Teach for America not education's cure-all

An Op-ed by Thomas M. Stephens, reprinted with his kind permission. First appeared in the Columbus Dispatch.

Imagine that Gov. John Kasich and Ohio legislators take on a real problem: the difficulty Medicare patients have in finding physicians who will treat them. To fix it, they pass and Kasich signs the Ohio Medicare Fair Practice Act, after pro forma hearings and over the objections of the medical schools and professional associations. This new law allows college graduates to obtain a special license to practice medicine following completion of a five-week course. These bright young people, full of energy and idealism, will practice only a few years before migrating to less-onerous and more-lucrative careers.

Think this is far-fetched? Well, the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate, with the help of 10 Democrats, passed a bill requiring the Ohio Department of Education to issue a resident-educator license based solely on a bachelor's degree and five weeks of training. This license will be available to a very select few: those recruited by the much-hyped Teach for America program, another ill-conceived hope for saving inner-city public-school students.

Teach for America, founded in 1989, has a noble mission. It tries to address the educational inequalities of children in low-income schools by recruiting high-achieving college students, who aren't prepared professionally as classroom teachers. But after only five weeks of summer training, they qualify. They must agree to teach for a minimum of two years in urban schools, sort of like Peace Corps' volunteers in Third World countries. But in this case, Ohio is considered the destitute land.

But all is not well with this approach. Kevin R. Kelly, dean of the School Of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton, reviewed the research that purports to support the superiority of TFA teachers. And in February, he testified before the Ohio House Education Committee.

Kelly told the committee that TFA teachers are as challenged during their first two years in the classroom as are regularly prepared teachers and that the wunderkinds' students overall had worse test results than did those of the professionally certified teachers. After two years, TFA teachers' students lagged in reading achievement but did better on math. But most significantly, he found that by their third year, 80 percent of TFA teachers left their schools.

Classroom teaching is not for amateurs; it's not an easy adjustment even for pros and certainly not for those who aren't well prepared professionally. Altruistic motivation is good but it isn't enough, as those TFA teachers who fled their classrooms can testify, because the reality of managing groups of challenged students can be overpowering.

Our children deserve and need professionally prepared teachers who are committed for the long haul, who view teaching as a career and who are willing to meet all standards of their profession.

For those who see Teach For America as an economic bargain, Kelly cautions that it isn't -about 33 percent of their costs are paid with federal, state and local funds and the rest by tax-subsidized foundations.

Teach for America, like other "solutions" before it, will run its course, leaving our elected officials with the same problems they sought to solve. This won't change until lawmakers, governors - all of us - view public schools not as factories that are expected to produce students who test well and meet artificially contrived standards, but as places where future citizens are taught well despite the limitations of their life circumstances. And that requires teachers who are both professionally prepared and committed.

Thomas M. Stephens is professor emeritus in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University and is executive director emeritus of the School Study Council of Ohio.