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Teach for America: Short-Term Service, Long-Term Lessons

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Teach for America and Teach Kentucky are providing high-quality teachers for some of the state's classrooms, offering alternative routes to certification that are pulling in top-notch students and giving them valuable experiences. Recent conversations with some of these teachers left me impressed, as did a series of articles one of our interns authored about this good work.

A group of these teachers also spoke to a recent Prichard Committee meeting, sharing excellent information about their organizations and their experiences. There are lessons there for all of us who are working to ensure high-quality instruction for every child, every year.

A key message focused on the support the teachers received in their earliest days in the profession. Their comments echoed those of other teachers about the critical importance of this initial support. The TFA induction process is one that our colleges and university preparation programs and every school district would do well to replicate.

There are other key differences between these organizations and the traditional routes to the classroom. The main one I see is their emphasis on attracting high-level academic performers. Granted, the research in this area is somewhat mixed but I believe that being a high performer does matter , particularly for teachers in high schools with specialized subjects. For example, we need teachers who have a superior grasp of the subject matter if they are going to teach calculus. The problem is that currently these high performers are too often discouraged from becoming a teacher. They are often criticized by their peers who tell them they are too smart to teach or encouraged by their parents to go into a more lucrative profession. TFA teachers commit to stay in the classroom for two years, and many undoubtedly consider TFA a stepping stone to professional pursuits they consider to be higher. I believe we need to make the teaching profession that higher aspiration.

Of course, being at the upper levels of academic performance does not always guarantee excellent teaching skills. Being able to communicate and build relationships with kids is also extremely important. The old saying, "Kids don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care" is still true. But I believe we can have highly intelligent teachers who are able to build relationships in more of our classrooms if we put the right attractions in place. What happens when we attract top performers and prepare them at high levels? Take a look at Finland, because that is exactly what is happening there, and students are performing at high levels.

In previous posts I proposed a bold move - increasing starting teacher salaries to $100,000. This one move could do so much to transform the profession into one that attracts the performers who transform the system and restore respect in our classrooms. Make this change and watch what happens to recruitment. Students of the caliber now attracted into the profession by Teach for America will be vying for spots in college preparation programs. Competition will spur improvement, and quality will rise. With the highest performers in our talent pool, we will transform the profession and teaching will become one of the nation's best choices for a career. A long-term strategy? Of course. And we continue to need organizations such as Teach for America and Teach Kentucky while we incorporate their lessons into our planning.

Which school districts will be the first to step up and make this bold move? Why not start the discussion today with leaders in your community?

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