lower hires

City’s incoming Teach for America class hits five-year low

The share of new teachers stepping out of Teach for America training and into New York City classrooms is continuing to shrink.

The organization, which places new teachers in hard-to-staff public schools, said Tuesday that it will send 230 teachers into city schools this fall. That’s down from 400 teachers last year and the lowest number since 2010, a decline that reflects the recruiting difficulties Teach for America has faced this year as the job market for college graduates has improved and criticism of the organization’s preparation has persisted.

“We are certainly feeling it,” TFA New York director Charissa Fernandez said of the national recruitment challenge, adding that the group is also shrinking to allow TFA to improve the support it offers to city teachers. “Our partner schools are feeling it.”

In other parts of the country, other job prospects from the improved economy has led to teacher shortages, a trend detailed by the New York Times this week. In New York City, the latest recruitment numbers for Teach for America come as the organization continues to reorient itself, putting a new focus on encouraging teachers to stay in the classroom beyond their initial two-year commitments and recruiting more people of color into its ranks.

All told, the city will have about 5,500 new hires this fall, 100 of which will come from TFA, according to education department spokesman Jason Fink. NYC Teaching Fellows, another alternative certification program, will account for roughly 1,000. (Another 20 incoming TFA teachers will work in community-based organizations as part of the city’s expansion of pre-kindergarten, and an estimated 100 more will teach at charter schools.)

TFA has placed teachers in New York City schools for 25 years and is now the country’s top supplier of public school teachers. Over that time, the organization grew in prominence by attracting top college graduates to work in education with a clear formula: An intensive summer training program, followed by a teaching position in a high-poverty school and a two-year commitment. As recently as 2008, TFA was placing more than 500 teachers in New York City schools at a time, though the size of its presence has fluctuated.

Applications to Teach for America have declined in the past two years after a 15-year growth streak. Still, 44,000 people applied for the 4,100 open slots nationwide this year, which a spokeswoman noted was twice as many applications as they received in 2007.

Its growth has also fueled intense criticism. TFA corps members are more likely than teachers who come through other programs to stop teaching after two years, and detractors say that the organization doesn’t do enough to reduce the steady churn in schools that rely on TFA teachers. Meanwhile, independent research has found that TFA teachers are equal to, or do slightly better than, their non-TFA counterparts in boosting student learning.

“I don’t know if it’s an outright rejection of the TFA model, but I’ve certainly noticed an uptick in former TFA-ers who are speaking out about it,” said Joshua Starr, former superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and the current CEO of PDK International, a professional association for educators. “The reputation might be a little bit more tarnished than it has been in the past.”

Responding to that criticism has been a focus of TFA’s new leaders, who have begun new initiatives to improve training and increase teacher retention and diversity.

Two-thirds of TFA’s incoming New York City teachers identify as people of color, up from 60 percent last year, making this year’s group the most diverse in the organization’s history. That’s also more diverse than the city’s overall teaching force, which is about 58 percent white, while 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Having a smaller group of incoming teachers will allow TFA New York to focus on supporting alumni and improving the experience teachers have in their first two years, encouraging more of them to stay in the classroom, Fernandez said.

“Once we have rolled some of those changes out, we want to grow again,” Fernandez said.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede