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The Magic of Excitement

June 21, 2004

The pencil-pushers can talk all they want about "highly qualified" teachers and full credentials. Parents and children know better. There's a personal magic about great teaching, and no conclusive evidence that an education degree equals classroom wizardry. So, in a way, the results of a recent study on teachers weren't really surprising. Researchers at a New Jersey think tank looked at the young people who have joined Teach for America, an AmeriCorps program that recruits bright graduates from competitive colleges to teach in low-performing rural and inner-city schools. They attend a summer boot camp for new teachers, promising to stay in their schools for two years. They also concurrently take courses toward a teaching credential. In exchange, they get the same salary as a beginning teacher and close to $5,000 a year in grants to help with education costs.

They don't have a teaching certificate, a major in education or professional experience. Yet, the study found, they out-taught the traditional teachers at their schools, with their students doing about the same in reading but making significantly greater gains in math, as measured on standardized tests. They did better than the novice teachers, better than the experienced teachers and better than the teachers with credentials.

So much for the criticism that the 15-year-old Teach for America program puts even less-qualified teachers in the schools where great teachers are most needed. Yes, these young teachers tend to say at the beginning that they're staying for only two years, while traditionally trained novices say they're in it for a lifetime. Truth is, about half of the new teachers leave the profession within five years, while Teach for America recruits usually feel pulled into their jobs. In the end, both groups are about equally likely to stick with it.

A teaching degree clearly isn't the only or even the best way to create an accomplished and committed teacher. The recruits of Teach for America bring instead an essential brightness and solid academic background -- they must have achieved a 3.5 grade point average at a competitive college -- and an excitement about their mission. They receive enough practical training to get started, and continued help throughout the academic year. Private schools have relied on this formula for years; why is the public arena so slow to see its value?

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