Virginia Needs Teach for America

Author(s): Don Soifer
Posted in: Education

Roanoke (VA) Times

Virginia’s public officials are fond of describing the Commonwealth’s schools as among the finest in the nation. But while students here perform very well on national indicators, typically in the highest one-fourth of states on nationally-administered exams like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), what these results lack are the impressive gains that come with a statewide commitment to educational innovation.

One promising change currently being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would open the door to a reform approach that is demonstrating impressive results outside the Commonwealth. Governor McDonnell’s plan to change state teacher certification rules to permit Teach for America corps members to teach in public schools would add a valuable tool to the toolchests of local school boards and officials seeking to embrace innovation.

The reality behind Virginia’s above-average public schools is that pernicious achievement gaps persist. Student outcomes for black and Latino students, and those from economically-disadvantaged households, remain well below those of their white, and wealthier, classmates.

In fact, at the eighth-grade level, these gaps have barely changed over the past decade. Only one in six black eighth graders scored at or above proficient in reading in 2011. Latino eighth grade proficiency rates in reading actually declined from one in three in 2003 to one in four in 2011.

The most formidable challenges to Virginia’s system of public education have continued to come in urban school districts, where other options for families are extremely limited. Statewide, two in five black eighth graders scored “below basic” on the most recent NAEP exam, demonstrating a lack of even partial grade-level mastery, from which dropping out is the most likely eventual outcome.

Teach for America has built a strong track record nationally when it comes to tackling such achievement gaps. The organization’s recruiting networks attract a powerful cohort of future leaders – 9 percent of the senior class at the University of Virginia applied to join the corps last year, as did 18 percent of Harvard University’s seniors and 16 percent of Duke’s. The organization’s ongoing supports provide professional development, in areas like classroom management strategies, that builds on this human capital.

There are strong indications the approach would work in Virginia. A 2010 study of results in North Carolina demonstrated that Teach for America had more positive effects on student test scores than other teachers from various backgrounds in reading, math and science. A 2011 study by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed that Teach for America teachers working in the Memphis Public Schools produced substantial, positive differences in effectiveness when compared with beginning and veteran teachers.

To be certain, opening the system to Teach for America is not a silver bullet that will eradicate achievement gaps on its own. Other strategies, fueled by the bolstered human capital that Teach for America corps members can provide, will also be needed, such as:

• Broader use of data-driven, blended-learning approaches, that help classroom teachers target instruction to individual student’s strengths and weaknesses guided by technology. Providing such support could likely also help Virginia’s urban school districts attract and retain teachers from other exemplary programs, like the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

• Building and attracting a robust movement of high-performing, “No Excuses” charter schools is another way Virginia can tap into the innovations being developed in other states. Currently, Virginia’s flimsy charter school laws and funding mechanisms prevent the nation’s top not-for-profit charter school operators from bringing their proven models here.

• The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), developed by Curry School Dean Robert Pianta, would be a powerful tool to make available for reform-minded school board members, providing effective measures to evaluate the performance of superintendents and administrators.

A significant consequence of Virginia’s resistance to the Common Core national standards favored by the Obama Administration will be missing out on coordinated national philanthropic reform dollars, as well as some federal funding opportunities. With education budgets stretched tight all over, smart investments are at a premium. For school districts willing to embrace proven innovative strategies, inviting Teach for America into Virginia schools would be a promising development.