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But as a whole, the profession lacks something almost as precious as money: prestige. According to the McKinsey research, in countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, where 100% of educators come from the top third of their graduating class, first-year teaching positions are regarded the way Americans see first-year medical residencies: as the beginning of an elite career. At the University of Helsinki, just 1 applicant in 15 is accepted into the teacher-training program; most U.S. education schools are open to anyone who will pay the tuition.
Yet even as momentum builds for nontraditional training programs to get more talented people into classrooms the Obama Administration requested $405 million in the 2011 budget to fund alternative pathways to teaching a basic question may have been overlooked: What does it mean when we decide that teaching is more a public service than a profession? "Think about medical-residency programs," says Joanna Jacobson, founder of Strategic Grant Partners, a pro bono consulting firm that funds and counsels education-reform efforts around the nation. "The feds support doctors who choose residencies in high-needs urban and rural areas. But they are not doing an all-call to anyone who wants to dabble around and be a doctor." She also says, pointedly, "Not everyone can be a good teacher."
The Department of Education estimates that by 2014, the nation will need up to 1 million new teachers. But if a city has too many broken streetlights, should it ask for paid volunteers to fix them? Or should it hire more professional electricians?
Teacher Boot Camp
TFA started in 1990 and became popular among reformers because it presented a seemingly simple work-around to the problem of ineffective, union-protected teaching staffs: get top college graduates to serve for a couple years in the nation's worst schools instead of going to Wall Street immediately. The program appealed to college seniors because they could skip ed school and start earning full teacher salaries after completing a five-week crash course taught (and paid for) by TFA. The trade-off was that with little training, these teachers would have to occupy the rough classrooms that highly experienced regular teachers are contractually allowed to avoid.
TFA inspired other education entrepreneurs, and together the reformers have helped save some school systems from total collapse. Ask Kriner Cash. A big man fond of immaculate suits, Cash left the Miami-Dade schools in Florida just over two years ago to become superintendent in Memphis. When he arrived, he found that 40% of Memphis teachers were leaving after their first three years. That's close to the national average for cities, but Cash discovered that little research had been conducted on why Memphis teachers were leaving low pay? poor leadership? bad air-conditioning? which meant the district couldn't figure out how to keep them. Meanwhile, Memphis was home to some of the worst schools in the South.
The cost of hiring and placing so many new teachers was becoming untenable, particularly during a recession. Also, many Memphis kids were having to cope with inexperienced teachers year after year. A great deal of research shows that first-year teachers tend to be unprepared for the astonishingly disparate demands of the job speaking loudly without shouting, deciding what to do when someone throws a spitball, looking up the rules for bathroom breaks, determining whether the class on Abraham Lincoln should come before or after the one on Frederick Douglass. Even worse, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 70% of the city's teachers were being hired within a month of the first day of school, meaning most new teachers had little time to plan.
But one day early last year, Cash found a letter on his desk from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The letter said that if Cash, his principals and his teachers were willing to consider radical changes, the foundation would not only give them stacks of money (grants that will eventually total $90 million) but also connect them with the best education-reform groups in the nation.
Cash didn't hesitate. Today Memphis is a laboratory for new education policy and one of four locations getting major Gates funding. But the money came with strings: all new-teacher hiring in Memphis runs through TNTP, the New York Citybased reform group. Although Cash told me his teachers and principals have worked in "good partnership" with the Gates project, it wasn't hard to find longtime educators on the Mississippi bluff wondering what people in New York City and Seattle would know about their schools.