Tufts senior Marysa Sheren is not an education major, but this hasn’t stopped her from fully committing herself to two years of teaching low-income, underprivileged children. She is a corps member of Teach for America (TFA), as well as the TFA student representative at Tufts, and recently found out that she will spend next year in Miami as an English teacher for underprivileged youth. As someone with limited education experience, Sheren is aware that next year will be challenging, but she is also excited and ready to learn as much as she can during intensive training over the summer. By the time she and the other corps members begin teaching next fall, they will have alternative certification to teach. They intend to make a difference in cities across the US, and they hope that “no child will be left behind.”
Despite a common goal with the No Child Left Behind Act, Teach for America corps members don’t really fit with the provisions of the 2001 act. No Child Left Behind places an emphasis on standardized testing and strict teacher requirements, while Teach for America members focus more on building relationships with students and individual progress. Both education initiatives want to close the achievement gap between high- and low-income students, but they seem at odds on how to do this.
No Child Left Behind has been notoriously unpopular in recent years, seen as a burden to state governments and an inflexible mandate of standardized testing. The Obama administration has been looking for ways to fix problems with the law, and, in September, Obama announced that the Department of Education would accept formal requests to “opt out” of certain NCLB provisions. Opting out would allow state and local governments much more flexibility in using federal funds for education and in deciding proficiency standards for students to meet. According to Reuters, 39 states have expressed interest in applying for NCLB waivers, and 11 states, including Massachusetts, have applied this year. States are overwhelmingly opposed to certain NCLB provisions, and many state governments want to have the freedom to try different approaches.
Teach for America is one such different approach. While No Child Left Behind mandates that teachers must be “highly qualified” and places great emphasis on a bachelor’s or graduate degree in education, TFA corps members rarely have these degrees. Corps members have a five-week training session and receive a certification to teach, but the certification is not a substitute for a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Not everyone feels the training is enough preparation—Tufts graduate Will Ehrenfeld currently works in at a low-income school in Brooklyn and purposely chose not to apply for TFA. He explained, “The major flaw with TFA is that it doesn’t provide adequate training for new teachers. You’re taking the least prepared teachers—only five weeks of formal training—and dropping them in some of the toughest schools in the country.” Ehrenfeld is not alone in this view, and one of the main criticisms of Teach for America is that it doesn’t prepare its corps members well enough. Teach for America is aware of these criticisms, which is perhaps why their website stresses the amount of support the organization gives to its members. The website explains their methods: “We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement…[and] we provide intensive training, support, and career development that helps these leaders increase their impact and deepen their understanding of what it takes to close the achievement gap.” As corps members are completing their two years in the classroom, many also pursue a master’s degree in teaching. TFA’s long-term goal for their corps members is to produce well-trained, high quality teachers, and to encourage non-education majors to become leaders in the field. The TFA short-term focus is much less on earning degrees in teaching, however, and more on finding ways for teachers to connect academically and personally with low-income students.
Sheren hopes to be able to connect with students in order to help them to academic success. She thinks that the problem with education in the US today is that, “teachers in high-risk schools need to be held to a special standard of quality—unfortunately that’s not the way things are today. TFA sees that as a travesty. Part of the vision of the organization is to reframe that and shake up that status quo where a child’s zip code really determines their education…it is also about training teachers who engage with families beyond the classroom.” Sheren elaborated that part of Teach for America training is a focus on teaching children as individuals and not “teaching to a test.”
One of the main criticisms of NCLB is that it demands teaching to the test, and that students are losing their individualized learning experience in favor of boosting test scores. As an antidote to this, Teach for America corps members are learning to measure success in a variety of ways, including but not limited to standardized test scores. High school retention rates are also an important measure for TFA corps members, as well as strength of teacher-student relationships.
So, is Teach for America the ultimate solution to America’s education inequity problem? Can this program do what NCLB has not been able to? Ehrenfeld does not seem to think so. In his opinion, “Lots of evidence suggests that teachers don’t really hit their stride until after at least three years in the classroom, but most corps members jet after two [years]. And having no control over what school you’re working in can frustrate even the most even-keeled newbie teacher. It’s a really rough situation, for teachers and students alike.” Sheren doesn’t deny that TFA is far from a cure-all to our nation’s education inequity. She stresses that she does not see herself or TFA as the answer, and that “everyone [with TFA] is completely humbled by the veteran teachers in the schools. This is not the one solution, this is a paramedic response to an urgent problem.” Many agree about the urgency of this problem, including President Obama, who declared in September that students couldn’t wait for Congress to pass a new version of NCLB—something needed to be done sooner. The consensus is that not enough is being done, yet.
But that “yet” is important, and people are working hard to change things. Sheren explains, “Most people who were in the corps want to use their degree and their life experiences to affect social change.” In fact, two-thirds of Teach for America corps members stay with education for the rest of their lives. Whether by amending NCLB, raising awareness of education inequity, or continuing to teach, they still have a common goal—to turn an urgent problem into an issue already solved.