MIAMI — In a distressed neighborhood north of Miami's gleaming downtown, a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced instructors from Teach for America is trying to make progress where more veteran teachers have had difficulty: raising students' reading and math scores.
"These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers," said Julian Davenport, an assistant principal at Holmes Elementary, where three-fifths of the staff this year are Teach for America corps members or graduates of the program.
By 2015, with the help of a $50 million federal grant, Teach for America recruits could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation's highest need school districts. The program also is expanding internationally.
The expansion comes as many districts are trying to make teachers more effective. But Teach for America has had mixed results.
Its teachers perform about as well as other novice instructors, who tend to be less successful than their more experienced colleagues. Even when they do slightly better, the majority are out of the teaching profession within five years.
"I think ultimately the jury is out," said Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an instructor to the first class of TFA corps members.
They provide an important pipeline of new teachers. But critics cite the teachers' high turnover rate, limited training and inexperience and say they are perpetuating the same inequalities that Teach for America has set to eradicate.
"There's no question that they've brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA.
But, she said, "Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher. For poor kids, education has to work every single year."
Over the past 20 years, the program has sent thousands of recent college graduates to teach for two years in some of the most challenging classrooms. Applications to the program have doubled since 2008. Foundations have donated tens of millions.
"When we started this 20 years ago, the prevailing notion backed up by all the research was socio-economic circumstances determine educational outcomes," founder Wendy Kopp said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've seen real evidence it does not have to be that way."
Yet, for example, just 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students scored as proficient or above in reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Increasingly, the question of how to overcome the challenges of poverty is focusing on effective teaching. But such teachers are hard to find at the least advantaged schools
"The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they aren't there," said Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as the founding director for Teach for America in New York City.
A Harvard study of students in Texas found a teacher's level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a bigger influence on how well students perform than any other factor.
North Carolina research on teacher training programs, including Teach for America, found that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.
If inexperienced teachers don't perform as well, then why pair them to teach students who struggle the most?
'When they started, we were staffing our high poverty schools ... with anything that breathed," said Haycock. But, she added, "Saying their solution is better than what came before it is not to say it's the right thing."
Wagner noted that his master's degree in teaching from Harvard hardly prepared him for the challenges of being a first-year teacher.
"Unless and until we have a dramatically different system, and a universally high quality system for preparing teachers, I think TFA is a stop gap, and an important one," he said.
Teach for America training starts with thick packages of readings and then five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who have already fallen far behind and are taking remedial coursework in order to advance to the next grade.
The fledgling teachers are overseen by another instructor. That could be a more veteran public school teacher, or current or former Teach for America corps member, some of whom only have two or three years of experience themselves.
Corps members describe it as a boot camp for teachers. "It was a real steep learning curve," said Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes.
When the summer is over, teachers are sent to their assigned districts, which pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member they hire, in addition to the teacher's salary. Many don't find out their school or subject until shortly before school begins.
In interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members, many described triumphs in the classroom. Several also acknowledged feeling dubious about their abilities as first-year teachers.
"I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me," said Brett Barley, who taught fourth-graders in the San Francisco Bay area. "I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful."
Most of his class entered reading and writing at the second-grade level. About 30 percent weren't native English speakers; two were classified as blind.
"The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels," he said.
Teach for America, in its own review of external research, concludes its teachers achieve student gains that are "at least as great as that of other new teachers." It also gathers information on how its teachers are performing, but does not release the data.
One consistent finding, however, is Teach for America's high turnover rate. According to the organization, 33 percent of its graduates are still teaching. But in many districts, those retention rates are significantly lower. A North Carolina study last year, for example, found that after five years, 7 percent of Teach for America corps members were still teaching in the state.
Kopp and others at Teach for America note turnover rates are high across low-income schools. She said the main reason Teach for America teachers leave the classroom is because they want to have a bigger impact. Sixty percent of program graduates are still working in education, whether it's in policy, or for a nonprofit or government agency, according to TFA.
Throughout their time with Teach for America, corps members are frequently told about the organization's "theory of change." It's the idea that, no matter what field they ultimately go in to, they will remain committed to fixing educational inequalities.
Megan Hopkins, who was a TFA bilingual teacher in Phoenix, eventually went on to earn a doctorate in education and has focused much of her research on English language learners. She called Teach for America's theory of change "decent."
"But what if their theory of change would encourage their teachers to stay in the classroom as a form of change, as a form of leadership in the field of education?" she asked.
Teach for America: http://www.teachforamerica.org
Education Trust: http://www.edtrust.org
National Assessment of Educational Progress: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard