Teach For America is lauded and admired, doubted and despised. Could it fix West Virginia’s broken education system?
Written and photographed by Shay Maunz
The road to Lawrence County High School in eastern Kentucky winds through the Appalachian Mountains, past strip malls and scenic overlooks and a few coal processing plants. It feels like—well, a lot like southern West Virginia. The high school is a lot like a high school in rural West Virginia, too: It’s the only one in the county, with 605 students, 68 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Last year about half of the juniors who took the ACT met the state’s benchmark in English, a score of 18. About a quarter made the benchmark in math.
And at first glance Michael Geneve, who taught math at Lawrence County High this past year, seems just like any other young high school teacher. He’s somehow both bright-eyed and tired looking and, in the classroom at least, his demeanor alternates rapidly between that of a harried head coach and a cheerful camp counselor. Sometimes he’ll kneel down beside a student like a cool kid. “Hey man, you’ve gotta subtract.” Or, if he’s feeling less affable, he’ll call them “ma’am” and “sir.” As in, “Sir, you’ve got nothing written on your piece of paper, let’s get on that.” He moves around the classroom constantly, checking students’ progress, answering questions, and generally keeping things running smoothly. When a cluster of freshman boys starts chatting a little bit too loudly he quickly swoops in, leaning over their desks to see how they’re doing. “Creeped right up on you, didn’t I?” he says. “Can you tell me how you solved number 10?”
There is one big difference between Geneve and the other teachers at Lawrence County High, though: Geneve doesn’t have a degree in education. His bachelor’s is in graphic design, his master’s in community development, and his formal training for the classroom was limited to a few months during the summer before he started teaching. He came to Lawrence County via a controversial program called Teach For America, which places teachers—usually recent college graduates who don’t have backgrounds in education—in low-performing schools, and bills itself as part of the answer to education inequity in America. “Coming in I thought, I know how to do math. I want to work in eastern Kentucky. I want to work with young people. It seemed like a win/win/win to me,” Geneve says.
Until recently, Geneve’s background in education—or, rather, his lack of a background—would have made it impossible for him to get a regular teaching job in West Virginia. He could work as a substitute, but state laws regarding teacher certification were just too strict to allow someone like him to make his way into the classroom full time. Programs like Teach for America were barred from operating here. But during the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill expanding alternate certification methods for teachers, loosening up those rules. There are more routes to becoming a teacher in West Virginia now, and TFA might soon be one of them.
A Plan to Fix Education
Teach For America got its start in 1989 when its founder, Wendy Kopp, was still a student at Princeton University and wrote her senior thesis on inequity within America’s public education system. Low-income kids weren’t performing nearly as well as their richer peers, she wrote, and educators couldn’t figure out how to make up for the deeply entrenched economic and social barriers holding them back. Plus, there was a nationwide teacher shortage at hand. We needed a plan.
The solution Kopp pitched was simple but revolutionary— that is, bold, rebellious, and destined for controversy. She would recruit top college graduates to teach for two years in needy school districts, forming a corps of smart young teachers with a passion for ending education inequality. The schools would have more teachers available for hire, the college graduates would get an indepth look at the plight within America’s education system, and the students would get to be taught by top-notch college graduates. She called her new project Teach For America, called her bright young teachers “corps members,” and launched TFA in 1990 with 384 recruits.
Since then Teach For America has doubled in size again and again and spread throughout the country. Today there are more than 10,000 corps members teaching in more than 3,000 schools across 36 states. It’s the largest and most prominent program that funnels alternatively certified teachers into classrooms. The organization is still relatively new to this region—TFA-Appalachia launched in 2011, and today has around 40 corps members in classrooms around the state.
Here’s how it works: Every year, TFA recruiters fan out to the top colleges in the country to talk to students about the program. “They’re just so persistent and their campus presence is so pervasive,” says Luke Glaser, University of Kentucky graduate and secondyear TFA teacher in Hazard, Kentucky. “By the time you graduate from college, the chances are you either told them no, or you’re going to go be a teacher.” The program is really selective—last year only 15 percent of applicants were accepted—and the application process is long and tough. “This is where TFA’s approach is radically different from many colleges of education,” says Will Nash, TFA-Appalachia’s executive director. “For the past 25 years we’ve studied what makes our most successful teachers successful, and then we try to create a selection process geared to that specific thing.” Technically TFA has identified nine characteristics that make a good teacher, but the gist is that they’re looking for smart people who have great interpersonal skills and are good leaders. “We’re recruiting the top students,” Nash says. “And instead of them going to work on Wall Street or for a consulting company or the Peace Corps, we’re directing their energy towards schools, and specifically low-performing schools.”
But here’s where TFA diverges dramatically from the path most teachers take toward becoming a teacher: The traditional path to certification involves four years working toward an education degree at an accredited university. Students take classes on human growth and development, educational psychology and learning, and educational theories, as well as classes for whatever their specialization is—and they spend time in the classroom with students and veteran teachers. At West Virginia State University, for example, students get around 245 hours of field experience plus 15 weeks student teaching. TFA corps members, by contrast, get somewhere between seven and nine weeks of training in the summer before their job starts. “They’re spending half of their day learning how to teach, and the other half of the day they’re actually teaching summer school, tag-teaming with two or three other corps members,” Nash says.
Here’s one more difference between traditional teachers and TFA teachers: They only commit to teach for two years. A 2015 study found 87 percent of TFA teachers say they don’t plan to be teachers for the rest of their careers, compared to just 26 percent of teachers who didn’t come through TFA. On the other hand, Nash says TFA’s internal data shows two-thirds of TFA’s alumni say they plan to stay in the field of education after they finish teaching—signalling that many go on to work in other areas of education like reform projects, or they get involved in shaping policy. “Staying in education is a broad concept,” Glaser says. “Do I think I will be a classroom teacher for the rest of my life? I can’t say. But I will be involved in the discussion about education equity for sure. I think most of us will stay in the conversation.”
Still, TFA has been criticized for putting ill-equipped and underprepared teachers in classrooms with the country’s neediest students, the very students who could most benefit from consistency and experience. It’s been knocked for creating a transient population of teachers instead of forming a culture of stability in needy schools, and for contributing to the impression that teaching shouldn’t be treated as a profession. “If there were an organization called Doctors for America that credentialed surgeons after only 18 hours of practice, there would be a huge outcry against that,” says T. Jameson Brewer, a TFA alumnus who has since spoken out against the organization. “No one would allow Lawyers for America to defend anybody, let alone people who need it the most. The same has to be true for students.”
So does TFA work, or not? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. A March 2015 study from Mathematica Policy Research compared the test scores of students of TFA teachers with students of other teachers in the same schools, teaching under similar conditions. The results: It’s a wash. Both sets of teachers got roughly the same results. Of course, you read that differently depending on how you feel about TFA. Either it’s, “Oh, so even after all this hullabaloo, those TFA people aren’t any better at teaching our kids than regular teachers are?” Or it’s, “Wait, so these newbies who didn’t even go to school for this stuff are just as good as our other teachers? What gives?”
That same study showed the students of TFA corps members slightly outperformed their peers in one area. Pre-K through second grade students in TFA classrooms were better at reading. TFA officials boast that this boost is equivalent to an additional 1.3 months of learning. But critics say the improvement is dwarfed by the gains students could see with the implementation of less controversial measures. Studies have shown that a smaller class size, for example, can provide larger gains in achievement more reliably.
About three years ago, officials with TFA-Appalachia started looking at some school districts in southern West Virginia they thought might be ripe for an intervention from TFA. The schools had a critical need for more teachers, and students, especially poor students, weren’t performing well. “We started having conversations with districts and through that we realized that there was no good alternative certification path in West Virginia,” Nash says. “If you wanted to teach in West Virginia you had to have a four-year degree in education or 10 years of professional experience, and our teachers typically don’t come with that.” TFA officials started working with West Virginia lawmakers to solve that problem, and a piece of legislation freeing up the alternate certification rules for teachers was introduced during the 2013 legislative session.
It failed. The teachers unions argued vehemently against the bill, saying that instead of bringing in a bunch of novice teachers, West Virginia should do a better job of recruiting and retaining the teachers it has—pay them more, give them more autonomy, have more faith in their expertise. A similar bill failed in 2014. It was only during the 2015 legislative session that the issue started to gain some traction in the legislature.
“I think we spent the last few years trying to educate legislators about what alternate certification is and what TFA is— and those are two pretty complex issues,” Nash says. “Here in the third year, I think we finally felt like we had more supporters than in the past.” Plus, in 2015, the new Republican majority in West Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates meant the political landscape we’d all grown accustomed to over the last 80 years—the landscape that was favorable to labor unions and inhospitable to the idea of alternate certification—was slightly askew. Teachers unions did argue against the bill and got their way on a few details. One provision that was added says teachers with alternate certification can only fill positions that have already been posted twice and haven’t received applications from traditionally certified teachers. But they weren’t able to defeat the bill entirely. The law goes into effect in June 2015, and TFA could begin negotiating with West Virginia school districts as soon as the state Board of Education has completed a rulemaking process.
Staying to Help
For most of the time Luke Glaser, that second-year TFA teacher in Hazard, Kentucky, was in college at UK, he figured he’d go on to law school after graduation. “But law can be a fairly pretentious and egotistical field, and I can be a pretty pretentious and egotistical guy,” he jokes. “So I thought maybe that wasn’t the best match.” During his senior year, Luke decided to consider other options. “I started looking around for something else, to try to get a broader glimpse of how things work,” he says. “And the only thing that reached out to me was TFA.” He read up on the crisis in America’s public schools, watched some documentaries about education, and decided this was an area where he could make a difference. “As I learned about the problems with education in the country it really spurred me to action,” he says. “It really ticked me off, and I wanted to try to do something about it.”
When Glaser told his friends he was moving to Hazard, they thought he was crazy—they were all getting shiny new jobs in the big city, and he was moving to the sticks. At first, he didn’t quite disagree with them, but when he moved to Hazard he was embraced so wholeheartedly by the community that he feels like he really became a part of it. “I’ve learned so much about this area that I always lived two hours away from but only visited once,” he says. “I knew it as a place where you volunteered to help build a house on spring break trips—but it’s so much more than that.” Recently, Glaser decided to stay on beyond his two-year commitment to do a third year in Hazard, and he’s thrilled about the decision. His principal is thrilled, too, and it’s worth noting here that 95 percent of principals who work with TFA teachers report that those teachers have a positive impact in their schools. “In my experience they’re good teachers, and they get results,” says Robbie Fletcher, the superintendent of Lawrence County Schools and a former principal who hired several teachers through TFA. “The quality of the program is so high that I just have a lot of faith in these teachers.”
Most teachers who enter the profession through Teach for America are young, idealistic, and energetic. They’re in this to save the world and are willing to work tirelessly to make that happen, and they all have similar ideas about how to do that. Central to TFA’s philosophy is the idea that external factors— poverty, family life, access to food and healthcare—are not barriers to a student’s education. According to the TFA model, if teachers are good enough, they can overcome all that on their own. That’s a powerful idea, though not necessarily easy in practice. How do you identify the very best teachers? And if it’s that easy, then why didn’t that Mathematica study show greater gains in the students of TFA teachers?
“A Raw Deal”
Brewer, the TFA corps member turned TFA critic, joined the organization in 2010. He already had an education degree, but this was in the middle of the economic crisis. He figured TFA was a good way to get a job for a couple years, and was enticed by the group’s lofty ambitions. But during one of his first training sessions, he realized he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the organization. “They basically said that if we followed their steps, 100 percent of students would achieve 100 percent of the time,” he says. “They didn’t use the phrase ‘recipe for teaching’ but that was the messaging, and I just thought, ‘That’s a lie.’ It’s not that easy.”
Amber Kim joined TFA in 2001. “I thought of it as a movement,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of it.” But as she worked in Atlanta’s public school system, she started to find the entire project arrogant. “I saw the disconnect between people of affluence and poor students,” she says. “You have people going in there that haven’t lived that experience and don’t have true empathy. What they kind of do is tell the victims to go solve their own problems rather than saying, ‘I’m here to partner with you to fight the oppression.’”
In the last few years Brewer, Kim, and other TFA alumni, academics, parents, teachers, and students have come together to air these complaints about Teach for America, among many more. They’ve formed a movement that is critical of the organization, called simply Resist TFA. Resist TFA has a Facebook page, Twitter account, and mailing list. In July 2013 it had an assembly in Chicago, and in February 2014 a Twitter chat shot the hashtag #ResistTFA to the top of the social network’s list of trending topics, where it remained for much of the night. “It can not be that as a society we look at our most disadvantaged students and say they’re receiving a raw deal, so let’s create a solution that gives them less experienced teachers,” Brewer says. “It would be a good thing if anybody looked back on the evidence or the research and did the things that worked and didn’t do the things that didn’t work. But that is almost never the case in general, but especially in education.”
In McDowell County, deep in the southern coalfields, the school system was short 39 full-time teachers during the 2013-14 school year—that’s nearly 14 percent of the entire teaching force. Many positions are filled with a rotating cast of long-term substitutes. “It affects student achievement, and that’s what we’re here for,” says Carolyn Falin, McDowell’s assistant superintendent for elementary education. “I’ve had some classrooms that have had a rotation of four teachers in one year, and you build no consistency in instruction. My grandson, in two years his whole class had seven or eight different subs. And it’s just hard to recover from that.”
It’s almost impossible to recruit new teachers to McDowell—the area is too remote, the people too poor, the infrastructure too broken. “And if we get people here, it’s not attractive enough for them to want to stay,” Falin says. “It’s not a place somebody comes and says, ‘I want to move my family here.’” Many teachers and even some administrators commute to McDowell from neighboring counties, but as soon as they can find jobs closer to home they leave. Around 45 percent of teachers in McDowell have only one or two years of experience, and some schools have seen 40 percent of their staff turn over in a year.
To Falin, the idea of resisting TFA is a luxury she—and the students of McDowell—cannot afford. “Ideally I would love to have all our classrooms filled with teachers who have five years’ experience, but it’s just not possible,” she says. “We struggle with this. We have a lot of unemployment here, a lot of kids from poverty. Our kids need the best teachers we can provide them with. We have to look at all available options to get them a teacher. If we get someone to come here and stay for two years, that’s good for us.” Like school systems across the country, McDowell has an especially hard time finding teachers for math and science positions—and nationwide, 46 percent of TFA’s corps members teach STEM subjects.
McDowell County isn’t alone. Overall, the state was short 685 teachers for the 2013 school year. All but four counties in West Virginia are short at least one teacher, and nearly 30 percent of the state’s school systems have shortages that total more than 5 percent of their total teaching force. And the problem is only going to get worse. About half of West Virginia’s teachers are eligible to retire in the next few years.
Christine Campbell, president of the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers, says her union recognizes the critical teacher shortages in places like McDowell County, and the need to fill those jobs. Campbell still isn’t throwing her support behind alternate certification programs or Teach for America. “This is a short-term solution that may or may not fill classroom positions,” she says. “We need to look at the system as a whole and how it’s structured and how we can support people so they go into the profession.”
Solving for the Unknown
It’s a Friday afternoon, fifth period, and Michael Geneve’s class is doing a worksheet, solving systems of equations. He’s circulating the room, quietly giving students some one-on-one time while they work. A hand goes up and a student asks him to work out a problem on the board. He looks at the worksheet and frowns. “I apologize because I did not intend to throw a question like this at you so early in the worksheet,” he says. “This is a very unique type of relationship between two lines.”
There’s no easy way to do the problem. Instead, the class is looking at techniques that are more or less useful as they try to simplify the equation. Reduce all the numbers to their lowest common denominator. Multiply everything by two. Multiply the bottom line by a negative number. Who’s to say what the best way is? And even then, it turns out, you can’t solve for x.
“So what is the answer here?” Geneve asks. He walks to the front of the room and writes two words on the whiteboard. “No solution.”