Last updated on 2014.03.17
...but what about long-term quality in teaching?
The GOP House leadership's ego trip didn't get in the way of Senate Bill 139, a measure expanding the state's support for Teach for America on South Dakota's Indian reservations. SB 139 was the last bill to creak through the House before state budget and adjournment yesterday. Senator Phyllis Heineman's (R-13/Sioux Falls) bill originally sought $1.5 million to fund recruit fresh-faced, good-hearted college grads to fill hard-t0-fill teaching spots in reservation schools. The Legislature whittled that request down to a final appropriation of $250,000, but Heineman and TFA hope our money will get the ball rolling for private contributions to support expanding the program from Pine Ridge and Rosebud to Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, and Crow Creek.
SB 139 drew concerted opposition from my friends at Black Hills State University. I attended three crackerbarrels out here this session, and at each one (two in Spearfish, one in Belle Fourche), a rep from BHSU stood to ask why the state was throwing money at Teach for America instead of investing in better-trained local teachers from our own state teacher training programs. They evidently got through to Senator Tom Nelson (R-31/Lead), Senator Larry Rhoden (R-29/Union Center), and Rep. Fred Romkema (R-31/Spearfish), who all consistently voted against SB 139. They had Rep. Chuck Turbiville (R-31/Deadwood) too, but he joined the majority on the final 61-8 House vote in favor.
Why might anyone oppose Teach for America when it fills a need for teachers on the reservations that the market is clearly unable to meet? Let's turn to the opinion of an English professor and parent in Windham, Connecticut, who shares my BHSU friends' concerns about locking struggling schools into a pattern of ever-rotating, inexperienced teachers:
Filling vacancies in this way is wrong. It exacerbates the revolving-door nature of teaching and devalues the work of current educators....
Teacher recruitment and retention are historical problems in high-poverty school districts, but using Teach for America "interns," who are recent college graduates and professionals, will only institutionalize this problem. The basic characteristics of Teach for America recruits — they are undercertified and lack classroom experience — mirror one of our most severe problems. Researchers frequently bewail the fact that experienced teachers do not remain poor districts, yet now Adamowski and the Windham Board of Education wish to enshrine the "farm" system.
Teach for America has a powerful marketing and lobbying machine, and it defines itself as a program to train future leaders. Teaching in high-poverty areas is a means to an end for a Teach for America recruit.
We all know that at bottom there is a funding structure for education that is unfair, if not criminal. Why don't high-performing districts hire Teach for America recruits, and let the experienced teachers from those districts come to Windham to fill vacancies — at their current pay? [Mary Gallucci, "State Runs Roughshod over Poor School District," Hartford (CT) Courant, 2012.03.04].
I respect the sacrifice Teach for America recruits make to put their career plans on hold and come teach in South Dakota school districts. They come do hard work that not enough of us are willing to do.
Yet I understand that relying on a transient workforce of even the most passionate rookie teachers is a second-best solution. Schools do better to recruit and maintain professionals who will spend the best years of their career on staff, creating continuity in curriculum and school culture and contributing long-term to their communities. And relying on TFA recruits with five weeks of pedagogical training flies in the face of the model of countries like Finland, where rigorous professional requirements for entry into the teaching profession are a cornerstone of successful public education systems.
Governor Daugaard's education reforms pose a similar risk: offering scholarships to new teachers in exchange for five years of service right after college may keep them here early on, but such scholarships do not change the political and economic pressures that will keep pushing those teachers out once they've served their time. When schools rely on young, rotating staffs, new hires have fewer veteran teachers to mentor them and advocate for them. Professional organizations, from the local teacher unions to statewide discipline-based groups like the South Dakota Speech Communication Association and the World Languages Association, have fewer experienced leaders to engage in public advocacy and promote professional development activities statewide.
But maybe that's the balance that Governor Daugaard and the South Dakota Legislature seek: teaching that's "good enough*," but a teaching profession weakened by a young, churning workforce that won't stick around to vote on its institutional memory for more than one or two election cycles.
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The question for most districts, however, is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.
...From a school-wide perspective, the high turnover of TFA teachers is costly. Recruiting and training replacements for teachers who leave involves financial costs, and the higher achievement gains associated with experienced teachers and lower turnover may be lost as well.
Thus, a simple answer to the question of TFA teachers' relative effectiveness cannot be conclusively drawn from the research; many factors are involved in any comparison. The lack of a consistent impact, however, should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.
The evidence suggests that districts may benefit from using TFA personnel to fill teacher shortages when the available labor pool consists of temporary or substitute teachers or other novice alternatively and provisionally certified teachers likely to leave in a few years. Nevertheless, if educational leaders plan to use TFA teachers as a solution to the problem of shortages, they should be prepared for constant attrition and the associated costs of ongoing recruitment and training [Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, "Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence," Great Lakes Center for Education Review and Practice, June 2010].