New Teacher Program Creates Jobs, Controversy

In 2007, fresh out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Chris Turk snagged a coveted spot with the elite Teach For America program, landing here at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School in a blue-collar neighborhood at the city’s southern tip. For the past two years, he has taught middle-school social studies.

One recent afternoon, during a five-week “life skills” summer-school course, Turk tells his five students that their final project, a movie about what they’ve learned, has a blockbuster budget: $70.

“We can go big here,” he says. “We can go grand.”

He might as well be talking about the high-profile program that brought him here.

Despite a lingering recession, state budget crises and widespread teacher hiring slowdowns, Teach For America (TFA) has grown steadily, delighting supporters and giving critics a bad case of heartburn as it expands to new cities and builds a formidable alumni base of young people willing to teach for two years in some of the USA’s toughest public schools.

Baltimore Superintendent Andres Alonso — who says he has seen “fewer retirements, fewer resignations and just greater stability in terms of our teaching ranks,” much of it because of a reluctance to leave a secure job in a recession — has doubled the number of TFA teachers, known as “corps members,” in city schools over the past two years.

Next week, more than 160 new TFAers arrive in Baltimore, up from 80 in 2007. They’ll make up about one in four new hires.

Nationwide, about 7,300 young people are expected to teach under TFA’s banner, up from 6,200 last year. TFA is expanding from 29 regions to 35, including Dallas, Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

But critics say the growth in many cities is coming at the expense of experienced teachers who are losing their jobs — in some cases, they say, to make room for TFA, which brings in teachers at beginners’ salary levels and underwrites training.

I have mixed feelings about this program. Those experienced teachers are eventually going to retire anyway, right? But then again, “underwrites training”? Really? If that’s the case, schools are screwed.

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