Three years after Teach For America arrived in Nashville, Metro school officials are planning to double down on the national organization that builds instructors out of young, idealistic college graduates who lack traditional teaching certificates.
A renewal of the district’s TFA contract is set go before the school board Tuesday night that would increase the number of TFA corps members Metro hires from an annual intake of 50 teachers to a new range of 80 to 100 each year.
“We are agreeing to contract with more Teach For America teachers than we have in the past,” June Keel, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, told The City Paper.
“We’ve found that they’re performing at a very high level,” Keel said. “They’re making real differences in the learning of our students. When you have a group that is making that kind of a difference, we want more of them. That’s the bottom line.”
Keel cited a 2011 Tennessee Department of Education report on the effectiveness of teaching programs that found Nashville’s TFA chapter is one of three programs statewide “with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers.” Lipscomb University and TFA’s Memphis branch are the other two programs, according to the study.
The report, however, relies on a small sample size. Its scope in evaluating TFA in Nashville — because the program is relatively new here — is limited to the performance of 46 TFA members who began during the 2009-10 school year.
Since the arrival of that initial group to Nashville, Metro has ushered in two additional crops of around 50 TFA teachers. Following an intensive TFA summer teaching-training session, TFA members obtain alternative teaching licenses and are required to devote at minimum two years to the school districts in which they are assigned.
Critics often say TFA teachers abandon teaching after their commitment is complete. According to Keel, the district currently has approximately 80 TFA teachers. “Some have left after their two-year commitment,” she said.
Doubling Metro’s annual TFA hires represents a major investment in a program Mayor Karl Dean helped lure to Nashville in the fall of 2008. The organization’s mission is to combat the “achievement gap” by placing high-achieving college students in low-performing schools.
“It’s a reflection of our partnership with Metro over the past [three] years, and hopefully the experience principals have had with our teachers,” Shani Jackson Dowell, executive director of TFA in Nashville, said of the new contract. “We definitely appreciate the confidence that it shows.”
Dowell said TFA has used federal Race to the Top dollars to bring additional teachers to Metro, going above the annual cap of 50. She also said several Metro charter schools have turned to the program for teachers — meaning a greater number of TFA corps members teach in Metro than district officials report.
“Including charters, there a total of about 130 [teachers in Metro],” Dowell said.
Nashville’s new TFA contract also includes a new funding obligation on the part of the school district.
Keel said previously the Mayor’s Office had allocated funding to compensate TFA for training its members, and providing support and professional development during the school year. Those obligations would fall to the district under the contract.
The contract sets aside a maximum MNPS obligation of $650,000 to TFA for the 2012-13 school year and $500,000 for the 2013-14 school year. Those dollars don’t include TFA teachers’ salaries. TFA teachers are paid at the same level as all first-year instructors, Keel said.
The Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union, has historically been quick to criticize TFA’s track record. Erick Huth, vice president of MNEA, has some concerns about Metro’s plans to increase TFA’s presence.
“It’s a very expensive proposition to hire Teach For America candidates,” Huth said.
“As teachers entering the workforce on a non-traditional license, they do tend to have more support than other teachers who come to us. So that is a benefit,” he added. “The real disadvantage from the perspective of existing employees is that there’s a sense that Teach For America candidates tend to receive preferential treatment in the district.”
Huth also questioned TFA’s history of offering teacher diversity in Nashville. “TFA candidates coming to the district tend to be fairly Caucasian when compared to the regular teaching force, and certainly much whiter than the student population,” he said.