Best and brightest try to bridge education gap

Leslie Brody / The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) /

Published Nov 9, 2013 at 04:00AM

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Eli Grossman, a recent Cornell University graduate from Teaneck, N.J., wants his Paterson sixth-graders to know he presumes they can make it to college.

In one lesson he explained “college-ready” note-taking. In another, he said they would need to understand the word “loquacious” for the SATs. And for a special preview of campus life, he brought his Cornell a cappella group to sing in their cafeteria.

“The joy level was off the charts,” Grossman said. “The small miracle of it was the word ‘college’ was on the lips of 11-year-olds in Paterson.”

Grossman, 23, an English major with a theatrical flair, embodies the ethos of Teach for America. The program dispatches high-achieving college graduates — who might not have considered careers in teaching — to work for two years in some of the country’s toughest environments. Their goal: narrowing the stark achievement gap between the privileged and the poor.

Supporters say the program brings smart, energetic young people to staff hard-to-fill jobs in needy schools, and gives them intensive summer training to get ready. But critics counter it puts underprepared resume-polishers in charge of at-risk kids who sorely need experienced teachers committed to helping them for the long haul.

PR boost

Teach for America got a major public relations boost in September when a federally funded study found that on average, its “corps members” slightly outperformed teachers who entered the profession after traditional teacher preparation, which can involve years of course work and supervised practice. The eight-state study by Mathematica Policy Research found that on average, the students of Teach for America corps members made more gains in math in one year — amounting to an average of 2.6 months of additional learning time. It was unclear whether the program’s selectivity in recruiting or other factors accounted for its positive results.

The report came at a time of intense debate over how to attract quality candidates into teaching, especially in high-poverty areas, and how to help them succeed in the job.

“The study contributes to a body of research that says TFA teachers certainly do no worse and may do a bit better in promoting student learning than teachers” certified through traditional routes, said Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“My biggest concern is the occasional misperception that because TFA teachers seem to be doing pretty well that it’s somehow a long-term solution to preparing a corps of teachers in the U.S.,” Pallas added. “Its individuals are bright, sincere and motivated, but that doesn’t mean the initiative overall is any kind of panacea. ... It represents such a small fraction of the teaching force.”

Joining Teach for America has become so popular — especially after the recession hurt the job market — that 7 percent of seniors at Yale and 13 percent at Princeton applied last year. The program said 14 percent of its 57,000 applicants were admitted, making it harder to get into than some prestigious colleges.

Wannabe heroes need not apply, cautioned the program’s director in New Jersey, Fatimah Burnam-Watkins.

“This is about the kids. If you are coming into this and feeling ‘I am going to feel good because I’m going to help poor black and brown children,’ you are in the wrong work and the wrong organization,” she said. “If you feel good as a byproduct, great ... but there is no way you can do this, day in and day out, unless your lead foot in this is equity and justice.”

The nonprofit grew out of the undergraduate thesis of Wendy Kopp, a Princeton University student. The model has since been adopted by 32 countries, including China, Lebanon and India, under the umbrella “Teach for All.” Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the international network the “anti-al-Qaida,” diminishing the power of terrorists by educating children and giving them “the tools to realize their full potential.”

‘Doorway of opportunity’

Like many corps members, Grossman wasn’t sure where he was headed after graduation. He pursued Teach for America after a recruiter at Cornell last year quoted Michelle Obama saying that when you have “walked through that doorway of opportunity ... you do not slam it shut behind you” but hold the door open for others.

After a rigorous vetting process, the program introduces candidates to interested principals who decide whether to hire them. The schools pay corps members the same salary as other employees with similar experience, and also pays Teach for America $3,500 for recruiting and mentoring each hire. All corps members go to an intensive five-week Summer Institute, which includes practice teaching, before they start their new jobs.

The workload is famously demanding. Every day Grossman teaches reading to five classes of 20 sixth-graders at the Community Charter School of Paterson. Some nights he heads to Relay Graduate School of Education in Newark to study for a master’s degree; corps members are supposed to get certified as teachers through the state’s alternate route program by the end of their first year.

“This is not like padding your resume with a service trip to a sub-Saharan country,” Grossman said. “I’m working every single moment I’m awake.”

On a recent afternoon, he hustled 19 students to sit down after lunch and focus on background material about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Some children were years behind grade level, others were ahead. Grossman had them snap their fingers to cheer for a classmate who gave a correct answer, and he quickly warned a boy who spoke out of turn about rising consequences for misbehavior.

Teach for America sends an adviser to observe Grossman regularly and give him feedback. Without that coaching, Grossman said, “I’d be flailing.”

Criticism

Critics say that many Teach for America members don’t come equipped to manage classes full of children who can be unruly.

“I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings,” wrote Olivia Blanchard, author of “I Quit Teach for America” in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine. A former corps member in Atlanta, she lamented that the organization sparked resentment among traditionally trained teachers by implying that only corps members “can fix what others have screwed up.”

New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker said some corps members were capable, but in general new teachers needed more comprehensive exposure to education theory and classroom practice than Teach for America provides. In his view, “It’s like saying this person is so smart, can’t we give him five weeks of law school and turn him into an effective attorney?”

Some also charge too many Teach for America members leave the classroom as soon their two-year contract is over, adding churn to schools that need stability. The organization counters that a third of its alumni remain teachers, another third stay in some education-related field — and even those who switch to other professions bring along more empathy for the disadvantaged.

Grossman said he sees the urgency of this mission every day. “I’m so happy to come to work,” he said. “I feel myself little by little chipping away at something that needs to be decimated — this barrier keeping those born in low-income communities from rising to the top.”