Teach for America: are the corps the right course?

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More than midway through her college career, Charlotte Krovoza ’13 learned that her aspirations of becoming a credentialed teacher would not be fulfilled at Occidental. Krovoza once balanced 20 units in a semester in order to pursue a minor in education, in addition to majors in Urban and Environmental Policy and Spanish Literary Studies. But the 2011 probation and eventual elimination of Occidental’s credential program halted Krovoza’s hopes of working as an elementary school teacher.

Fellow student Savannah Berry (senior) has faced a similar predicament throughout her time at Occidental. She applied to the college in 2011 with a specific interest in the credentialing program, only for the option to be suspended the summer before her first semester.

In light of the program’s end, both students began searching for alternative solutions. While Berry decided to earn her credential and master’s degree through a separate university after graduation, Krovoza found that her best option came in the form of a nonprofit organization: Teach For America.

The challenges of teaching for America

Wendy Knopp’s 1989 Princeton University senior thesis laid the foundation for Teach For America, through which recent college graduates are placed in teaching positions at struggling schools around the country. Though the program has goals to eliminate educational inequality and bridge the national achievement gap, critics have questioned the effectiveness of the organization, particularly its five-week training period for unlicensed teachers that is followed by a two-year commitment. Many believe the program to be simply too brief to fix the long-lasting issue of inequality within schools.

For Occidental graduates like Krovoza, however, educational organizations like Teach For America appear to be the most efficient and financially viable means by which they can make an immediate difference in classrooms.

“What appealed to me is the idea that I would be able to get started in the classroom immediately, that I would be able to get my credential quickly, get my master’s degree quickly and then have a salary and be a full time public school teacher,” Krovoza said.

Through Teach For America, instructors generally earn their teaching certification by completing coursework throughout the two-year commitment. Some Teach For America instructors, known as corps members, opt to complete a master’s degree through a partnering university as well. Graduates taking this course of action, including Krovoza, typically plan to pursue a long-term career in the classroom.

Statistics suggest that Teach For America has been effective in instilling change in both urban and rural schools; 95 percent of principals overseeing schools with Teach For America corps members said those instructors made positive differences. However, not all participants plan to teach beyond their mandated commitments, and education professor Ronald Solórzano worries about how impactful the program can be without a long-term guarantee from all corps members.

“If you come into a school, and you say, ‘Well, I’m going to be teaching here for two years then I’m gonna go off to law school or go off and do something else,’ it’s not helping,” Solórzano said. “And the reason they come into poor neighborhoods is because poor neighborhoods’ staffs are unstable. We have a lot of people leaving, coming and going—that’s the problem. So we get some good, bright students coming from our liberal arts colleges going in there to do good, but we need people to stay.”

Peter Wright ’05 entered Teach For America with the goal of working in education policy following a two-year teaching commitment. His experiences in assisting former California State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell led him to seek classroom experience and apply to the program.

“Education had always been an issue I really cared about,” Wright said. “Sort of from a social justice perspective at Oxy, it was very clear that not everyone had access to equal education and that struck me as wrong. But I was frustrated with the work in Sacramento in that no one seemed to know what it was like in the classroom. Policy was being made by a lot of people who had never taught before. It seemed really misguided to me.”

While Wright was driven to apply to Teach For America based on his interest in education policy, Krovoza sought her credential and intends on staying in the classroom for years to come. Regardless of their respective motivations, both found themselves applying for Teach For America in their senior years at Occidental. Additionally, both were struck by the intensity of the application process.

Despite criticisms, the organization has developed a reputation of exclusivity; it has consistently boasted a 15 percent acceptance rate with an average GPA of 3.4 from incoming corps members. The selectivity is evident in the intensive application process, which includes an interview component. Wright recalls a collaborative element in which he participated in a group discussion on education, while Krovoza was required to complete and present a five-minute lesson plan.

“Anyone who teaches knows there is no such thing as a five-minute lesson plan,” Krovoza said. “It really made you start to get your routine down, and it made sure that you have a confidence in front of new people while presenting the material. That was probably the most intense part of applying and one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.”

Following their respective acceptances into the program, Krovoza and Wright were then informed of their regional placements and the grade and subject matter to which they were assigned. According to Teach For America Recruitment Manager and former corps member Andres Perez, graduates indicate their top regional preferences during the application process. A combination of factors, such as the demonstrated need of each region and applicants’ personal interests outside of teaching, ultimately determines where corps members receive an offer to teach.

Upon receiving her placement offer, Krovoza was disappointed by the regional assignment of Nashville. However, she was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to teach first grade. She chose to accept the offer and left for Atlanta to begin her training five days after graduation. After completing Teach For America’s fast-paced training institute, Krovoza began teaching in the fall.

A major source of criticism directed toward Teach For America is related to its efforts outside the classroom, particularly the pre-corps training course. Traditional teaching certification involves the completion of a credential program and student teaching opportunities, while Teach For America bypasses these processes and opts for a five-week training program directly preceding a graduate’s employment.

Wright found the training and resources provided by the organization to be sufficient, though nothing could have truly readied him for his first year as a corps member, during which he taught kindergarten in North Carolina.

“No one’s ever fully prepared to enter a classroom and start teaching,” Wright said. “It definitely does take practice and experience and reflection, but I felt prepared. But some didn’t, and that’s a valid critique that some have of Teach For America.”

While Wright found his experiences in Teach For America to be extremely influential and remembers his employment as one of his best decisions to date, he also acknowledges that teaching is exhausting. Learning the curriculum, figuring out how to manage a classroom and adapting to the schedule of a teacher took continuous effort.

“After having just been a college student where you have the luxury and leisure of waking up any time you want and going to the Marketplace to have your meals cooked for you, going to be a teacher is a pretty shocking change,” Wright said. “I would be so tired by the end of the day that I would fall asleep on the reading carpet while the kids would leave.”

Solórzano believes that the taxing inner-city school environment, paired with instructors’ brief training and limited time commitment, sets them up for failure. This criticism has gained momentum, contributing to recent recruitment issues for Teach For America.

2014 marked the second year in a row in which the number of applicants decreased. An article in THe New York Times titled ‘Fewer Top Graduates Want to Join Teach For America,’ Matt Kramer, a co-chief executive of the organization, explained that the program would not be lowering its standards for acceptance simply to accommodate the shortage in applicants. Instead, Teach For America will not be able to provide corps members to every school board, principal or superintendent that requests teachers.

When there are more classes than available teachers, schools supplement by combining classes or enlisting long-term substitute teachers. However, Perez believes these temporary teachers are unable to provide the same attention and resources as a veteran instructor or a Teach For America corps member. As a recruiter, he finds the lack of capable graduates applying in the first place to be the organization’s biggest obstacle.

“The one thing holding Teach For America back from supporting as many schools as we would like to support is really the number of qualified people applying,” Perez said.

Looking toward a teaching tradition

At colleges like Occidental which have no active certification program, students interested in teaching are forced to find alternative routes to get their credentials. Teach For America is among the most popular of these alternatives at Occidental, having recruited 21 graduates as corps members in the last three years.

“It was a totally different philosophy [with the credentialing program],” Solórzano said. “That was the irony of Oxy at the time. We had a teacher credential program, which has a philosophy that says, ‘You need to be prepared to go into our classroom, especially our urban classrooms.’ But then we had Teach For America at Oxy too, and Teach For America is basically saying, ‘Well, we can prepare you for a few training weeks then send you to our most needy classrooms.’”

The long-term commitment to education is something both Solórzano and Berry stress in connection with their criticisms of Teach For America and similar organizations. Berry particularly relates to the challenge of finding alternative credentialing and master’s degree programs.

Faced with the cancellation of her target program, Berry made the decision to attend Occidental and go elsewhere for her teaching credential after graduation. Though Berry sees the merit of Teach For America, she is seeking a program that will produce lifetime educators through full-length certification programs and years of student-teaching experience.

“[Teach For America] is just not for me,” Berry said. “If I’m going to do this for life, I want to be credentialed, I want to be mastered and I want to have sufficient student teaching time.”

Through Krovoza’s own commitment to Teach For America, she has gained an understanding of the challenges that teaching, particularly in urban school districts, inevitably poses. Now having to manage her own classroom, Krovoza’s perspective on education has flipped since the time she sat in education classes at Occidental. Though she once envisioned herself teaching for years to come, Krovoza now believes that the current Teach For America model is not sustainable.

“I think the way that teachers are being treated right now and how policies are being passed—there’s no way I could do this long-term in the type of school I’m in,” Krovoza said. “Long gone are the days where you had teachers that had kids and families and mortgages. Maybe in a suburban school district, but definitely not in an urban district, which my school is very much in.”

For the time being, Krovoza plans on spending a third year in Nashville. Although she does not think that she could commit to teaching for multiple decades, Krovoza believes that her time in the classroom will reach well beyond Teach For America’s two-year commitment.

Wright has not revisited teaching at the elementary level since his completion of Teach For America in 2007. Following the end of his commitment, he returned to his aspirations of shaping education policy in Sacramento. Wright believes that his efforts in the field of education, from Teach For America to the Department of Homeland Security and the California School Boards Association, require him to utilize the skills he gained as a student at Occidental. As an undergraduate student, Wright attended a residential summer program to teach an elementary paleontology course. Additionally, he wrote and led a political science course during his senior year alongside Professor Larry Caldwell and one of his peers.

“I didn’t really picture myself as an elementary school teacher in the long-term,” Wright said. “Teaching at the university level was always something I kind of wanted to do.”

While Teach For America originally served as an alternative program for Krovoza, it will lead her to the teaching credential and master’s degree she sought as an undergraduate student. Even as a current corps member, she does not let her involvement in Teach For America define her as an educator. Instead, Krovoza identifies as a Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools teacher, working alongside veteran teachers in a high-needs school.

From two different perspectives within the education department, Berry and Solórzano both hope for the restoration of the credential program in the near future. Without such a program on campus, pursuing an alternative credential program stands as the only option for certification without continuing one’s studies elsewhere. This dynamic demonstrates Occidental’s failure to address the nationwide need for teachers and an ever-present achievement gap in education.

“Our education program is not quite what I thought it would be when I entered,” Berry said. “I understand that the credential program wasn’t the strongest, but if they could work on strengthening it, that would be better than not having it at all. [Administrators should] actually want education to be part of the school—because at this point it’s really just shoved in Booth and no one knows about it.”