Let me preface this article by the source - The Wall Street Journal - is suspect now that Rupert "Fox & Friends" Murdoch owns it. Still, it's brilliant: this is exactly what my Naples Institute colleagues and I have been discussing.
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
Amazing Teacher Facts
June 14, 2008; Page A10
This month 3,700 recent college grads will begin Teach for America's five-week boot camp, before heading off for two-year stints at the nation's worst public schools. These young men and women were chosen from almost 25,000 applicants, hailing from our most selective colleges. Eleven per cent of Yale's senior class, 9% of Harvard's and 10% of Georgetown's applied for a job whose salary ranges from $25,000 (in rural South Dakota) to $44,000 (in New York City).
Hang on a second.
Unions keep saying the best people won't go into teaching unless we pay them what doctors and lawyers and CEOs make. Not only are Teach for America salaries significantly lower than what J.P. Morgan might offer, but these individuals go to some very rough classrooms. What's going on?
It seems that Teach for America offers smart young people something even better than money – the chance to avoid the vast education bureaucracy. Participants need only pass academic muster and attend the summer training before entering a classroom. If they took the traditional route into teaching, they would have to endure years of "education" courses to be certified.
The American Federation of Teachers commonly derides Teach for America as a "band-aid." One of its arguments is that the program only lasts two years, barely enough time, they say, to get a handle on managing a classroom. However, it turns out that two-thirds of its grads stay in the education field, sometimes as teachers, but also as principals or policy makers.
More importantly, it doesn't matter that they are only in the classroom a short time, at least according to a recent Urban Institute study. Here's the gist: "On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers' effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience."
Jane Hannaway, one of the study's co-authors, says Teach for America participants may be more motivated than their traditional teacher peers. Second, they may receive better support during their experience. But, above all, Teach for America volunteers tend to have much better academic qualifications. They come from more competitive schools and they know more about the subjects they teach. Ms. Hannaway notes, "Students are better off being exposed to teachers with a high level of skill."
The strong performance in math and science seems to confirm that the more specialized the knowledge, the more important it is that teachers be well versed in it. (Imagine that.) No amount of time in front of a classroom will make you understand advanced algebra better.
Teach for America was pleased, but not exactly shocked, by these results. "We have always been a data-driven organization," says spokesman Amy Rabinowitz. "We have a selection model we've refined over the years." The organization figures out which teachers have been most successful in improving student performance and then seeks applicants with similar qualities. "It's mostly a record of high academic achievement and leadership in extracurricular activities."
Sounds like the way the private sector hires. Don't tell the teachers unions.
End note: While the Wall St. Journal has historically always been a knee-jerk union-basher, I am union-agnostic. Nothing is truer than the old saw, "A company (or school system) that goes union deserves a union." Workers choose to join a union when they feel they need protection from their employers. And American school teachers certainly need protection from most school systems.
Still, I am firmly opposed to the position of teachers' unions that seniority, and not skill, decide issues such as pay and job security. So while I won't join the gleeful abuse being heaped out by the WSJ, I abstain with that caveat.