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Get The Best And Brightest To Give Teaching A Chance

Rick Green

May 17, 2011

We don't attract enough of the best and brightest college graduates to the classroom, but Teach for America, a small and alternative teacher-preparation program, shows there's hope if we begin to think differently.

The 20-year-old Teach for America a Peace Corps for low-income school districts convinces top students, many from elite colleges, to give teaching a chance during two-year stints in some of the nation's most troubled schools.

This spring, as other members of the class of 2011 at Trinity College prepare for graduate school, Wall Street jobs or summer on Nantucket, 14 seniors are headed for the demanding Teach for America corps. The job offers an entry-level salary and two years of teacher training and mentoring.

In the fall, the Trinity graduates will work in classrooms in low-income schools in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Colorado and Mississippi. The Trinity group includes student leaders and athletes graduating at the top of their class.

"I want to go to law school,'' said Laura Komarek, a captain on the Trinity hockey team this year, "but I wanted to do something that mattered."

Komarek, from Minnesota, will leave for summer training before she starts teaching in New Orleans this fall. "I love teaching. It's just not something that they sell to us," Komarek said. "Maybe this will change me."

Ben Speicher, captain of the wrestling team and a history major, told me that when he realized he wasn't so sure about law school, Teach for America looked like "a great way to figure out what you want to do" in life.

While the highly competitive Teach for America chose the top 5,000 out of nearly 50,000 applicants to begin work as entry-level teachers this coming fall, that's not how it works for much of the rest of the nation's schools.

A report by the consultant McKinsey & Company last year noted that the world's highest-performing school systems in Korea, Finland and Singapore recruit all of their teachers from the top third of college graduates. But in the United States, just 23 percent of teachers come from the top third, while the number is only 14 percent in high-poverty school districts.

Christopher Leone, superintendent of schools in Torrington who started out as a Teach for America corps member in Baltimore in 2000, said schools aren't getting the best talent, and it shows.

"You can't attract the best minds in science and math. We can't compete,'' said Leone. "How do we attract the best teachers? Treat them like free agents and pay what the market price would be."

The McKinsey report suggests that to do this it would mean paying teachers a starting salary of around $65,000 with top wages rising to as much as $150,000, far beyond even Connecticut's generous teacher compensation. McKinsey estimated this would cost, on average, about $630 million for each state to do this.

This kind of money isn't out there, which is why Teach for America's success at attracting talented young people to teaching is worth paying attention to. In Connecticut, where there now are about 330 Teach for America alumni, two-thirds have decided to stay on the job after two years. Nationally, about two-thirds are still involved in education in some way, with about half still teaching. Those that aren't have a deeper appreciation for public education and the problems in districts with large numbers of poor children.

In her new book, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp argues that schools must emphasize recruiting the best students for teaching, instead of merely accepting the graduates that schools of education churn out. Teach for America, Kopp says, has been able to "isolate the characteristics" it sees in the most successful teachers. This includes academic achievement, perseverance, the ability to influence others, critical thinking skills and organizational ability.

"We need to be obsessed around recruiting our top talent if we are ever going to have a chance at trying to have truly successful schools,'' said Kopp. "We do a ton of research to understand what personal characteristics differentiate the most successful teachers. Every school should do this."

Most of the Trinity students I met said they were open to teaching as a career, even without significant salaries. What struck them most was Teach for America's focus on finding candidates with the right skills, such as leading a group and working as a team.

"I studied political science,'' said Jillian Steckloff, captain of the tennis team this year. "I'm very organized, very energetic and proactive. I'm a go-getter. I've learned that things don't always go as planned You don't need to study education for four years to be a good teacher.''

Steckloff is headed to New Orleans, where she will teach mathematics to special education students and, hopefully, discover a career.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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