Bringing Teach For America to Ohio: Opportunity and Challenges

Ask folks interested in the business of education to name the top reform efforts across the country, and it’s a sure bet Teach For America (TFA) will rank among them. TFA recruits and trains promising future leaders, all first-rate college graduates from a variety of programs and majors, to spend two years teaching in some of the nation’s neediest urban and rural schools. During their time in the TFA corps, these young teachers work in low-income communities to close achievement gaps and inspire learners in their classrooms--with some impressive results. In 2004, Mathematica Policy Research found that students of TFA corps members attained “significantly greater gains in math than the other teachers in the study, even when compared only to certified teachers and veteran teachers” (see here). More specifically, TFA-instructed students gained a month’s worth more progress in math than other students.

Since first entering classrooms 17 years ago, TFA members have been recognized as national, state and district teachers of the year, Disney Teacher Award winners, and Milken Educator Award winners. TFA’s impact, however, transcends the classrooms where they teach. The program’s alumni include over 200 school principals and a number of well-known and respected social entrepreneurs, including the founders of KIPP, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, and the CEO of the New Teacher Project Michelle Rhee. 

We’ve lamented the absence of TFA in Ohio for some time now (see here). Because Ohio does not yet have a district or a region partnering with TFA for new teachers, many talented young Ohioans are leaving the state to teach for TFA in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Establishing a TFA presence in Ohio would create a pipeline of talented college graduates for some of the state’s toughest classrooms. Some of these individuals might even go on to take on school leadership positions in districts that face perennial challenges in finding talent to run their toughest schools. Not to mention Ohio would keep some of its best and brightest from leaving the state and attract others here from out of state.  

Fortunately, there is now keen interest among Ohio’s business leaders, university and college officials, philanthropists, and lawmakers in recruiting Teach For America to work in some of the state’s lowest performing urban districts. TFA, in turn, has expressed a desire to work in the Buckeye State (it is in expansion mode), but there are considerable regulatory, political, and logistical hurdles that make a marriage between TFA and some of Ohio’s school districts complicated and challenging.

The first and easiest challenge to overcome is regulatory. Bringing TFA teachers to Ohio’s urban districts would require the creation of an alternative route for elementary teacher licensure (no such changes would be needed at the secondary level). The State Board of Education or legislature would simply need to create an elementary alternative license in rule or law. Additionally, district officials would likely need to utilize waivers to create space in their classrooms for teachers with alternative or temporary teaching certificates. (Charters already have this flexibility, though Governor Strickland’s budget would do away with this option.)

A second and much tougher challenge to bringing TFA to Ohio is the market demand for new teachers. For TFA to come to Ohio, school districts (possibly in partnership with charter schools) must want these new teachers in their classrooms. This is a tough sell for district officials who are leading school systems that are shrinking in size each year, and furloughing teachers. In the last decade alone, the Big Eight districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown) have lost over 64,000 students combined. The Dayton Public Schools has reduced its teaching force by 300 since 2002; Cleveland Municipal Schools has eliminated 1,400 teaching jobs since 2000; and since 2004, Columbus Public has shed more than 450 teaching positions (20 more just recently--see here). (Last year, Columbus Public Schools only hired 60 new teachers, most of which were special education or foreign language teachers.)

For TFA to make a home in Ohio, at least one major urban district would have to want them here, or a group of districts in one specific region of the state would need to band together as a consortium, or a district and local charter schools might work together. Key here is convincing district leaders that TFA would elevate the quality of their teaching force, not just fill holes in their teaching ranks. Indeed, in places where TFA has been most successful, district leadership has seen their involvement as representing an integral part of a larger vision of whole district reform. This has been the approach in places like New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, and now Indianapolis, where new and innovative kinds of public school systems and school models are being created.

This leads to the third challenge of recruiting TFA to Ohio. The program is not cheap. To launch a site with 50 corps members (which is the minimum for TFA), and sustain it at 100 corps members each year, TFA must raise approximately $900,000 in start-up money and $1.3 million annually thereafter. This is a significant head-hunting fee, and to be sustained over time would likely require some public dollars from a district(s) and/or the state.

Ohio has a unique opportunity to join the ranks of states partnering with Teach For America, one that could draw much-needed talent to the region and provide district and school leaders another tool for raising the achievement of disadvantaged students. To make it happen, the state will need to muster some serious political leadership, some significant financial support, and real strategic thinking on the part of at least one major school district that embraces the opportunity and challenge to do things differently.

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