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Elizabeth Venechuk in Washington (AP/Photo by Brendan Hoffman)

Highmarks

Education | Teach for America is growing, but union-influenced policies keep it from doing more

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

It is morning at Community School 211 in the Bronx, New York, and teacher Sarah Brickley is talking to her third-grade students about taking pride in their work. Chattering in a mix of Spanish and English, they're enthusiastically suggesting motivational tools-including ice cream, remote control cars, and "30 hours of free time."

"Thirty minutes," she corrects. But free time doesn't start now. She assigns them to tables and sits with a reading group, keeping the kids-two wriggling boys and one shy girl-firmly engaged with questions that build their English vocabulary.

Brickley, who got her bachelor's degree in journalism and Spanish at New York University, is part of a program called Teach for America (TFA), which recruits elite college graduates to spend two years teaching public-school students in high-poverty communities. The program has burgeoned from 2,500 applicants in 1990 to 35,000 applicants last year.

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TFA's selection process-refined by combing through student achievement data-is so tough that only 4,000 total applicants made the cut. For the first time in years, TFA has a waiting list of about 1,000 teachers, just as schools are tightening their budgets and current TFA employees in New York City may get dumped into an "excess pool" of laid-off-but still paid-teachers.

Brickley teaches a class of 10 students, four of them with diagnosed learning disabilities and some as old as 9 or 10. "It's really obvious that their teachers in their past haven't pushed them," she said. Some think it doesn't matter if they're learning, just as long as they're quiet, and others think that when the teacher tells them to write a paragraph, it's OK to write a sentence.

But Brickley also has seen "crazy, amazing progress." One 9-year-old boy just moved from Puerto Rico, she said, without knowing how to write his name: "He said, 'Miss, it's too long.'" Now he can read and write at a first-grade reading level.

Other TFA teachers also seem to be getting results. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute found, looking at student exam performance, that TFA teachers are more effective than traditional teachers and even more effective than experienced secondary school teachers.

But TFA's growth is frustrated by policies that keep ineffective teachers in the school system. New York City, for instance, now insists that schools only hire from an "absent teacher reserve"-a pool of teachers who are unemployed perhaps because their failing schools closed, or because principals have to cut costs. Because union protections are so iron-clad, the teachers are still drawing salaries, whether they work or not, and in some cases are still earning time towards tenure.

Tenure also requires a principal to cut the newest teacher in a subject area-not the least qualified. Since 30 percent of the Department of Education's hires since 2006 have been from alternative certification programs like TFA or Teaching Fellows, some of those carefully recruited hires will be the first to get dumped.

So how big can TFA grow without compromising its effectiveness? Marcus Winters, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, notes that as the program gets bigger, it will have to draw on a pool of less qualified applicants. Still, he says, "I don't think TFA is nearly as big as it could be and still remain effective." The bottom line, he says, is that you don't know whether teachers will be effective until they get in the classroom. And then, schools need the power to remove them if they're not.

Back in the Bronx, Brickley says nothing can prepare a new teacher for the actual classroom experience. She mentions the heart wrench of caring for a student whose mom is dying of cancer-knowing the girl needs to be with her mom but also thinking about her education.

"I can't, in my heart, let them move on without being able to read when they're 10 years old," Brickley said. "They spend all day, every day with me and if they leave here without being able to read? I would feel so horrible."

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