Teach for America, part of the federal AmeriCorps program, allows recent college graduates to teach in classrooms for two years, with an expressed aim of improving education in the inner city and in rural areas.
Supporters say the program – in which many of the recruits come from the ranks of elite colleges and universities – has helped struggling school districts over its 20-year history while opening the doors to future educational careers in teaching and school administration.
But critics contend the recruits are poorly trained and most do not commit to a career in teaching.
The Buffalo School Board, with the support of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, is expected tonight to consider adding 30 Teach for America recruits over each of the next two school years. When the proposal was introduced last week, Darren Brown, the district’s executive director for human resources, said the recruits could be used for hard-to-fill positions such as special education, bilingual instruction and English as a second language, and to boost the ranks of minority teachers.
The idea of introducing Teach for America to Buffalo was raised by Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank. He played an instrumental role in recruiting former Superintendent James Williams to Buffalo, and M&T Bank has partnered with Westminster Community Charter School for the past 20 years.
Wilmers said he told Brown that he and the M&T Bank Foundation would shoulder some of the costs to hire and train the recruits, and that he also would solicit community contributions.
The district failed to make anyone available to The Buffalo News to comment despite repeated requests.
“One of the most impressive lessons we’ve learned ... is that leadership matters. If we can attract some smart new talent today, and develop them into smart new leaders of tomorrow, that’s a smart investment in Buffalo,” Wilmers said.
“I don’t know why the results aren’t better in Buffalo, but I just thought this was something that makes sense.”
But the program has its share of critics, who say it advertises more than it delivers.
They warn that the recruits receive a minimum of training, rarely commit to long-term careers teaching in inner-city schools and undermine teachers’ unions as part of a corporate reform movement that doesn’t put students or career teachers first.
“Less than 20 percent stay in the classroom for more than five years. Teach for America’s nickname is ‘Teaching for a while, and temps for African-Americans,’ ” said Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University, and a leading critic of Teach for America.
“Ask yourself a question: Would any suburban district or private school take teachers trained for five weeks? Young people in poor neighborhoods need relationship-building with teachers that lasts beyond their time in the classroom, and that is exactly what TFA teachers never provide, because they’re there and gone.”
Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, is also strongly critical.
“Every school district needs experienced teachers, well-prepared teachers and new teachers who are committed to make a career of teaching and are dedicated to the school and the community for the long haul. TFA meets none of those requirements,” said Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University.
According to Teach for America, 7,800 of its 28,000 alumni remain in teaching. The application process is highly selective, with 17 percent of the approximately 50,000 applicants accepted in 2012.
“We have taken a look at the common characteristics among our most successful teachers, and [applied them] to the candidates who are applying for the corps,” said spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock. “Those include things like a record of demonstrated achievement, the ability to influence and motivate others and a real commitment to work with people with diverse backgrounds.”
But Teach for America hires aren’t going over well with some out-of-work teachers That includes Jeff Schroer, a father of two who taught mathematics in middle and high school the past eight years in Las Vegas, before returning last summer to Tonawanda to be near family.
“Teach for America takes people from all over the country, and when they’re done, they want to go back there. I saw it happen in Las Vegas,” Schroer said.
“They’re not the best teachers, they’re not the most qualified, and they’re not the answer to the problem. Especially when you have so many SUNY schools that are putting out teachers who don’t have to relocate, and are committed to this town.
“Their training is ... laughable,” said Schroer, who holds two master’s degrees.
The district would be responsible for paying each recruit who undergoes the intensive five-week summer training program the same salary and benefits as any other first-year teacher. It would also pay Teach for America $5,000 a year per teacher for two years, and $150,000 in costs associated with professional development during the first year.
The recruits would join the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Philip Rumore, the union’s president, said he won’t take a position on hiring Teach for America recruits until the executive committee and building representatives meet on March 7.