Many beloved teachers Jaime Escalante, Frank McCourt, even Socrates came to the profession after holding other jobs first. Escalante was a computer technician before becoming the Los Angeles math teacher made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver; McCourt worked at New York City's Biltmore Hotel before teaching for 30 years; Socrates was an experienced soldier. Teaching has always held an appeal, a kind of purity, for those disillusioned by their daily toils.
It has never been easier for nonteachers to become public-school teachers, sometimes with just a few weeks of training. In recent years, hundreds of programs have appeared around the U.S. to help people stop practicing law, brokering real estate or selling furniture and start teaching. In Memphis, for example, you can be sitting at a bank desk poring over quarterly reports in May and be teaching algebra by August.
A whole new industry has emerged to encourage recent college graduates and experienced professionals to regard teaching as national service. The most prestigious program, Teach for America (TFA), is enjoying its 20th anniversary amid a wave of fulsome press and a crush of applications from Ivy League and other elite applicants. More than 46,000 sought TFA positions for this fall; 12% were accepted.
Because it has been so difficult for poorly funded schools to find and keep teachers, TFA and similar organizations are quietly becoming part of the Establishment. Last year the city of Memphis handed over authority for recruiting all new teachers to a New York City based nonprofit called the New Teacher Project (TNTP). Before school started in August, one way TNTP filled the approximately 800 open teaching positions in Memphis a typical annual hiring number for a big city was with its Teaching Fellows, a corps of accomplished career changers recruited from around the nation. Founded in 1997, the fellowships operate in 18 locations in the U.S. You may have seen the ads: "Be more than just a role model. Be a teacher."
TNTP's fellows and those accepted into TFA get to skip typical teacher-certification processes. How school districts certify teachers and how states license them varies widely, but generally applicants won't be considered without an education degree. (A bachelor's degree is usually enough, especially in urban schools that endure wild turnover.) TNTP and TFA are controversial among teachers'-union members and education professors because the organizations put new teachers in classrooms after only five to seven weeks of boot-camp training.
But TNTP and TFA argue, correctly, that many of their Ivy League applicants would never teach at all if they had to earn an education degree first. The groups have powerful allies. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a contrarian 45-year-old who used to run the Chicago school district, has spoken admiringly of both organizations. And not long ago he gave a speech denouncing the traditional system of teacher-training: "By almost any standard," he said, "many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom."
More than 85% of U.S. teachers have an education degree. But many ed schools are fusty, politicized institutions that seem designed to turn out reliable teachers'-union members rather than reliable educators. And their lecture halls aren't exactly brimming with overachievers. According to a forthcoming McKinsey & Co. study, just 23% of new teachers in the U.S. come from the top third of their college classes; 47% come from the bottom third. In other words, we hire lots of our lowest performers to teach, and then we scream when our kids don't excel.
Changing the profession will require changing perceptions: in a new TIME poll, 76% of respondents said many smart people don't go into teaching because it doesn't pay enough. That may be true, but most respondents in a McKinsey survey of 900 top-third college students said they believe, incorrectly, that garbage collectors are paid more than teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average K-12 teacher in the U.S. makes approximately $49,000. Yes, the lowest 10% earn about $32,000, but the top 10% earn roughly $78,000. A chemistry teacher at a public school in an upscale suburban county can make $150,000 a year or more. And he gets the summer off.
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.
And yet TNTP can provide something Memphis could not afford on its own: a tougher evaluation process for potential hires. Also, after TNTP fellows start teaching, they get constant, close evaluation. In August the Louisiana board of regents released a study showing that the teachers in its state who came through TNTP outperform graduates of state education schools in language arts and perform at least as well as ed-school grads in math, reading and science. A larger 2009 study by the New Jerseybased research firm Mathematica found similar results: teachers who have come through the alternative programs in weeks perform about the same as those who have taken years to earn education degrees.
Recently I met three TNTP teachers in Memphis. (They were all picked by the organization; I was not allowed to roam schools freely.) Two of the teachers were fantastic. One of them, Josalyn Tresvant McGhee, grew up in Memphis, earned an M.B.A. and worked as a banker for more than seven years. But she loved how she felt when she volunteered in schools, and she eventually left SunTrust bank for TNTP. On the day I saw her teach, McGhee, who is 31 and beguiling, had her fourth-graders rapt. She was supposedly assisting a more experienced teacher, but it was McGhee who got them enthusiastic "We're rocking and rolling," she said at one point without letting them get out of control.
Another TNTP teacher, Katherine Poandl, 25, ran her Hamilton High math class with the commanding mixture of patience and authority you would expect from someone who had spent many years in a classroom; it's Poandl's second. Hamilton is a tough place. On the day I visited, two police cruisers blocked one set of doors, and security guards escorted me everywhere. But Poandl was at ease. She used to be a social worker in Philadelphia, where, she says, she learned to deal with every type of social dysfunction. In her Memphis classroom, I saw her give orders to boys twice her size and not far from her age. "I should see your desk clear," she said, and the boys complied instantly.
McGhee and Poandl are the kind of teachers TNTP and the Memphis schools will rely on to change. But it was a different story with Deanna Acker, a 27-year-old Iraq-war vet and West Point grad who despite having spent time looking for IEDs in Kirkuk couldn't quite control her sixth-graders at Corry Middle School, a battered, ugly pile not far from the airport. Acker, who grew up in Joplin, Mo., and presents herself with ascetic plainness simple glasses, unhidden fatigue (her first words to me were "I'm exhausted") didn't quite have the presence to handle her class. She kept telling the kids to "slant," which turned out to be an acronym for a nongrammatical string of rules: "Sit up, Listen, Act interested, Note-taking, Track the speaker."
When I spoke with her after class, Acker was frank about her shortcomings. "People had warned us ahead of time like, 'You think you know, but you've forgotten. It's going to be crazy, and they don't act like adults.' Then you go there the first day, and you're just like, 'Whoa.' "
This is a big problem with programs like TNTP and TFA: they require a commitment of just one and two years, respectively, and like most traditionally trained teachers, participants often spend the entire first year learning their jobs. A vocal minority of TFA veterans have complained that the program does little good for the students who must endure their inexperience.
Many districts are trying to fine-tune their screening methods to help determine whether an enthusiastic potential teacher will actually be able to command and push a classroom. Since 2000, the Haberman Educational Foundation has worked with 130 school systems to train them to find nontraditional teachers to fill difficult positions. The foundation was started by Martin Haberman, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, who helped persuade Congress to pass a 1963 law that provided funding for school districts to seek and certify teachers who had not attended ed schools.
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