By MAUREEN O’HARA
Capital News Service
LANSING — Wanted: Recent college graduates willing to immerse themselves in an urban or rural area to help bridge the gap between academic achievement and low-income families.
This fall, 30 to 50 such people will set foot in the Detroit Public Schools, the newest site for the equal-education movement, Teach For America.
The delegation of highly trained teachers aims to help children receive an excellent education despite coming from low-income families and attending schools with limited resources.
A study by Education Watch in 1998 concluded that by the time a child from a low-income area is 9 years old, he or she is already three to four grade levels behind in reading ability compared with children in high-income areas.
Detroit is the program’s 17th site. Others range from Los Angeles to the Mississippi Delta. Only one-third of Detroit Public School district’s 167,000 students scored at grade level or above on the Metropolitan Achievement Test in 2000. The MAT evaluates a student’s achievement in reading, math and science.
Stan Childress, communications executive director for the Detroit Public Schools, says that these knowledgeable individuals will help students do better academically.
“It doesn’t matter where they come from,” Childress said. “The end product is that children will have a better education.”
In times of critical teacher shortage, schools should not exclude those who are good instructors, Childress added. Those who come from non-traditional areas are the teachers with the best developed skills.
Teach For America aims to improve students’ performance by going “above and beyond” to make a significant impact in each child’s life. According to LaVona Carpenter, executive director for Teach for America Detroit, the movement is based on two goals: bridging the achievement gap and creating a group of advocates with ambitious goals.
“This is one route into the classroom,” Carpenter said. “We believe effective leaders make effective teachers.”
More than 8,000 graduates have taught more than one million children since the program began in 1990. Founder and President Wendy Kopp created the idea for talented teachers impacting those in low-income families during her senior year at Princeton University.
“People are seeking to ensure that all parts of their lives — professional as well as personal — are fulfilling and meaningful,” said Elissa Clapp, Teach For America’s vice president of recruitment and selection.
The program recruits graduates from more than 200 colleges and universities with a high standard of criteria the applicant must meet. These sought-after teachers must have a history of achievement, show examples of leadership and be willing to pursue ambitious goals.
Discussion of teacher competency in low-income areas led former Sen. David Jaye to introduce a bill to require all middle and high school teachers pass a college level competency test to be certified in the subject they teach.
The bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee and is not up for hearing anytime soon, according to Senate Clerk Jessica Sutherland.
The Teach For America Program goes a step further than teacher competency. It recruits graduates in specific majors such as engineering, English and mathematics.
The program places an emphasis on recruitment and training. Carpenter believes that more graduates would teach if they were heavily recruited. Each applicant undergoes an intense interview process and must include a written essay.
“Our training serves as a foundation,” Carpenter said. “We don’t set a limit for our teachers.”
Starting with 500 corps members entering classrooms in 1990, Teach For America placed a record-breaking 920 teachers last year. According to Carpenter, 60 percent of the program’s alumni go on to other fields that directly involve education such as lawyers or doctors.
While the focus is making education available to all students, some education officials believe that experience is the key to success.
“We firmly believe that the toughest of environments requires definite experience,” said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, director of communications of the Michigan Education Association. “There’s too much transition and turmoil with the program. Kids need stability.”
The individuals in Teach For America have a large amount of expertise in their subject, Trimer-Hartley acknowledged, but the system turns into a “revolving door” as the they commit to only two years and then move onto other professions.
“The shortage of teachers for certain subjects is due to administrative problems,” she said. “We need teachers that are going to elevate and support the profession.”
Trimer-Hartley cites the demand for math and science teachers as an example of teacher turnover that creates instability. After two years in the classroom, these highly sought-after professionals go elsewhere for more money, furthering the idea that if paid a high salary, they might stay.
Graduates of all majors are encouraged to apply, but Trimer-Hartley contends that even an Albert Einstein, for example, may be the smartest man in science, but what truly matters is the ability to handle a classroom and teach at-risk students.
Rep. Irma Clark, D-Detroit, echoes Trimer-Hartley’s sentiments. She believes that those graduates would be more useful in assisting the current teachers with their particular subject matter.
“Students need teachers with training, ” Clark said. “It takes a special skill to learn how to educate and more than five weeks to train.”
Clark added that students form close bonds with the teachers who come into low-income districts and the two-year commitment is not enough to develop a positive relationship with the students.
So which is more important? Teachers who possess better knowledge of a subject or teachers who are better trained for classroom situations? Perhaps students, teachers and parents will know the answer after Teach For America tackles the low-income challenges of Detroit Public Schools.
“We are very aware of the challenges of education,” Carpenter said. “Teachers with ambitious goals will help the schools to better bridge the educational gap.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By MAUREEN O’HARA