community rife with poverty, guns, and drugs. “The hardest thing to deal with,” she says, “is realizing what you accomplish in eight hours may be totally decimated by what happens at home in the next 14 to 16 hours.” But Janssen is not deterred and has decided to make teaching her career. “It’s worth it,” she says, “when you realize you’ve tapped into someone’s life—and they’ve tapped into yours, as well.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1991 edition of Teacher Magazine as The New Recruits


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