Reading and Math Targeted by Miami's 'Teach for America'

Can inexperienced yet enthusiastic teachers find success where their seasoned counterparts have struggled? In Miami, Florida, the lowest-performing schools are seeing an influx of instructors from Teach for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving education for less-privileged students. This year, these instructors are hoping to raise reading and math scores. Can they succeed?

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An Admirable Mission

It all began with a senior thesis.

In 1989, Princeton University senior Wendy Kopp developed an idea to combat educational inequity for her senior thesis. She began the nonprofit Teach for America the following year.

The mission of the organization is to recruit 'future leaders' to commit to teaching in high-need areas for two years. Teach for America focuses on recent college graduates and even working professionals to fulfill their mission.

Raising Scores

Teach for America hopes to overcome what seems to be the norm: low-income students scoring poorly on assessments and other tests. In 2011, for example, less than 20% of low-income eighth-graders were proficient or better in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams.

One way Teach for America hopes to reach its goal of improving math and reading scores in Miami is to focus on the recruitment of more Latino teachers. Currently, less than 10% of Teach for America instructors are Latino, while 40% of students taught by these instructors are of Latin-American descent. It is thought that if these students could be taught by more diverse staff, they might be more inclined to attend class and thus improve test scores.

But are enthusiasm, cultural diversity and federal grant money enough to make the changes needed in these schools? Some believe it's at least a start. Before Teach for America, the lowest-performing schools were getting teachers with even less experience than those being used now. So in that sense, things are certainly moving in a positive direction.

'The Jury is Out'...Or Is It?

Are Teach for America educators doing an effective job and making a difference? That seems to depend on who you ask. About 95% of principals across the United States say Teach for America instructors are as effective as any other beginning teacher, while others remain skeptical.

As one Harvard professor put it, 'I think ultimately the jury is out.' Critics of the program cite not only inexperience but turnover rates and training limitations as reasons why Teach for America educators simply are not the answer when it comes to teaching America's poorest students.

These novice instructors are unfortunately placed in the most challenging classrooms, so of course that can have an impact on their effectiveness. Many simply may not be up to the challenge. The Education Trust president Kati Haycock, though a supporter of Teach for America, told Fox News Latino in November, 'Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher.'

Still, results from Miami are encouraging. Since 2003, the first year Teach for America instructors began working at Miami schools, a typical student over a one-year period has generally advanced 1.5 reading grade levels and received improved scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which measures abilities in reading, math and science.

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