Monday, July 25, 2011

'Teach for A While' makes a mint from philanthropists

Speaking of Teach for America -- or, as I call it, Teach for A While -- Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss highlights a study from the University of Georgia in today's edition. The study looked at where the big billionaire foundations funding so-called education reform spent their money during the past fiscal year.

Guess who collected the most?

One organization was the big winner in the money giveaway, according to the University of Georgia researchers who did the analysis, and given all the attention it has received from school reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it should come as no surprise.

Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that recruits newly graduated college students to commit to teach for two years in high-needs schools, was tops on the list of recipients, with $213,444,431, or 31 percent of the total. This doesn’t include at least $150 million it received from foundations and the U.S. government in the past year, which is outside the scope of the report.

The direction of the donations underscores the current trend in school reform to bring teachers into schools through alternative certification models that bypass traditional years-long teaching programs, with the 20-year-old Teach for America leading the charge.

The organization’s model is controversial: It gives its recruits five weeks of summer training and then places them in urban and rural schools that are often the most troubled in the country.

Critics say that five weeks is hardly enough to train a truly qualified teacher, and that the program, which initially only accepted recruits from the Ivy League but now has greatly expanded its pool, has higher attrition rates than the already high attrition rates of traditionally trained teachers. While many traditional teacher prep programs are indeed inadequate, critics say that Teach for America is the wrong solution.

Like a kid with a sweet tooth trick-or-treating on Halloween in a cul-de-sac full of childless senior citizens, Teach for A While made out like the original gangster, didn't it? It collected $213 million from charitable foundations, plus $150 million from federal tax dollars and other private sources, for a grand total of $363 million.

Wonder how TFA spends its money? Perhaps it might invest a bit more in training its recruits in Atlanta not to cheat on standardized tests to inflate test scores...

With that kind of money, South Carolina could afford to fully fund its Education Finance Act.

Strauss offered an insight that tells me the full University of Georgia report may be worth reading:

The focus on teachers is hardly a new one; foundations have been investing in improving teaching and developing teachers for decades.

In fact, some of the same strategies being pursued by foundations today are the same as those supported in the 1950s, including strengthening teacher training with clinical experience and institution performance pay (which was never seen as especially successful).

The authors of the report don’t say it — and in fact seem supportive of the reform movement — but the fact that reformers keep trying strategies that have failed in the past raises questions about just how smart some of these investments really are.

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