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SB 139: Teach for America Meets Immediate Needs in Reservation Schools…

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.

* * *

*Good enough?

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].


  1. poliglut 2012.03.03

    With given exceptions, it is unrealistic to believe that we can recruit teachers from the mainstream who will broadly accept long-term positions in our most impoverished areas. One exception may be to pay for the post-secondary education of American Indian children who indicate a willingness to return to the res to carry on their lives, teaching others. But how'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Par-ee?

  2. LK 2012.03.03

    Troy will undoubtedly call what follows specious, but this TFA support is part of Daugaard's basic plan to marginalize teachers politically. After all, the Governor, like Brutus, is an honorable man.

    Further, I am willing to bet the proverbial farm that Daugaard's second term will feature an assualt on the SD retirement system. Suddenly, one of the best systems in the state will be going broke and teachers will be the cause. TFA will be a savior of the system. The transient teachers will not be vested in the program and hence not draw from it.

    I can see the campaign ads now: saving now and saving later. If Daugaard has his way, at least 25% of all SD teachers will be TFA within 5 years.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.03

    (Hey! Who's winning State Debate? Any legislators come to judge PF?)

  4. David Newquist 2012.03.03

    The diminution of teachers in South Dakota has a political history that goes back to Janklow's success at limiting SDEA activities to the bargaining table, which took away any real power and influence through the collective bargaining laws, and appointing regents who would and could diminish the teacher education programs. With the appointment of a couple of obedient college presidents, the NSU teacher education program was changed from one that supplied 40 percent of the teachers to South Dakota schools to one that under President John Hutchinson lost its NCATE accreditation. The top students in our arts and sciences majors back before the regental assault were in teacher education. They were heavily recruited by systems throughout the nation. Soon the education department was led by imported presidential cronies and staffed by the people of their choice. What is taking place with HR 1234 and the federal subsidy through TFA is the continuation of a long program carried out by the South Dakota GOP.

    Education is a serious threat to the creation of a totally obedient and servile workforce.

  5. LK 2012.03.03

    Aberdeen is thriving on home cooking. "A" debate has a distinctly Vermillion flavor with a few exceptions. Spearfish had some kids break to quarters in LD and finals in IEs. The Risk games are out, although technology has reduced their number. IPad games seem to be winning followers.

    I have been told legislators were asked, but none accepted the offer to judge.

  6. LK 2012.03.03

    To continue the off topic report. Spearfish still has both PF teams in.

  7. larry kurtz 2012.03.03

    Thanks, Dave: nothing like another reminiscence of the Janklow Era to jones for cannabis legalization in South Dakota.

  8. Roger Elgersma 2012.03.03

    Always lots of gloom and many failures in poverty stricken schools. But I have see a couple of examples of rez schools doing better. Someone in Sioux Falls told a story of a group of teachers, I think it was at Crow Creek that decided to stay and after twenty years had much higher test scores than the other rez schools. Teachers and parents and schools all started to work together and levels of respect rose all around.

    The other example I saw was in a Christian school, same system as Sioux Falls Christian, in New Mexico with the Navajo Indians. Eighty percent of their high school grads went to college. No that is not a misprint, and yes it is highter than white schools. But it does take time to build respect both ways between the school and the community. And some students came back to teach. But it requires long term commitment and to see it as ones purpose in life. Not just good pay. Although good pay is a good thing also.

  9. D.E. Bishop 2012.03.03

    Roger, I taught for a year in the early 80s at Crow Creek. It was a tough place, though the kids were great. All kudos to those teachers! I am really happy that things have gotten better there. The kids deserve it. The white superintendent when I was there was TERRIBLE. Some of the parents were fairly terrible too.

  10. Roger Elgersma 2012.03.04

    There are disaster stories also. I once heard a seminary student at NABS tell of how he had been a principal, I think it was in Pine Ridge, for a few decades and had been an alcoholic the whole time. Then he found God and decided to become a pastor. He had told us that when a parent came to discuss that their child was not learning as much as they should in school that he would bring them to his office, shut the door, and cuss them out telling them that there would be no changes and send them on their way. I told him that he not only had to find God but had to go and ask them to forgive him before God would bless his work. He was somewhat offended at this. That is when I knew he had not really changed but still was in it for the prestige of the position. SAD

  11. Roger Elgersma 2012.03.04

    ps. This is an example where local control simply is not enough. Besides, the Indian kids learned that successful white guys are alcoholics also. When the local control is bad the kids lose.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.04

    Indeed, Roger, that specific instance you mention is an example of the risks innate in local control. But neither SB 139 nor HB 1234 do much to rectify such wrongs. We can make good use of some state oversight, but such oversight must always target specific, proven problems.

  13. D.E. Bishop 2012.03.04

    Roger, you highlight a sad reason some become clergy. In my class at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, I had a classmate who had tried various jobs, and continually failed. Apparently, those failures were due to lack of effort. He told me that he thought he'd "give religion a try." Arrrgh!!

    There are those who go into it for power. Pastoring a congregation is a great way to be powerful, if that's really what you want. Some get into it for laziness. No oversight if you are a solo pastor in a small congregation.

    My denomination, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has a very rigorous process to screen out such miscreants, but there are still a few who slip through.

    The word "teacher" can be substituted for "pastor", while telling the same stories. The wonderful thing is, they are a small minority. I think the odds are significantly higher when applied to "administrator", because they have less oversight.

    (This is all based on my experiences as a pastor and as a teacher. I think it's generally accurate.)

    Oh, and I reported the jackass who didn't have a call to ministry. They kept a close eye on him and he was done after 1 1/2 years. In truth, pastoring, like teaching, is very difficult, challenging, exciting and requires a lot of heart. The jackasses don't usually last all that long.

  14. Troy Jones 2012.03.05

    Another confusing moment for me.

    Is TFA good or bad?

    If we can't get experienced teachers to stay, would no teachers be better for those kids than new teachers?

    At the end of the day, unless you have ties to the reservation, spending your career away from your family and the "benefits" of a bigger town is going to have recruitment challenges. This applies to Lemmon as well as Pine Ridge. Add in the cultural difference and then the socio-economic challenges, it will take a special person without ties there to spend their life on the reservation.

    I read somewhere that 80% Of Americans live within 50 miles of where they were born.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.05

    "Is TFA good or bad?" Both. It's a second-best solution. TFA does good work, but not as good of work as more permanent certified teachers would do... if we could overcome the recruiting challenges.

  16. Troy Jones 2012.03.05

    Since the recruiting problem is not easy to fix (people want to live generally near home or in cultures they are familiar with), TFA is at minimum part of the solution. Right?

    So what was your point of this thread? Still confused.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.05

    The point is to discuss this issue. How confusing is it to see that I'm not taking a binary, black-and-white position on TFA? They appear to do good work where no other solutions are available... but they appear to be second-best at best. The research I cite says they produce better educational outcomes than emergency teachers, but worse outcomes than certified teachers.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.05

    GoTeach South Dakota is a local program working to get South Dakota students to take up teaching in underserved rural and Native communities. Maybe that would be a better investment than TFA?

  19. Troy 2012.03.05

    Got it.

    The solutions and the tools needed to make it better on the reservation is certainly multi-faceted needing both long-term stragegies and short-term tactics.

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