In Defense Of Teach For America

Teach for America is drawing criticism from some education policy observers who say its training for new recruits is rushed and incomplete. The organization, however, vigorously defends its record. Host Michel Martin speaks with Heather Harding of Teach for America about the program's challenges and its future.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's only fair to get a response, or another perspective, from Teach for America. So joining us now is Heather Harding. She is the senior vice president of community engagement. She also oversees the research department, and she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

HEATHER HARDING: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And before we begin, I do want to note that there was no reluctance between you and Gary Rubinstein to speak together. It's just that your schedules would not permit us to put you both together. I just want to clarify that.

So you heard the issues that were raised by Gary Rubinstein. I'm sure that none of these are a surprise to you. I just want to get your overall response to his critique.

HARDING: Sure. One, I want to acknowledge, Gary and I are both alums from the early '90s. And I think what's striking is that we both entered Teach for America and are still in education. But I would just depart from Gary in saying that one of the reasons I joined Teach for America - and, I think, many others do - is because we recognize the great injustice that educational inequality is in our country. And working on that issue is strikingly different than just trying to make a difference.

I also think the perspective that Gary has is about a decade old. And one of the things that Teach for America - that I think we value, is continuous improvement. And so every year, actually, we are tweaking parts of our program; focusing on training, learning more, and deepening our commitment on a bunch of different areas that we think will help us reach the goal.

MARTIN: Well, I'm glad you talked about that because there are some specific things where you could argue that his experience doesn't match up. But his meta-argument is that however valuable Teach for America may have been at the beginning, we are at a point now where it's probably doing more harm than good because of high turnover; exaggerated results, which casts a negative light on teachers who've been in the trenches for a lot longer; and that just the availability of a large group of young, lesser-paid individuals creates an incentive to get rid of veteran teachers. So on that score, how do you respond?

HARDING: So I believe that as long as we have this achievement gap, that we need more talent focused on this problem. So I think it's interesting, right? Principals are choosing to hire Teach for America core members along with other stellar teachers. And what they're looking for are mission-driven people and effective instructors.

I don't think our results are exaggerated, and I fancy myself a pretty empirically driven person - and led our research efforts. So when I look at our results over time, we have three states that are saying we are the top teacher-prep program, two to three years running, for beginning teachers. Also, around the retention issue, I think - you know, as a profession, we face the challenge of retaining teachers, especially in high-poverty schools. I mean, Gary himself migrated to a different type of school serving a different type of population.

And so I think most districts, urban and rural, are always faced with trying to recruit more talent to serve the kids most in need. And so I think we still feel good about that. I think there's a lot of hype out there, but I also feel like this is an important issue to get young people focused on, and to engage them in this early in their career.

MARTIN: When you say that there's a lot of hype out there, hype in which direction? Hype promoting Teach for America, or hype criticizing Teach for America?

HARDING: Both, and - especially given the experience here in Washington, D.C. As you know, we just went through this process where Teach for America alumni were in - had the first opportunity, really, to be leaders of a system. And so that story is going to carry far and wide.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, we're talking about Teach for America. That's the program that aims to turn talented college graduates into teachers, particularly for underserved schools. Earlier, we heard from Teach for America alum-turned critic Gary Rubinstein. Now, we're speaking with Heather Harding. She is a senior vice president with the organization. And she also supervises the research department, and is in touch with the research that's been done by the institution and about the institution.

Is the core of your argument - that principals are really the ones who do the hiring; and that principals, whatever the hype is, don't have an incentive to hire people who they don't think are going to work out because it reflects poorly on them - is that your argument?

HARDING: No. I just feel that, when we look at our own results, we just think about, like, who can tell us if we're doing a good job or not? That should be the principal. That should be the district. So our survey results suggest that 85 percent of our principals think that core members have a positive impact. And we've worked in partnership now, with them, for over 20 years. And so we're paying attention to that. But we're also, you know, clear on the fact that as a profession, we have a retention problem.

The other piece is that, you know, we're very interested in how high-poverty schools are supported and are developing. And so our being in the space helps focus on that issue.

MARTIN: What about the training issue; the fact that the young teachers undergo, you know...

HARDING: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...really minimal training under circumstances which really don't match the kinds of classrooms that they are likely to be in? I mean, one of the things about Michelle Rhee, who was the former - a chancellor of D.C. schools, is she talked about the fact that she was a terrible teacher in her first year, and it took her a while to get her sea legs. She said she felt that by year two, she was, you know, cruising, and it started to really have impact.

But if the core commitment is only a couple of years, how could these teachers really be adding any value at the beginning of their careers - other than for their enthusiasm for the job?

HARDING: Yeah. I think our results say that we're the best source of beginning teachers - or, one of the best sources, for sure. I think our training - thinking about our training as just five weeks in the summer is - I don't think accurate.

First, we are recruiting leaders from all across the country, and it's a highly selective process. In your intro, you noted we have got 48,000-plus applications for 5,000 slots, so we really are sort of weeding out people, or looking for people with strong academic content. That is the first sort of cut at our training.

The summer institute - we're trying to partner with school districts who are trying to offer summer school. Sometimes, we're able to create classrooms of 20 kids. Sometimes, it's 12. It is all the time, though - of those five weeks - focused on instruction, and getting these folks actual practice, in front of kids. That's quite different than even my own training in '92, which was student-teaching in all-year- round L.A. I barely got four hours in front of kids. The core members of today get far more training around this.

But more importantly, what we learned is that first- and second-year teachers, through an alt route, need additional support and training. So we have ongoing support while they're in the program years of the first and second year. And that professional development continues.

Now, that should not let us off the hook. We have to have people ready on day one because they're in front of kids, and their work really matters. And so we're paying attention to that by developing performance rubrics, and helping people understand how to continuously improve.

MARTIN: If you could wave - you know, wave the magic wand, what would you like to see done differently? Is there something specifically about Teach for America that you'd like to be - see be done differently? Is there something about, you know, how teachers get into the profession that you'd like to see done differently?

HARDING: Yeah. I mean, one thing I will say - the importance of diversity, which has always been a part of our fabric, continues to be important for us. So we're a third people of color, in our core. And while that is a great representation if you look at college - recent college graduates, we would love for that to be higher, stronger and more representative; because while we see and have learned that over the years, anybody can be a great teacher, there's added benefit if that teacher looks like you, particularly for kids of color in this country, and kids from poverty circumstances. So we think that's important. So we want to do better at that. We're really focused on it. We recruit at historically black colleges and minority serving institutions, and we're really working on that.

MARTIN: Heather Harding is the senior vice president of community engagement for Teach for America. In that role, she also supervises research, and that's something that she's worked on within the organization for a number of years now. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Heather Harding, thank you so much for joining us.

HARDING: Thanks so much, Michel.

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