Is Teach for America a Solution for the Teacher Shortage?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

It has been well-documented in this space and elsewhere the scale of the present and looming teacher shortage hamstringing South Carolina’s public schools. The number of South Carolina teachers who left the profession in the 2018-2019 school year, the latest for which we have numbers, was 6,600, swamping efforts to replace them. Districts across the Palmetto state began this school year with 1,000 vacancies, and that was prior to COVID’s bracing effect on teacher retirements.

Many of those unfilled positions can be found in the schools that most need teachers, those in high-poverty areas teaching the most at-risk children. It is a self-reinforcing educational emergency. Today, a low-income child has less than a 1 in 10 chance of graduating from college, compared to nearly 8 in 10 high-income children. Low educational attainment is directly correlated with lower skills and lower income in adulthood, fueling generational poverty that traps their progeny. 

No one strategy will solve the problem, but one organization is celebrating its 30th anniversary nationally of bringing high-performing new college graduates into high-poverty schools with the goal of providing opportunities for success to every child. It is Teach for America (TFA), which came to South Carolina in 2011 and has built an alumni corps of 365 members, with 89 teachers this school year.

The Economic Growth Argument for Educational Equity

Teach for America recruits top talent among graduating seniors regardless of their major – selecting 3,500 aspiring teachers nationwide from among 55,000 applicants in 2018 – and puts them through intensive summer training in classroom and community leadership and diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.

They are placed in the lowest-income schools on a two-year commitment, as full-fledged faculty members, receiving normal school district salaries and benefits. In the Lowcountry, corps members teach in the Colleton County School District and at Burke High School, CE Williams Middle School, and Morningside Middle School in Charleston.

Teach for America has come under fire from the state Inspector General and state Treasurer for the cost of the program to school districts. Treasurer Curtis Loftis has called it an “expensive failure.” Hiring teachers through TFA costs, according to the Inspector General, 100 times as much as through an accelerated certification program that takes those with area expertise and two years of full-time work experience. Its teacher-graduates do not necessarily serve in high-poverty schools. TFA points out that the two programs are different and complement, rather than compete, with each other.

The Lowcountry Graduate Center supports the full range of initiatives to address the educational achievement gap across race and income. This issue plays a critical role in slowing broad economic growth and prosperity in the region, as employers struggle to find the talent necessary to fill open positions.

According to the US Economic Development Advisory Services, regions that boast greater levels of racial inclusivity enjoy more robust economic growth. “Among the country’s 50 most populous metropolitan areas, for example, the 10 regions that score highest on our inclusivity index all posted employment growth of 12% or greater between 2014 and 2019,” said Amy Holloway, the services’ national director.

Does Teach for America Work?

A great deal of research has been done on the value of TFA teachers, with varied results. They tend to find that students taught by TFA teachers fare about the same as those taught by educators who arrive in school via the usual pathways.

“We really do take care to place strong, passionate, well-trained leaders in front of children on a microlevel,” said Courtney Waters, a spokesperson for TFA South Carolina. “We are putting applicants through a very rigorous training process. We film lessons and coach course corrections. We even course correct in real-time through an earpiece during the summer training. It has a huge impact because what it means is the schools get teachers of quality for the money spent.”

Unquestionably, Teach for America places energetic and enthusiastic teachers in positions that would otherwise go unfilled. A TFA study in 2013 found that about half remain in the classroom following their commitment, and two-thirds continue to work in education in some capacity.

Waters says the organization is addressing that in South Carolina with a “second tour fellowship” that offers assistance earning national board certification. She says the program is in its infancy but so far, 70% of TFA members whose first contract expired signed on for a third year. Next year, the organization proposes to roll out a school leadership program to funnel corps members to leadership school positions.

The country has hardly moved forward towards Teach for America’s vision that every student will enjoy an equal opportunity to get a quality education. But if that day ever comes, many different initiatives will need to be part of the solution.

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