Teach for America program readies for controversial Minnesota debut

Executive director Daniel Sellers hopes Teach for America will help close the achievement gap in Minnesota schools

Executive director Daniel Sellers hopes Teach for America will help close the achievement gap in Minnesota schools

Inside a renovated warehouse office, Daniel Sellers sits behind a computer, wearing a pressed blue shirt, khaki pants, and a red tie patterned with skiers. With a shaved face and crew-cut hair, he looks as though he came from the pages of a J. Crew catalog rather than from a mathematics classroom in rural North Carolina. He's here in the Twin Cities to direct Teach for America, the heralded program that will place 40 graduates from some of the most elite colleges in the nation inside Minnesota schools this fall.

"The mission of Teach for America is to close the achievement gap," he says. "While Minnesota has always had great education, it has one of the highest gaps in the nation between white students and students of color."

The statistics serve as raw reminders: In 2005, Minnesota had the second-largest disparity in the nation between African American students and white students on fourth-grade reading tests. And less than half of American Indian, African American, and Latino students graduated from high school in 2007, compared to 80 percent of white students.

As Sellers gives a tour of the newly renovated office space, he points out rooms that will serve as the home base and support center for the volunteers. While the graduates are tossed inside the classroom with only eight weeks of training, they receive constant mentoring and must take standard educational courses at Hamline University at night.

"The first year of teaching is difficult for anyone," says Sellers as he walks past a set of cubicles near Target Field. "That's why we mentor the staff along the way with lesson plans and activities that were developed inside the classrooms. We believe that every child, no matter of their circumstances, has the potential to learn."

But not everyone is happy about Teach for America coming to a state once known for its premier public education system. Tom Dooher is the president of Education Minnesota, the largest teachers' union and education lobbying group in the state. As he looks at the 40 TFA volunteers coming into the Minnesota school system this upcoming year, with another 80 to follow in the next two years, he can't help but remember the 500 to 1,000 laid-off teachers, many with years of experience, who could fill those positions.

"There's been an erosion of respect for the teaching profession over the last 10 to 15 years," says Dooher. "But certified teachers are still more effective inside the classroom than noncertified instructors. And if Teach for America was really interested in helping close the achievement gap, they'd recruit undergraduates and get kids into graduate programs before they enter the classroom. That is one piece that is frustrating. This isn't the Peace Corps. This is a profession."

Another professional with reservations about Teach for America is Carlton College's educational studies professor Deborah Appleman. She says Teach for America actively recruits on her campus, but she sees three problematic assumptions at the heart of the program:

• Anybody who is smart can be a good teacher. (Appleman says there is no correlation.)

• Teaching is more instinct than knowledge. (Appleman says it's a combination of both.)

• Students who are most in need will do the best with the most underprepared teachers in the country. (Appleman thinks that idea is crazy.)

But what really bothers her is the almost overbearingly noble tone that Teach for America projects in their literature and mission.

"There is a way in which this is really classist and elitist," she says. "Somebody who is smart and went to college at a good school is going to be able to be with kids. And they just need to dedicate a couple years. That is a sort of résumé-building on the back of black and brown kids."

The debate surrounding the efficacy of Teach for America is a long and hoarse argument. Both sides cite studies that lean in their favor, and attack those that do not.

On the teachers' side are research papers produced by Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education who throughout the '90s and early '00s was the most prominent critic of Teach for America. In a study published in 1997, she wrote: "Four separate evaluations found that TFA's training program did not prepare candidates to succeed with students, despite the noticeable intelligence and enthusiasm of many of the recruits."

Teach for America counters her conclusions with two separate studies. The first, published in 2004 by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., found that students instructed by Teach for America members "make 10 percent more progress in a year in math than is typically expected, while slightly exceeding the normal expectation for progress in reading."

The second, published in 2007 by the Urban Institute of North Carolina, found that "TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers."

But all the findings rest upon student performance in one of the most highly contentious areas of public education: standardized tests.

So in yet another study conducted in May 2008, Arizona State University professor Gene V. Glass tried to put to rest the endless debate, concluding, "There is little reason to expect any consensus on the question of relative effectiveness, or to expect test score data to quiet the debate over alternative certification."

All this chatter doesn't matter much to Keith Lester, superintendent of Brooklyn Center Schools. In the most recent science exams, 84 percent of the students tested did not meet the state minimum requirement. A former high school music instructor with a gray beard, he talks with excitement about the four Teach for America corps members his district will receive this year.

"From what I've heard they're just incredible people," he says. "Though I can't say they are as prepared as traditional teachers, I also know that some who went through a college teaching program weren't that prepared, either."

Lester highlights an added benefit that Teach for America members will bring to his school. "Not to take anything away from the amazing teachers we already have, but here are graduates that can do anything—become doctors, lawyers, get high-paying jobs in the sciences—and they choose to spend two years of their lives working with our kids."

Among the many financial backers of Teach for America is Minneapolis's Medtronic Foundation. Beginning in 1994, it donated small sums of money, in the range of $25,000 to $50,000 a year. That number increased greatly in 2006 with a donation of $250,000, and in 2007 and 2008 the company donated a total of a half-million dollars each year. The goal is to help recruit math and science teachers, and train them how to use their MIT understanding of nuclear physics to teach basic principles of science to third-graders.

In the next three years, Medtronic will donate an additional $1.4 million to Teach for America, helping its expansion in Minnesota. For David Etzwieler, the foundation's vice president of community affairs and executive director, the program will help support the existing teaching corps and infuse it with new ideas. To him, the complaints are understandable, but miss the larger problem of an uneducated workforce looming in the near future.

"We can't fail at this," he says. "People are shocked when they hear about the disparities and gap in Minnesota. White students are doing well, but the fact of the matter is that we are not adequately serving students who are near or at the bottom of the pyramid. This is totally against the culture of our state."