Recently, my colleagues, Bill McComas and Chris Goering, wrote a thoughtful essay questioning the rationale for the nationally respected Teach for America (TFA) as well as spinoffs such as our own Arkansas Teacher Corps (ATC), developed in the past year to serve Arkansas students and schools.
While I appreciate their views, obviously I disagree with their conclusion that such programs are harmful. I believe that such programs are helpful and necessary.
After acknowledging that Arkansas schools face significant teaching shortages in some subjects, the authors criticize alternative-preparation strategies as a shortsighted attempt to address this problem by lowering the bar. Nothing could be further from the truth. The alternative-preparation strategy which I favor seeks out committed and talented applicants, screens them thoroughly, and accepts only a very small fraction to undertake the critically important task of educating our state’s students. Our first class of 21 Arkansas Teacher Corps Fellows includes those who have taught science at the college level, students with excellent GPAs in rigorous majors and two students who received Ph.D. degrees at the University of Arkansas this May. I certainly do not believe that placing a newly minted Ph.D. in chemical engineering in high school math and science classrooms represents a lowered bar. Nor do parents. Nor do school superintendents in low-income areas.
McComas and Goering state that the “research on TFA has taught us that these smart individuals may make a difference in student achievement-but they don’t stay long in the profession.” I agree that alternatively certified teachers from such rigorous programs will make a positive academic difference for kids. Indeed, we should not be surprised that the most talented students with rigorous majors earned from selective institutions turn out to be good teachers. But how long will these teachers stay? Good studies seem to indicate that the attrition of TFA teachers is roughly equal to that of other teachers in high-need schools.In any event, we would also like effective teachers to stay in the classroom, so we require a commitment of three years for our ATC fellows.
McComas and Goering venture into the unknown, claiming that the “research doesn’t show how damaging it is that such programs imply that anyone can be an effective teacher with little or no teacher preparation.” I agree. The research reveals no evidence of any alleged damage, likely because there is no such thing. The existence of selective programs like our ATC does not suggest that “anyone” can become an effective teacher. In fact, in this first year of the ATC, we’ve accepted fewer than 25 of 135 applicants, selected based on their ability and commitment after comprehensive half-day interviews that included a one-to-one discussion, a group activity, and a teaching audition. I doubt many traditional programs in our state can afford to be this selective!
McComas and Goering reference the fact that ATC fellows will serve high-need communities, and they make the implausible claim that, as a consequence of programs like the ATC and TFA, “the disparity in student achievement already seen across Arkansas will grow.” It seems silly to argue that disadvantaged students will face greater achievement gaps because they are exposed to talented teachers such as those provided by Teach for America (with its Ivy League pipeline) or the Arkansas Teacher Corps. This outrageous claim reveals a lack of understanding of the challenges facing school leaders in high-need areas, where there are vacancies in key high school courses and no long line of traditionally trained teachers waiting in the wings.
We certainly expect that students will be better off for having ATC teachers in the coming years and that ATC will reduce achievement gaps. However, we do not simply rely on faith. We will carefully study the effectiveness of ATC teachers and are willing to pull the plug if McComas and Goering are right.
Finally, McComas and Goering offer up their own strategy for addressing targeted teacher shortages-scholarships for potential teachers, tuition waivers and the like. While I do not oppose these ideas, they have a mixed record in Arkansas, as colleagues Bob Maranto and James Shuls reported in the most recent issue of The Rural Educator, where they evaluated existing efforts to attract teachers to high-need areas.
I applaud our university, the College of Education and Health Professions, and Professors McComas and Goering for training sufficient numbers of certified teachers for our relatively affluent districts in Northwest Arkansas. I do not believe, however, that we are effectively serving students in the more economically depressed regions of the state. Thus, I am very pleased that our college (albeit not all of our faculty) is supporting the Arkansas Teacher Corps as a strategy for serving students we’ve previously ignored.
With all due respect to our colleagues, instead of waiting a few years to see if their ideas bear fruit, we’re going to dismiss their criticisms and get back to the important work of training and supporting our very talented first class of ATC fellows who will do their best to provide quality instruction to students in more than 20 classrooms across Arkansas this fall.
Gary Ritter is a professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas and one of the directors of the new Arkansas Teacher Corps.