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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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In Focus: Why is everybody at Northwestern joining Teach for America?

Each year, huge consulting firms, megabanks and marketing titans pour thousands of dollars into recruiting Northwestern students.

But a very different type of organization drew the most members of the NU class of 2010: Teach for America, a federal program that places college graduates as teachers in public schools across the country.

Last year, 13 percent of NU’s graduating class applied for Teach for America. Of those, 57 eventually joined the teaching corps, the most of any U.S. college with fewer than 10,000 students and the fourth-most overall.

While TFA has a national policy against disclosing acceptance rates for individual universities, an estimate can be drawn from the numbers it does give. Thirteen percent of the 2010 class was about 260 students, and 57 is about 22 percent of 260 – making the approximate acceptance rate among NU students at least 22 percent last year.

The national acceptance rate last year was just 12 percent, TFA spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock said.

Why is NU suddenly such a TFA factory? And what does that say about our university?

Why NU?

TFA started in 1990 after Princeton University student Wendy Kopp proposed the idea in her senior thesis. In its first year, the program placed 500 teachers in six low-income communities nationwide. Twenty years later, the teaching corps has more than 8,200 members working in 39 regions across the country. TFA’s mission is “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.”

TFA has also become one of the most selective programs for college graduates. For the 2010 corps, a record 46,000 individuals applied to the program. Twelve percent, or about 5,500, were accepted, and 4,500 joined the corps.

Joseph Lee, WCAS ’09, who is beginning his second year with TFA at Parkside Community Academy in the South Shore/Jackson Park Highland communities of Chicago, said NU’s proximity to Chicago inspires many students to apply because they observe the problems in the city’s public school system during their time on campus.

“Northwestern is a fairly socially-active campus,” he said. “So you have more students percentage-wise who are interested in education issues.”

SESP professor Michelle Reininger said many of the students she has interacted with on campus want to get involved with civic work after graduation. TFA is a reputable organization that allows them to do that, she said.

Lee said his decision to apply was influenced by his experience in the Chicago public school system at Northside College Preparatory High School. While his was a positive one, he was well aware that it was more the exception than the rule.

“We would see these shabby schools without resources and it didn’t make sense to me,” he said. “It got me interested in the disparity.”

Apparently, other NU students feel the same way. The percent of the 2010 class that applied for TFA, 13, was higher than other peer universities like the University of California-Berkeley (6 percent) and the University of Michigan (7 percent). Ivy League schools averaged 12 percent.

The massive number of applicants in paying off – the number of NU grads who joined TFA more than doubled from 2009 to 2010, spiking from 22 to 57.

Melissa SiMonday, TFA recruitment director for the Chicago area, said the reason for the high application and acceptance rates lies in NU’s “culture.”

“The Northwestern culture really does breed individuals who are multidimensional,” said SiMonday, who visits campus several times a year to meet with students and faculty to promote TFA. “They are serious about academics, but also conscientious of the world around them and are great leaders. Those are the people that tend to be really successful in our program.”

The two-year length of the program also appeals to students, said Brett Boettcher, assistant director of University Career Services. It gives recent graduates time to make an impact while they re-evaluate their options before continuing on to graduate school, pre-professional school or employment.

The type of students who come to NU are ideal for TFA, Boettcher said. Because NU is home to one of only a handful of undergraduate schools for education and social policy, it makes the school an ideal resource for TFA, he said.

“SESP is an amazing school,” Boettcher said. “It’s obviously very high in the rankings as far as an education school, and I think Teach for America recognizes the quality of the instruction and the skills that are given to the students.”

Back to school

Dan Osher, WCAS ‘10, deferred his acceptance to University of Michigan Law School to do TFA in San Jose. TFA teachers are often criticized for joining the program as a means of taking a break before continuing on to another career, he said, but that is not the reality. Osher said he had wanted to join TFA since early in his time at NU.

“People are completely committed to what they’re doing,” he said. “For me this is something that I want to put everything I can into.”

Because TFA is only a two-year commitment, participants can go into any field they want to afterwards, Osher said, though he contended the most successful TFA teachers are the ones who don’t have the mindset of going to medical or law school later.

Osher’s future plans may include education, he said.

Another TFA corps member, Jackson Froliklong, SESP ‘09, is beginning his second year with TFA teaching fourth grade at the Chicago International Charter School at Irving Park. He said he isn’t sure how he wants his life and career to unfold, but he wants it to include educational advocacy.

“I’ll either be farming in South America or doing more teaching (next year),” Froliklong said.

He said he decided to apply to help combat inequality in the public education system.

“I’ve always had a pretty intense social conscience, and there’s just something so disturbing about the achievement gap in this country,” he said. “It flies in the face of America being the land of opportunity. I wanted to be a part of the solution.”

Nothing about the experience thus far has been glamorous, Froliklong said.

“You really know that they need seven days a week with you, but you can’t give them that,” he said. “It’s super difficult knowing the urgency of the situation but only being one person.”

The first year in the program was difficult, Lee said.

“The kids have seen me for a whole year now,” he said. “They trust that I’ll be here everyday and they trust that I have their best interests in mind. That takes a while to establish.”

Working in a broken system is the hardest part, he said. Parents don’t believe that teachers have their kids’ best interests in mind, and students are not only low-achieving academically, but they don’t see the benefits of education.

A controversial program

While many consider TFA to be a beneficial program that places energetic and motivated college graduates in classrooms to inspire academic achievement, others are wary of giving these young, somewhat inexperienced graduates the enormous responsibility of educating America’s youth. TFA’s training consists of a five-week session in a summer institute, followed by on-the-job coaching and online resources. Comparatively, a Masters of Education from NU consists of 15 graduate-level courses, typically completed by a full-time student over the course of a whole calendar year.

Osher said the training was conducted mostly by members of the TFA organization, some of whom have traditional teacher training backgrounds and some who do not. TFA also provides a support network of people to call when questions arise, he said.

“A first-year teacher is going to be unprepared no matter what,” Osher said. “But I felt confident going into the classroom.”

The training also included on
e month at the school with the other teachers before the students arrived, he said, and there was never any friction between him and other teachers or administrators.

Although many consider TFA to be a prestigious program, it has plenty of critics in the education world, Reininger said. Some question whether or not the teachers are adequately prepared to face the challenges of teaching in difficult schools.

In July, The New York Times reported that research indicated the more experienced teachers are, the better their students perform. The Times referenced a study of New York City schools which showed that by the fourth year, 85 percent of TFA teachers had left.

With education reform, the program faces other issues as well.

On Monday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that teaching interns, which would include TFA teachers who receive training while on the job, do not qualify as “highly-qualified teachers,” which is a requirement for teachers in public schools under the “No Child Left Behind” policy. The new regulation will make it much more difficult for districts to hire TFA teachers, though the ruling’s full impact has yet to be determined, according to Education Sector, an independent Washington, D.C. think tank.

Though many disagree over the efficacy of TFA’s work, Reininger said skeptics should look at the research. There is evidence that students’ test scores have benefitted from their experiences with TFA teachers, she said. According to a study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., students of TFA corps members showed greater gains in math and equivalent gains in reading compared to students of other teachers, including veteran and certified teachers.

In addition to TFA, NU has its own alternative teacher certification program, NU Teach, which is a fast track to a teaching degree and typically places teachers in Chicago public schools, said Mark Glenn, administrative coordinator for NU Teach.

“So far as I’m concerned I think the debate is a little one-sided,” Glenn said. “Sometimes I think teachers and educators who have gone more traditional routes chafe a little bit when they see things like our program.”

However, teachers coming out of NU Teach have won multiple teaching awards, including the Golden Apple Teaching Award, and are just as effective as teachers with more traditional training backgrounds, he said.

“You’re starting to see a lot more acceptance, but it is something that I know we fight a bit and a lot of other alternative programs fight.”

Reininger said there is no one-size-fits all approach to training teachers.

“In my opinion we need multiple approaches to prepare teachers,” she said. “Teach for America is one approach.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
In Focus: Why is everybody at Northwestern joining Teach for America?