Sara Lynch, a native New Yorker and Fordham University grad who teaches at Metro’s Stratford High School, originally pinned her hopes on earning a highly competitive Fulbright scholarship after her undergraduate studies. She navigated the application process last year but wasn’t accepted.
Still, the 23-year-old had a desire to use her education to “give back,” so the national Teach For America program, something of a Peace Corps for education injustice, seemed like a perfect fit. Thus, here she is, in the middle of her first year of a two-year commitment to teach at Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Lynch, who teaches Spanish, loves her students. But the job is tough. Besides introducing students to a foreign language, she finds herself teaching them how to study, set goals and think about life beyond high school.
“It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever been apart of,” Lynch said. “It’s incredibly demanding.”
Next spring, when the second of her two years in Metro expires, Lynch must choose whether to remain teaching in Nashville or move on to other things. She still thinks about that Fulbright scholarship. She would like to use it to teach in South America, where she studied abroad in college. Nashville isn’t part of Lynch’s long-term plans.
“I love Nashville,” Lynch said. “I didn’t think I was going to like it this much. But the plan is hopefully to go back to South America.”
Therein lies one of the biggest rubs against Teach For America, a national teacher recruitment program that places idealistic, high-achieving college students who lack traditional teaching certificates into historically low-performing schools.
While Teach For America teachers may do great things — though whether they outperform traditional teachers is debated — do these rookie educators really make a lasting mark on the school districts that hire them? After two years in the classroom, many bolt.
That issue, attrition, has special relevance in Nashville at the moment, now that TFA is poised to dramatically increase its presence here.
In renewing its contract with TFA, the Metro school board voted last week to double its annual hires of TFA teachers, or corps members, as the organization calls them. After the program arrived in Nashville three years ago, Metro had ushered in an annual crop of approximately 50 TFA teachers to the district. An amended contract, which runs through the 2013-14 school year, has established a new cap of 80 to 100 each year, while also committing more MNPS dollars to the program.
“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.”
According to TFA figures, Metro currently has 98 TFA corps members — those in years one or two of the program — at its traditional schools and another 33 in charter schools, whose leaders have autonomy to hire teachers on their own. But Metro has only 25 TFA teachers of the original 52 who arrived in Nashville in 2009.
“Some have left after their two-year commitment,” Keel said. “Our figures show that there is a significant drop-off after the second year in retention of those first-year corps members.”
Shani Jackson Dowell, executive director of TFA’s Nashville chapter, said TFA corps members and alumni stay at teaching at the same rates as traditional first- and second-year teachers. Of Metro’s original 2009 class, approximately 50 percent are still teaching in the area, which she said is close to the average for all teachers.
The organization, which strives to eliminate the “achievement gap,” said more than 8,000 teachers nationwide are TFA alums, on top of the 9,200 who are TFA corps members. TFA’s main response to the high-attrition charge is that their teachers stay involved in the education world in some capacity. The group’s internal data suggests more than 60 percent of alums continue in education.
“We really think there are a lot of different ways that folks can contribute to our public schools,” Dowell said. “We have alumni who after their two years may choose not to teach in the classroom, but they may choose to be a guidance counselor, or they may choose to get their master’s in education or in some other field.”
Nonetheless, TFA’s attrition is a source of criticism. Cities like Dallas, as recently reported by the Dallas Morning News, have found their TFA attrition rate to exceed the organization’s national average. A report from an organization of educators called Phi Delta Kappa, which Education Week published in October, found 61 percent of TFA teachers continue as public school teachers beyond their two-year commitments. More than half, 56 percent, exit their initial low-income school after two years, consistent with Nashville’s numbers. By their fifth year, the study found, only 15 percent continue to teach in the schools they were originally assigned.
“There’s always a concern with it,” said Jeremy Kane, founder of LEAD Public Schools, which manages two charter schools in Nashville. His school has several TFA corps members and alums. “We’ve got a pretty decent track record of keeping the folks around for a third and a fourth year. What we’ve been really excited about is that while we may not have been able to keep our entire corps, 100 percent of the corps that served at LEAD have stayed in education.”
Mayor Karl Dean is largely credited with bringing TFA’s services to Nashville. Nashville wasn’t initially on the organization’s radar, but he led the fundraising effort to bring the program here. Dean’s support for TFA — he called luring the organization to Nashville some of his “proudest” work — runs in the family. His son is currently wrapping up his second year as a TFA corps member in Memphis.
“I think it would be great if we can get more Teach for America teachers here,” Dean said in a recent interview. “Look at this way. You’re getting some really bright young people coming from some of our best universities and colleges who are idealistic, who have made a commitment to teach for two years. Many of them will teach far beyond that.”
Before entering public school classrooms for the first time, TFA corps members take part in an intensive, five-week teacher training session. Nashville’s most recent TFA class attended a session in Mississippi.
Throughout their two-year stays, TFA teachers receive professional development and other support. In Nashville, the mayor’s office had previously provided funding for such assistance, but the new contract has put the onus on MNPS to pay those bills.
The MNPS 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.
TFA critics, led by local teachers’ unions, often say TFA teachers produce no better results than traditional instructors. But Metro is looking at data that suggests just the opposite.
Metro officials have cited a 2011 Tennessee Department of Education report on the effective 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 only the TFA members who began during the 2009-10 school year.
Over time, that sample size will increase as more TFA corps members arrive. If trends continue, of course, many will exit. Then again, about an equal number could stay in Metro — teachers such as Lamar Allen, a second-year TFA corps member at Metro’s Jones Paideia Magnet School.
Allen, a third-grade teacher at Jones Paideia and graduate of University of Kentucky, said he saw the achievement gap growing up in impoverished Flint, Mich. When he arrived at the North Nashville school in 2010, he found an opportunity “to mold the next leaders in our nation.”
“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Allen said. “Everyday, kids are coming in who are seeking knowledge, and I have the ability to give the knowledge they’re seeking, and then expand their horizons.”
Without a doubt, Allen said, he’ll be working at Jones Paideia next fall.