Nine years ago, a senior at Princeton got the idea that the best people to teach in challenging schools might be non-teachers: idealistic college graduates willing to accept low pay in places where turnover is high and qualified teachers are scarce.
Now her program puts 500 temporary teachers in schoolrooms for two years before many go on to become lawyers or doctors or join other professions. But not without controversy. A critic says schools don’t need temporary faculties of young dilettantes looking for a “feel-good” experience.
Arden Ewin, 23, has been teaching just four months in the program, but already she has mastered the look, just short of a scowl, that makes a distracted sixth-grader settle down and do his math work.
“I didn’t ever think I had a teacher look, but now I find all my friends saying, ‘Stop giving me the teacher look,”’ she said.
Booker T. Washington Middle School, where she teaches, is housed in a landmark, but rundown, building. One of her classroom doors is broken and the clock stays at 9:05. Kids with runny noses get a tissue from a classroom roll of toilet paper.
In college, Ewin, a native of San Diego, wrote a senior thesis on chaos theory, which studies the disorder of formless matter and infinite space. Now she deals with chaos in another dimension: She holds it to a manageable simmer in a classroom of two-dozen inner city youngsters.
The same missionary drive that sent her to Hong Kong for a year of teaching English instead of to graduate school has brought her to the classroom of poor black children.
Teach for America, founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp when she was at Princeton, recruits enthusiastic college graduates to teach in rural and urban schools where turnover is high and positions would otherwise go unfilled because of low pay and poor working conditions.
The recruits, selected from about 2,000 applicants a year, make a two-year commitment to teach, and get a few weeks of intensive training before being thrust into the classroom. Though many go on to law school, medical college or other graduate work, others switch course and get teaching degrees.
“We have been equally driven by our desire to provide students with excellent teachers and to create this ever-expanding force of people who really understand the realities of urban and rural public schools and are committed to changing them,” said founder Kopp, 30.
Since 1990, Teach for America has placed about 4,000 people at schools in 13 regions, from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area to Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta to Baltimore and New York in the east. Besides contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals, it gets about $1.5 million from the federal government each year. Teachers are paid local salaries by local school districts.
But the program has generated fierce criticism. Advocates of conventional teacher training and rigorous credentialing say the members lack what it takes to work in difficult teaching situations.
“We don’t need them if they’re not interested in staying and don’t want to be prepared for it,” said Linda Darling-Hammond of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This is not about providing some kind of feel-good activity for college students who haven’t figured out what they want to do with their lives.”
Defenders of Teach for America and of alternative certification say the old way may discourage people who aren’t ready to go through mind-numbing courses in pedagogy. Turnover is already high among beginning teachers and polls show many feel their courses in education left them ill prepared.
No one, however, has determined whether the children do better or worse in Teach for America.
Meantime, schools are crying out for teachers with subject knowledge. Nearly 40 percent have neither a major nor minor in the subject they teach, the Education Department says. And while more than a quarter of students are black or Hispanic, only 13 percent of teachers are. Teach for America boasts consistently higher numbers of minority recruits.
Among them: Andrew Gardner, 25, a Bronx native and business graduate from the University of Buffalo. At 6-foot-3, he is an awesome presence for 20 second graders at Carter G. Woodson Elementary here as he guides them through phonics-based spellings.
Gardner learned too late to switch majors that his heart wasn’t in business. Teach for America gave him an out. “Costwise, timewise, this was perfect for me,” he said.