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Bobbi Nicholson: Education board wrong about Teach for America

Funny how neighboring news stories can so clearly expose our priorities. Recently the news was relief on the sports page concerning the restoration of veteran officials to NFL games and frustration on the news page because state law makes it difficult to hire inexperienced Teach for America (TFA) volunteers.

As football fans celebrated the exit of unqualified replacements, the state's Board of Education members were bemoaning their inability to hire some.

It's likely that most newspaper readers are at least vaguely familiar Teach for America. Wendy Kopp came up with the idea in her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989 and was successful in raising millions of dollars from corporate reformers to get it off the ground. TFA recruits new college graduates who lack teaching credentials, provides them with a five-week training session, then offers them to states as "non-traditional" teachers.

To be eligible for TFA, a graduate need only hold a bachelor's degree (the field is irrelevant), be an American citizen, and have a grade point average of 2.5 on a 4-point scale -- in other words, a C average. The TFA website also advises applicants that they may be required to pass a content-knowledge exam or have completed certain courses "related to the subject they will teach." I can find no requirement that TFA volunteers hold degrees in the fields in which they teach.

It appears it is this latter element that has state Board of Education members in a collective snit. During the most recent legislative session, two bills were passed that reduced requirements for those who want to become teachers (HB 4010 and HB 4122). Both focus on permitting alternative licensing of individuals who wish to teach, as long as their bachelors' degrees are in subject areas that are the same as the subjects they hope to teach.

That expectation, however, is apparently too much for the board. That an individual who majored in chemistry in college would be permitted to teach only chemistry (as opposed to, oh, English or history) is viewed as unfairly "pigeonholing" the would-be educator. Or as the Gazette reporter who wrote the story observed, "Someone who majored in math but wants to teach English would be out of luck."

The executive director of the Appalachia branch of Teach for America, Will Nash, confirmed that perspective. Complaining that "the current legislation [in West Virginia] makes for a difficult climate to get new teachers to the state," he expressed hope that the legislation could be amended to "open opportunities for the diversity of our candidates (like those candidates who might not possess a BA/BS in a specific discipline, but have the requisite knowledge to teach that subject area as proven by passage of a content knowledge test like the PRAXIS)."

That this is viewed as an unwarranted and burdensome requirement is baffling. Isn't the entire point of having a profession the fact that its practitioners are held to certain standards in their preparation and job performance? Or do you really want your neurosurgeon to be a former airline pilot who passed a content test in neurology?

Moreover, reports on the effectiveness of TFA are not encouraging. There is a substantial body of rigorous research disputing Kopp's claims that TFA volunteers produce remarkable results in minimal time. Two of those studies, in fact, have concluded that TFA volunteers are significantly less effective than either veteran teachers or even traditionally-prepared new teachers. (See the National Education Policy Center's "Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence" or Philip Kovacs' article in EdWeek, "Teach for America Research Fails the Test.")

Other nationally recognized and respected researchers, Stanford's Linda-Darling Hammond and Northern Arizona's Barbara Torre Veltri among them, agree that the students of TFA's volunteers have simply not achieved the amazing test score gains that the organization claims they have.

And yet, Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state Board of Education, is affronted by the Legislature's attempt to exercise some caution regarding who teaches children. She finds offensive the idea that teachers should at the very least have degrees in the fields in which they aspire to teach. Arguing that TFA's "got a program that's working" and demanding to know why the Legislature is "trying to fix it," Mrs. Manchin objects that "it works in other states."

No, it doesn't. The research says otherwise.

You don't have to read the research, however, to recognize that the assertion that TFA volunteers are better than other teachers, new or veteran, doesn't pass the common-sense test either. Ask anyone who's done the job. Nearly all teachers struggle at least a little the first few years. So do new doctors, new attorneys and new engineers. Getting a degree and/or licensure is just the beginning of learning one's field. Professionals know that.

The attempt to circumvent the difficult and time-consuming preparation of teaching professionals by encouraging short-cuts such as TFA suggests an inclination for the quick fix over a meaningful effort to solve the problems of a profession that finds it increasingly hard to attract bright and promising young people -- and favoring quick fixes is unworthy of those who are supposed to be upholding the best interests of students.

Or perhaps she actually preferred the replacement referees.

Nicholson is a professor of leadership studies at Marshall University's Graduate School of Education and Professional Development.


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