The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act’s mandate for "highly qualified" teachers in all public schools has sparked interest among policy makers and legislators to find better ways to recruit and train teachers. But Michigan’s largest school district has discontinued using one of the most promising ways to get good teachers into the classroom.
Two comprehensive studies concluded that Teach for America (TFA), a New York-based non-profit organization that works to place college graduates from all degree programs in low-performing, rural and urban schools, is a highly effective program for preparing non-certified teachers for the classroom.
Established in 1990, TFA recruits top college graduates each year to join its Corps. Corps volunteers are assigned classrooms after only five weeks of summer training, and commit to a minimum of two years of service with the organization.
Independent studies of the impact that TFA teachers have on student performance show that these teachers either outperform, or produce equivalent outcomes to, those who become teachers through the normal maze of university schools of education.
The most recent of these studies, by Princeton-based Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., showed that "TFA teachers not only had more success than other novice teachers but they had more success than teachers with an average of six years of experience in the classroom."
The Mathematica study follows an earlier study conducted in Houston by CREDO, a research group based at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The CREDO study showed that in spite of the fact that TFA teachers were placed in more difficult classrooms than other teachers, they performed as well as, and in many cases better than, non-TFA teachers.
Yet rather than embracing Teach For America, the program was recently discontinued in Detroit, marking the first time in a decade that it has left a district, according to the program’s founder and president Wendy Kopp.
The district was cutting teaching positions to help fill a budget gap, and teachers without certification, including TFA members, were the first to go and would be the last to be rehired. State law requires that teachers be certified by the state’s cumbersome procedures when possible, but the main reason TFA teachers are out of Detroit is because union contracts there dictate that teachers with seniority take priority in getting rehired, regardless of effectiveness.
The director of community communications for the Detroit school district, Mario L. Morrow, told Education Week, "No one is saying it’s a bad program, but we have to try to solve all the problems holistically, and not on an individual basis where it appears we’re playing favorites."
Still, Education Week also reported that Jenna Garrison, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, had always been skeptical about the district's decision to utilize TFA, and the newspaper quoted her as saying: "It was our understanding that in rural areas, Teach For America provides a workforce. But here in Detroit, we have a workforce, and we’re not short of noncertified teachers. ... What it did is it took jobs away from people in the area."
TFA requires the districts it works with to hire its teachers in a range of subjects and grades, and asks that the teachers be offered alternative certification. The Detroit district was unable to meet either of these requirements, though 34 TFA teachers had already been accepted and were teaching in the district, all for a second year.
This is not the first time alternative certification programs have stymied in Detroit. The Limited License to Instruct (LLI) program, another alternative certification program, was ostensibly abandoned. Teacher candidate Marc Robinson quoted an official of the Detroit Public Schools Human Resources Department as saying, "the funding was pulled because the teachers’ unions didn’t want the program."
An earlier study by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in 2002 stated that Michigan was one of nearly 20 states that had not implemented a policy that linked teacher standards to academic content standards.
The DOE study, entitled "Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge," said that Michigan was failing to produce the "highly qualified teachers" required by NCLB. The study cited evidence that teachers who complete the traditional state certification process do not necessarily produce superior academic gains in the classroom.
In 1999, 27% of Michigan public school teachers taught subjects for which they possessed no college major. Sam Peavey, professor emeritus of the School of Education at the University of Illinois, is among many experts who argue that, "After 50 years of research, we have found no significant correlation between the requirements for teacher certification and the quality of student achievement."
State and national policy makers should consider expanding alternative certification programs that exhibit real results rather than maintaining the status quo. A good start would be to support programs like Teach for America and Limited License to Instruct that already exist in Michigan, and have already proven their worth.
Jon Perdue is managing editor of Michigan Education Report, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Neil Block is a summer research assistant for the Mackinac Center.