One of our nation's great scandals is that large numbers of teachers-especially at inner-city schools-are ill-prepared for their jobs. Sure, they've been through programs at "schools of education" and received teaching certificates, having satisfied the requirements of their states' certification laws. But, as test after test has shown, these qualifications, instead of guaranteeing excellent reading, writing, and math skills, more often conceal poor ones.
To make matters worse, many middle- and high-school teachers have little or no background in the subjects they are trying to teach. Students preparing to be teachers must concentrate so much on faddish courses dealing with education "theory" that they have little room for studying concrete disciplines such as math, science, or history in much depth. Most of those serious-minded enough to understand the futility of this exercise-usually those who would make the best teachers-opt for an alternative career.
And why shouldn't they? After all, one of the strongest beliefs of today's failing education establishment is the "progressive" idea that students must be allowed to "construct their own knowledge." Schools of education inculcate the idea that teachers should serve as "a guide on the side," rather than "a sage on the stage." Most teachers, therefore, spend years taking courses in "educational theory" and pick up whatever they learn on the subjects they teach as they go along.
The terrible folly and injustice of this system has been evident to some critical observers for many years. One person who decided to do something about it was Wendy Kopp. As a senior at Princeton University in 1989, Wendy realized that there were excellent students at top colleges who had a strong desire to teach, but were put off by the education school routine. She set out to create a pathway for those individuals into the teaching ranks. Her brainchild, Teach for America (TFA), was born in 1990.
Teach for America, based in New York City, seeks graduates with degrees in English, history, math, science, and other fields, who want to go into teaching. Recruits from schools such as the University of Michigan, Northwestern, and UCLA must meet strict standards: Only 27 percent are accepted. They must commit to teaching for at least two years in difficult inner-city or rural schools. And they receive intensive training in how to handle a classroom during the summer prior to beginning their teaching duties.
When TFA started, it was attacked by education school zealots on the grounds that it would shortchange students who needed "real teachers." But the right question to ask is not what paper credentials teachers have, but whether they do a good job.
The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has been employing TFA teachers since 1993. In 2001, Stanford University's Hoover Institution became interested in seeing how student learning outcomes compared between classrooms taught by TFA teachers and non-TFA teachers. Studying HISD data from 1996 through 2000, the researchers concluded that "the impact of having a TFA teacher was always positive . . . TFA is a viable and valuable source of teachers and that they perform as well as, and in many cases better than, other teachers hired by HISD." The study also found that TFA teachers were consistently the highest performing teachers, whereas the least-productive teachers were invariably non-TFA teachers.
This is great news for Michigan-because this year, for the first time, Teach for America is sending a delegation of teachers into Detroit public schools. Initially, between 30 and 50 TFA teachers will be assigned to several Detroit schools, probably two per school. They will help to fill the teacher shortages Detroit schools have experienced in the areas of math and science. Amazingly, almost a quarter of TFA recruits have undergraduate backgrounds in math, science, and engineering.
Teach for America's numbers are still quite small, having placed just 7,000 teachers in the past 12 years. But there is no reason why TFA should be the only source of teachers who don't have the dubious education school pedigree.
The excellence of this program provides an object lesson Michigan lawmakers should write in their legislative notebooks: It's time to reconsider teacher certification laws that seem only to enshrine mediocrity, and give principals back the freedom to hire teachers who will do a good job.
(George C. Leef is director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)