Teach for America introduced itself to South Carolina schools this year, and it's making a strong first impression.
State and local education leaders believe it'll be one of the keys to turning around their lowest-performing schools, but others are critical of the national nonprofit's program design and results.
Teach for America finds bright, ambitious college graduates of all majors, trains them on how to be a teacher and places them in high-need schools for a two-year stint. The state approved last year an alternative teacher certification option that enabled the nonprofit's recruits to work in South Carolina, and 30 of its teachers are working in five rural Palmetto State districts this year.
Earlier this month, the Charleston County School Board agreed to spend $240,000 during the next two years to place up to 30 Teach for America corps members in its most challenged schools. The state Education Oversight Committee also asked the state this month to allocate $2 million next year to expand the group's reach in South Carolina.
"We don't see a downside," said Melanie Barton, interim executive director of the state committee. "We have tried a myriad of programs to get great teachers into underperforming schools, but we still couldn't get them to come and stay. This is another avenue."
But Teach for America has its critics, including Paul Thomas, an associate professor at Furman University in Greenville. Thomas analyzes existing research on education issues to make it understandable to policymakers and citizens, and he's spent some time looking at Teach for America.
Most studies show teachers are better with experience and training, but that contradicts the nonprofit's model, he said.
"The (research) evidence on Teach for America is sparse, incomplete and mixed, and that's the truth," he said. "And that's not what anybody wants to hear."
Thomas isn't alone. Philip Kovacs, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, has been trying to get the Huntsville school board to re-evaluate its decision to bring Teach for America recruits to its schools. Kovacs looked at research cited by Teach for America and said most of it either has methodological flaws or shows mixed results. His findings were published on a national education policy blog.
Research aside, Thomas takes issue with the idea that it's OK to put inexperienced, untrained college graduates in needy, low-income students' classes. That's a practice that wouldn't be permitted for gifted or advanced students, he said.
"We wouldn't allow this to happen if a different population of children were being served," Thomas said. "There are so many things wrong with that."
High-performing kids have parents who have time and energy to advocate for them, but high-poverty students live in families where parents are consumed with working and meeting their basic needs, he said. The latter don't have advocates, he said.
Still, Teach for America support is widespread, and its backers point to research showing its benefits. A Tennessee study on the effectiveness of its teacher training programs found only three tended to produce teachers with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers; two of the three were Teach for America programs.
And another study by a Harvard University graduate student found the group's selection process for teacher candidates is linked to improvement in student achievement.
Charleston County schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley knows the founder of Teach for America, and she strongly believes the kind of teachers the nonprofit recruits can change the dynamics of the district's struggling schools. Schools nationwide are reaping the benefits of its well-refined system, and its competitive applicant pool, rigorous selection process and ongoing training program ensures schools receive educators who have a ripple effect, she said.
"They came to teaching to change the world, and they have a missionary zeal," McGinley said. "Those people are not easy to come by."
She said she wouldn't use Teach for America teachers with the district's high-achieving students because those children's teachers already are succeeding, she said.
Jon Butzon, director of the Charleston Education Network, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said the problem with Teach for America is that its educators can't be in all the district schools that need them. The district doesn't have enough quality teachers for its low-income students, he said.
"We don't need 30 Teach for America teachers, we need 2,500 or more," Butzon said. "We've got teachers at the best schools in the district not producing high percentages of kids making progress."
Sarah Campbell is a former Teach for America corps member who worked in the lowest-performing elementary school in Washington, D.C. She went on to become a school principal and now lives in Charleston and works remotely for a national network of charter schools to train principals.
Teach for America recruits go through an intense training program, and that extra help continues throughout the school year, she said.
She's looked at Charleston students' test scores, and she sees its large achievement gap. Teach for America can help close that, Campbell said.