Teacher preparation

Teach for America to reduce its classroom placements in Memphis

PHOTO: TFA
Teach For America places teachers in low-income districts across the country.

Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that places college graduates into some of the nation’s most troubled schools, plans to reduce its incoming teaching force in Memphis by about 40 percent this fall, a regional leader has confirmed.

The organization is projecting placements of 110 new recruits in Memphis-area schools during the 2015-16 school year, down from 185 last year.

The decline is consistent with national trends. As the economy recovers, TFA officials are seeing a decline in applicants from college seniors who are being offered more attractive jobs upon graduation.

“This is great news for the broader economic perspective but it’s not so great from the education impact perspective,” said regional TFA executive director Athena Turner, noting that other teacher training programs across the nation are experiencing similar dips.

The change should align with an anticipated decrease in student enrollment next year, said Sheila Redick, director of human capital for Shelby County Schools, which employs more than 8,000 traditional full-time teachers.

Founded in 1990, TFA recruits bright young graduates, provides them seven weeks of teacher training, and places them in low-performing and hard-to-staff urban schools – a strategy that’s had mixed results.

The organization brought its first 50 corps members to Memphis in 2006. Today, more than 340 members work in schools in Memphis. Approximately 280 alumni have stayed in Memphis after completing their two-year program. About 20 percent of TFA corps members are from Memphis.

TFA’s presence has not been without controversy. While school administrators in Memphis have struggled to find and keep qualified math and science teachers to work in some of its lowest-performing middle and high schools, local hiring of young, mostly white TFA members coincided with layoffs of many older black teachers amid significant budget cuts.

Local teachers’ union officials have maintained that TFA recruits aren’t qualified and equipped to teach students in low-income environments.

The district is required to pay TFA a $5,000 annual fee per recruit, most of which comes from a $90 million grant awarded to the district in 2009 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That money – designated for programs that improve teacher effectiveness in Memphis schools – soon will run out.

Of the 110 new TFA recruits projected for this fall, 60 would work in Shelby County Schools under a contract reviewed Tuesday night by the district’s school board. Last year, TFA placed 80 recruits in district schools and, at its peak, 200 recruits.

The remaining 50 new recruits would work next year in charter and state-run Achievement School District schools in Memphis.

If the projections play out, TFA would have a total of 300 corps members working in Memphis for their first or second year in the city.

The Shelby County School Board is expected to vote Feb. 24 on the TFA contract. Board members noted Tuesday night that funding TFA members takes resources away from training the district’s own full-time teachers. “When the grant is gone, it’s going to be a different analysis,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said.

Since its inception, Teach for America has been part of the national education conversation amid rapid changes.

“Over the last five years in Memphis, … education reform has gained a ton of momentum and attraction,” Turner said. “TFA is a big part of that. All of that has created a world where we’re much more focused on where our great teachers are, what are they doing, and how do we replicate that.”

A 2014 report by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed that teachers who came through Memphis’ TFA program outperformed teachers from some traditional programs and were more effective than other beginning teachers in a range of subjects including math and biology – but fell short in preparing their students for fourth- and eighth-grade math exams.

Over the years, TFA has developed many young adult leaders and brought new energy into the communities where it operates, Turner said.

In Memphis, more than 92 percent of TFA corps members stay for their second year, and more than 60 percent of the organization’s graduates end up staying in the city and working in education in some capacity. By comparison, fewer than 82 percent of traditional first-year teachers stay after their first year.

“We’ve attracted a ton of folks to the profession who would’ve not otherwise joined,” Turner said.

Jon Alfuth, a 2011 TFA corps member who now works at The Soulsville Charter School and frequently blogs on education policies, said he was in graduate school when he became inspired by the organization’s public service mission. He’d always had an interest in teaching.

“I think I was looking for an opportunity … to act on my desire to give public service to kids who were deserving and needed quality teachers and that was definitely the opportunity that I was given,” said Alfuth, who taught math through TFA at Hamilton High School in Memphis.  

Alfuth said TFA recruits struggle with the same challenges as graduates with teaching degrees – for instance, a lack of training and classroom support. “TFA gets a lot of blame for this, but a lot of teachers are leaving by year five,” Alfuth said.

Turner is designing TFA’s regional five-year plan aimed toward greater diversity and teacher retention and possibly starting a five-year fellowship in which graduates receive a degree upon completion.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

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