Teach for America Attempts to Fix Rural Schools. Should it Fix Itself First?
Teach for America (TFA), the controversial non-profit that recruits recent college graduates to teach in struggling schools, is mostly known for working with urban schools. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis have attracted large numbers of TFA teachers. But TFA’s newest initiative, the Rural School Leadership Academy, focuses on rural education and developing leadership within rural school districts.
Is rural education broken?
Educators and administrators in rural areas often face different challenges than their peers working in urban school environments. Education World cites some widespread problems in rural education today, which include:
- Stagnant teacher salaries
- Difficulty drawing in teachers from outside communities or urban centers
- High rates of childhood poverty (often higher than in urban areas)
- Limited interest in pursuing education beyond a high school degree
- Few opportunities for leadership training for teachers
The Rural School Leadership Academy aims to specifically address that last bullet point by providing TFA teachers with opportunities to obtain “leadership” positions–mainly, administrative positions such as principals.
Becky O’Neill, the TFA managing director of regional communications said, “The program is designed to get more rural educators on the path to principalship but is not a direct route to certification and employment [...] Increasing the professional development pathways available to rural teachers marks an important early step that will ultimately drive participation in principal certification programs for rural leaders (Education Week).
Shouldn’t TFA be focusing on teachers?
TFA’s core mission statement is to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach.” Not to become principals, but to fill a gap in the teaching profession. Since one of the main criticisms of TFA is that it doesn’t provide its recruits with sufficient training to be effective in the classroom, should TFA focus its resources on classroom teaching?
The two-year commitment required by TFA has also been blasted as being too short to allow teachers to settle into their jobs and make a difference. This Rural School Leadership Academy does address the need for teachers and potential school leaders to make a significant time commitment to the program, encouraging academy members “to stay in their current positions while seeking formal and informal leadership roles in their schools” (Education Week). This may give some teachers motivation to stay in their schools for longer periods of time, potentially benefiting students and the overall school community.
Some education specialists may argue that teacher training does not necessarily prepare an individual to assume a leadership capacity in education, and that entirely different skill sets are needed. If TFA spends only five weeks preparing their classroom teachers, how much training time will potential administrators receive? Others believe that classroom teaching should be mandatory for those wishing to become school principals. In either case, the question is: are TFA’s training methods effective?
The bottom line
Despite aggressive recruiting of top college graduates and a strong mission statement, TFA has shown mixed results at best. TFA sends novice teachers into low income, high needs schools, where the students are most in need of veteran teachers. The organization provides only a few weeks of training, and there is a high rate of burn-out due to high demands and unrealistic expectations (50% of TFA teachers leave the profession after two years, and 80% leave after three). Is there truly a demand for extensive leadership training within the TFA ranks, especially in less-desirable rural communities?
It seems like TFA has begun to develop programs to entice recruits to stay in their posts for longer than their mandated two years, which in the end may be beneficial for the students that the program is hoping to help. But perhaps the organization should examine and address the ongoing issues that are driving teachers away from the classroom before enticing them with the promise of administrative opportunities.
Photo credit: maxintosh