SEATTLE — In 1989, an ambitious Princeton University student designed a senior thesis that would, for all intents and purposes, change educational systems globally. Teach for America (TFA), which now spans 52 regions across the country, is a program that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in schools where poverty and inequality are most prevalent. Its widespread success in fostering academic achievement equal to and sometimes greater than non-TFA teachers has led many other countries to adopt the same strategy.
In 2002, England launched Teach First as its own TFA equivalent. Teach First reports that 3.7 million children currently living in England belong to families so impoverished, they struggle to provide them with basic needs. When things like heating and food seem out of reach, it comes as no surprise that a formal education seems entirely unattainable.
Tuition aside, there are many additional costs inherent in schooling that are often overlooked. Class trips, supplies, college preparation, extracurriculars activities and transportation represent costs that are rarely taken into account when calculating the cost of education. The ease with which economically stable students can afford these puts them at a clear advantage over the 3.7 million children who cannot.
Certainly, there are many measurable gaps in education, from literacy and numeracy to secondary and further education. The Fair Education Alliance (FEA) Report Card indicates a significant imbalance between the most disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers in all these realms. Along those lines, Teach First reports that students who qualify for Free School Meals are only half as likely to get five passing grades in secondary education as their classmates. The program aims to close this attainment gap.
Teach First came into fruition after two business membership organizations conducted an investigation that found that “the number of excellent teachers was one of the strongest predictors of improved pupil performance, especially in challenging schools.” Inspired by America’s TFA program, the parties involved in the study, with help from the business sector and the government, then launched Teach First.
The program was designed to attract people who would otherwise not become teachers in an attempt to address the shortages in subject areas. These college graduates must commit to a minimum of two years teaching at challenging schools. Since its inception, Teach First has placed 5,000 highly qualified college graduates as teachers in low-income communities.
An evaluation of the program conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (IPSE) measured the success of Teach First through three different means:
First, the IPSE looked to contributions made in participating schools, as the schools themselves described it. Interviewees felt even after just the inaugural year that the teachers were already making a difference for the pupils. One mentor is quoted as saying, “the lessons that I’ve observed have been fantastic, really high quality lessons… They’re doing extra curricular activities to get pupils more motivated, they’re trying out all kinds of techniques and strategies in their classroom which is great, really experimenting.” Another said there was no doubt that they were massively beneficial.
Certainly, responses on behalf of participating schools were highly positive. One schoolteacher in particular linked the unmatched SAT math scores directly to the math specialists that Teach First brought into the department. Through excellent and innovative teaching, assessment results improved, involvement and initiation of extracurricular activities rose and intradepartmental innovation and dialogue increased.
The second means through which the IPSE evaluated Teach First was through the statistics on the program’s retention of teachers. The studies show that approximately 87 percent of teachers who begin teaching finish the program. Although reasons for withdrawal widely vary (from personal reasons to dissatisfaction), the study notes a correlation between leaving and the free school meal figures of a school. The more students who qualify for free school meals, the lower the retention rate.
What this correlation would seem to indicate is dissatisfaction with the most challenging schools that the teachers are assigned to. It would also seem to be a fundamental flaw in Teach First attempts to address education inequality. With the poorest of participating schools losing teachers at a higher rate because of their feeling they don’t have adequate support, are not making progress, do not enjoy it or otherwise expressing general dissatisfaction, the program finds that their cause is somewhat undermined.
Lastly, the IPSE turns to data they collected on the destinations of the Teach First teachers after the two-year program was complete. Forty-seven percent, nearly half, of the participants a year out of the program continued to teach, whether still involved in participating schools or other schools. This retention data is highly positive, given that the target of recruitment was to attract graduates who did not intend to permanently become teachers.
Indeed, one of the greatest attractions of the program was that it kept career paths open. Many who left, although they felt a new appreciation for the career, accepted other jobs because they did not want to settle for a single career path yet. The most frequently identified advantages to leaving the sector were all fairly logical, like better conditions, better fit for talents, less stress and higher pay.
All things considered, Teach First is an effective program in the attempt to subdue education inequality. It is flawed, and closing all the gaps is probably unrealistic until those problems are addressed, but it certainly serves a purpose. As Sir Richard Lambert, Chair of the FEA, once stated, “Drawing on the talents, influence and passion of our members, I believe we can play an integral role in helping to deliver a high-quality education for every child in Britain.”
– Alexis Viera