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Teach for America's Entry Prompts Teacher Quality Discussion

INEZ, Ky. – A year ago, Teach for America entered Appalachia, placing 22 teachers in eight Eastern Kentucky school districts. This fall, TFA has 36 teachers in 20 schools in 11 districts.  These numbers are a still just a tiny percentage of the more than 43,000 teachers in Kentucky, but their arrival has sparked a conversation in the region and the state about teacher quality. State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says the entry of TFA, which recruits top-tier college graduates and places them as teachers in high-need areas, is pressuring traditional teacher preparation programs to improve.

“Right now, TFA is very targeted in rural settings where they just can’t find the teachers,” Holliday said. “But long-term, what has to happen is that we have to improve teacher quality.” 

Staffers at the state Education Professional Standards Board say they are committed to raising standards and filling existing gaps in the teacher workforce.

Dr. Kim Walters-Parker, the board’s teacher-preparation director, said her goal is “to put TFA out of business” in Kentucky, not by fighting it, but by improving teacher preparation and placement such that “TFA will be unnecessary.”

Shortly before his retirement this summer, then-EPSB Executive Director Phil Rogers said of TFA, “If they’ve got a better mousetrap, we want to see it.”

But teacher preparation begins with students deciding they want to teach, and higher salaries outside teaching, especially in technical fields like science and technology, are drawing top graduates away.

“Look at the shortages in the areas of [teaching] physics, math and the foreign languages – salary is a big deal there,” says Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. 

TFA has found a small back door around this problem, convincing top-tier college talent to forego more lucrative careers in order to teach for at least two years, and TFA hopes they decide to keep teaching long after that.  The question for many in Kentucky is how to get TFA-caliber applicants via traditional pathways.  

Rogers said most Kentucky teacher colleges have risen to meet the challenge, and they want to learn from TFA so they can better prepare their own students. But not all are on board, as TFA teachers compete with graduates of Eastern Kentucky education colleges for jobs in the region.

The EPSB chair, Morehead State University Education Dean Cathy Gunn, said in an interview that she opposes TFA and fears its teachers won’t have “behavioral management and classroom management” skills that traditionally-trained teachers have. But so far, at least, principals and superintendents who have seen TFA teachers in action say they don’t share these concerns. 

Principal Robbie Fletcher of Sheldon Clark High School in Inez says of one TFA corps member: “You go into Kasey Jackson’s class and you think there’s no way this is a first-year teacher.  She just can’t be this good in her first year.  But she is.”

In fact, he says, Jackson has brought good ideas on classroom management to his other teachers, to the point that his staff has a friendly joke about it:  TFA training must consist of “being dropped down in the middle of a swamp somewhere down in Mississippi and told, ‘Teach your way out of this one.’” 

TFA corps members are trained in the Mississippi Delta, in high-poverty, minority-heavy school districts that are often filled with hard-to-control classes. But TFA teachers say Appalachian Kentucky has “a deep culture of respect” for teachers, and they have found receptive students who are easy to control and easy to teach.

The students are similarly enthused.  “Best teachers we have,” a student at Knox Central High School said.  “Only Spanish teacher we’ve ever had who knew how to teach,” said another. 

The other teachers have taken to the newcomers too.  “We have a lot of mommas” on the faculty, said Lynn Camp High School Principal Amy Bays, “and they’ve really enjoyed getting to work with the TFA teachers.  Teacher Roger Evans said, “We welcome their diversity and energy. These TFA folks, you never see them walking – they’re always runnin’.” 

Some in Kentucky plan to use this small number of hard-charging TFA teachers to encourage all teachers to raise classroom standards that many feel are too low. 

“These kids have not been challenged, oftentimes from the first grade onward,” says Prichard Committee member Lois Combs Weinberg of Hindman, who taught in Knox County long ago. “Our Appalachian schools really need a shot in the arm.  And TFA can provide that.”

Asked what it will take to close the achievement gap between Eastern Kentucky schools and those elsewhere in the state, Barbourville High School teacher Jimmy Roach said “Unity in teaching.  Doesn’t matter if it’s Mr. Roach or Ms. Tanner [who are TFAers] or Mrs. Chaffin or Mr. Simpson [who are not].  The kids have to know the expectations are high and that the teachers are gonna hold them to that.”

Inez Principal Fletcher, asked what he would say to principals who are skeptical of hiring TFA teachers, says, “I’d tell them they’ve been great for us, and if you don’t even interview them, you’re just gonna be missing out on the most talented teachers.

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