Supporters of Teach For America say the program can help close the achievement gap between city and county schools that is glaringly apparent in state report cards that came out this week.
Report cards from the state education department delivered straight A's to the 46,500-student county system. The city system got mostly C's and D's.
But there were encouraging signs at several schools, and Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash promised to be "more aggressive about our expectations."
The release of the state report cards always raises questions about the validity of test scores and what works and what doesn't work in public schools. Teach For America, in its third year in MCS, has the same goal that Cash does: to make city schools as good or better than Shelby County schools or suburban school systems in Nashville. There are 122 corps members and alumni working in schools.
"If I were principal of a failing school, I would hire as many TFA corps members as possible," said Memphis entrepreneur Bob Compton, whose documentary film, Two Million Minutes, highlights the shortcomings of American high school education in comparison with top schools in India and China. "I am more concerned about children getting a good education so they can be financially self-sufficient than I am about hurting the feelings of principals or teachers' unions."
The problem, Compton says, is that isolated school reforms are tantamount to "watering the desert." The Memphis school that made the biggest commitment to TFA is Kingsbury High School, where 14 corps members taught last year and eight are teaching this year.
"Three first-year corps members at Kingsbury led 92 percent of their students to pass the Gateway with 59 percent of their students scoring in the advanced range," said Brad Leon, executive director of Teach For America.
The previous year, only 45 percent of Kingsbury students passed the Algebra 1 Gateway and only 13 percent scored advanced.
Can those results be replicated?
"Without any doubt," said Terrence Brown, the principal at Kingsbury last year and now one of four regional superintendents in MCS. "It's a matter of focusing on the problem and executing the plans that you make. There is no reason we cannot do as well if not better than suburban systems. It's a two- or three-year process."
One problem Brown had was unqualified math teachers. He got rid of them, moved up some strong middle-school teachers, designated a veteran teacher as the "math coach" for the new teachers, and consigned some students who were new to the United States and struggling with speaking English to a lower-level course. He admits that helped raise the test scores, but he says it was only a small group and that the students are now taking Algebra I.
Brown said he prefers that good teachers stay in the profession as a career, but he welcomes TFA's two-year commitment.
"It is always better to have a strong teacher than a weak teacher without regard to time," he says.
John Barker, head of research for MCS, said that while annual state report cards generate a lot of attention, the data is now new. He was pleased with the large number of students moving from below proficient to proficient — a measurement of "value added" that shows the district is "moving in the right direction." But the rising dropout rate and falling graduation rates, he agrees, are "not acceptable." Cash has made the 30,000 "overage" students who are at least a year older than their classmates one of his top priorities.
Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, Teach For America has become nearly as difficult to get into as an Ivy League college by fostering a sense of mission and, some say, providing a career-building springboard to other professions. Criticisms of the program include teacher retention and the implicit challenge to the public school status quo.
"This system wants long-term solutions," Leon says. "That's a reasonable concern. My opinion is whether you are a 30-year veteran or a first-year teacher, you get one year to do the most you can with your students. With TFA, you are very likely to get an outstanding teacher."