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One of Haberman's strategies is to screen potential teachers with a test designed to show which ones would do well in a classroom. The test has now been given to tens of thousands of hopefuls. But when I took it recently, I found some questions so vague that no correct answer seemed possible. Here's one example:
A teacher who has students working in cooperative teams believes that:
A. a good classroom must have some noise
B. students can learn from each other
C. students must learn to work independently
Surely all three are true. But Haberman told me B is the right answer because it is the one given most often by proven teachers. The logic seemed a little circular, and the test made me question the whole concept of alternative hiring. Despite the media attention devoted to TFA and like projects, the vast majority of teachers will continue to come from education schools for many years. So shouldn't we think about how to work with those schools rather than competing against them?
That First Awful Year
Jesse Solomon is 42 but acts 22. He has the gangly body of a big kid, and even though he earned a math degree at MIT, he taught in public schools in the Boston area for 10 years. Eventually he grew tired of watching great young teachers leave after just two or three years. Many burnouts saw teaching as temporary service; others just couldn't take the pressure. Solomon began to wonder how to get smart young people to see teaching as a long-term profession a difficult one, yes, but not just something you do to add a line to your résumé the way so many people use their short stints at TFA.
He also saw another problem. Teachers with great potential were enduring a very difficult first year that was ruining them. He started thinking about other hard, thankless jobs that started bad but led to great careers. What about medical residencies? Young doctors work crazy hours during which mistakes can cost lives. All the while, they are learning. When they finish, they are part of a profession, a tribe that has endured a tough appraisal together.
Solomon started the Boston Teacher Residency in 2003; 85% of its teachers who took jobs in the Boston public schools are still in the classroom, compared with 61% of TFA teachers nationally. Those who are accepted into the Boston Teacher Residency must make a four-year commitment that includes earning a master's degree in education, something neither TNTP nor TFA requires. Boston teacher residents spend that first awful year working with an experienced teacher, one who helps them learn the craft. The residents are in classrooms from Day One but never alone as most participants in the alterna-programs are.
Not surprisingly, the teacher residents seem highly committed to education as a career. "It's disrespectful to see [teaching] as a charity act," says Isabel Perez, 27, who applied for her Boston teacher residency in 2005 and is now a full-fledged teacher. "These kids already have enough people walking out on them ... Also, you are less accountable if you're just essentially volunteering. The whole idea here is to be accountable for improving these kids' achievement."
Solomon's idea of teacher residencies which now exist in 17 locations helps lend prestige to a profession that is too often disparaged. But it's also true that if TFA didn't exist, many talented 22-year-olds would go immediately to law school without stopping first to give something back. If TNTP didn't exist, the Josalyn Tresvant McGhees of the world would still be managing bank branches rather than in classrooms inspiring kids.
Yes, the danger of programs like TFA is that because they are designed as short-term service, they train smart young Americans to see teaching as volunteer work, not an occupation. The forthcoming McKinsey study shows that the best undergraduates in other countries see teaching as an honored career; many of the best undergrads in the U.S. see it as equivalent to the Peace Corps helping out before you get a real job.
But half the nation's 3.2 million teachers are baby boomers. They are retiring in droves. Schools in difficult neighborhoods like Southeast D.C. or Harlem spend much of each spring semester just finding bodies who can stand in front of the kids at the beginning of the next school year. So until teaching becomes a more attractive long-term option, we'll need both paid volunteers and professionals. Otherwise the kids in the neediest classrooms will continue to be taught by substitutes or retirees who come back reluctantly. How bad can it be that thousands of Ivy Leaguers, though inexperienced, want to help fill the void?
With reporting by Dan Fastenberg