How to Recruit Better Teachers

Josalyn Tresvant McGhee teaches fourth-graders in Memphis; her M.B.A. skills come in handy when she’s managing the classroom. Erin Patrice O’Brien for TIME

Many beloved teachers — Jaime Escalante, Frank McCourt, even Socrates — came to the profession after holding other jobs first. Escalante was a computer technician before becoming the Los Angeles math teacher made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver; McCourt worked at New York City’s Biltmore Hotel before teaching for 30 years; Socrates was an experienced soldier. Teaching has always held an appeal, a kind of purity, for those disillusioned by their daily toils.

It has never been easier for nonteachers to become public-school teachers, sometimes with just a few weeks of training. In recent years, hundreds of programs have appeared around the U.S. to help people stop practicing law, brokering real estate or selling furniture and start teaching. In Memphis, for example, you can be sitting at a bank desk poring over quarterly reports in May and be teaching algebra by August.

A whole new industry has emerged to encourage recent college graduates and experienced professionals to regard teaching as national service. The most prestigious program, Teach for America (TFA), is enjoying its 20th anniversary amid a wave of fulsome press and a crush of applications from Ivy League and other elite applicants. More than 46,000 sought TFA positions for this fall; 12% were accepted.

Because it has been so difficult for poorly funded schools to find and keep teachers, TFA and similar organizations are quietly becoming part of the Establishment. Last year the city of Memphis handed over authority for recruiting all new teachers to a New York City — based nonprofit called the New Teacher Project (TNTP). Before school started in August, one way TNTP filled the approximately 800 open teaching positions in Memphis — a typical annual hiring number for a big city — was with its Teaching Fellows, a corps of accomplished career changers recruited from around the nation. Founded in 1997, the fellowships operate in 18 locations in the U.S. You may have seen the ads: “Be more than just a role model. Be a teacher.”

TNTP’s fellows and those accepted into TFA get to skip typical teacher-certification processes. How school districts certify teachers — and how states license them — varies widely, but generally applicants won’t be considered without an education degree. (A bachelor’s degree is usually enough, especially in urban schools that endure wild turnover.) TNTP and TFA are controversial among teachers’-union members and education professors because the organizations put new teachers in classrooms after only five to seven weeks of boot-camp training.

But TNTP and TFA argue, correctly, that many of their Ivy League applicants would never teach at all if they had to earn an education degree first. The groups have powerful allies. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a contrarian 45-year-old who used to run the Chicago school district, has spoken admiringly of both organizations. And not long ago he gave a speech denouncing the traditional system of teacher-training: “By almost any standard,” he said, “many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.”

But as a whole, the profession lacks something almost as precious as money: prestige. According to the McKinsey research, in countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, where 100% of educators come from the top third of their graduating class, first-year teaching positions are regarded the way Americans see first-year medical residencies: as the beginning of an elite career. At the University of Helsinki, just 1 applicant in 15 is accepted into the teacher-training program; most U.S. education schools are open to anyone who will pay the tuition.

Yet even as momentum builds for nontraditional training programs to get more talented people into classrooms — the Obama Administration requested $405 million in the 2011 budget to fund alternative pathways to teaching — a basic question may have been overlooked: What does it mean when we decide that teaching is more a public service than a profession? “Think about medical-residency programs,” says Joanna Jacobson, founder of Strategic Grant Partners, a pro bono consulting firm that funds and counsels education-reform efforts around the nation. “The feds support doctors who choose residencies in high-needs urban and rural areas. But they are not doing an all-call to anyone who wants to dabble around and be a doctor.” She also says, pointedly, “Not everyone can be a good teacher.”

The cost of hiring and placing so many new teachers was becoming untenable, particularly during a recession. Also, many Memphis kids were having to cope with inexperienced teachers year after year. A great deal of research shows that first-year teachers tend to be unprepared for the astonishingly disparate demands of the job — speaking loudly without shouting, deciding what to do when someone throws a spitball, looking up the rules for bathroom breaks, determining whether the class on Abraham Lincoln should come before or after the one on Frederick Douglass. Even worse, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 70% of the city’s teachers were being hired within a month of the first day of school, meaning most new teachers had little time to plan.

This is a big problem with programs like TNTP and TFA: they require a commitment of just one and two years, respectively, and like most traditionally trained teachers, participants often spend the entire first year learning their jobs. A vocal minority of TFA veterans have complained that the program does little good for the students who must endure their inexperience.

Many districts are trying to fine-tune their screening methods to help determine whether an enthusiastic potential teacher will actually be able to command and push a classroom. Since 2000, the Haberman Educational Foundation has worked with 130 school systems to train them to find nontraditional teachers to fill difficult positions. The foundation was started by Martin Haberman, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee, who helped persuade Congress to pass a 1963 law that provided funding for school districts to seek and certify teachers who had not attended ed schools.

One of Haberman’s strategies is to screen potential teachers with a test designed to show which ones would do well in a classroom. The test has now been given to tens of thousands of hopefuls. But when I took it recently, I found some questions so vague that no correct answer seemed possible. Here’s one example:

A teacher who has students working in cooperative teams believes that:

A. a good classroom must have some noise
B. students can learn from each other
C. students must learn to work independently

Surely all three are true. But Haberman told me B is the right answer because it is the one given most often by proven teachers. The logic seemed a little circular, and the test made me question the whole concept of alternative hiring. Despite the media attention devoted to TFA and like projects, the vast majority of teachers will continue to come from education schools for many years. So shouldn’t we think about how to work with those schools rather than competing against them?

But half the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are baby boomers. They are retiring in droves. Schools in difficult neighborhoods like Southeast D.C. or Harlem spend much of each spring semester just finding bodies who can stand in front of the kids at the beginning of the next school year. So until teaching becomes a more attractive long-term option, we’ll need both paid volunteers and professionals. Otherwise the kids in the neediest classrooms will continue to be taught by substitutes or retirees who come back reluctantly. How bad can it be that thousands of Ivy Leaguers, though inexperienced, want to help fill the void?

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