Obama's signed thousands of crusading volunteers into America's failing classrooms this week with the stroke of a pen. The expansion of Americorps represents a key step in the president's agenda of reinvesting in the nation, but volunteer teacher programs' effectiveness is still hotly debated.
The successes of education service programs are hard not to awe. They are the college grads who forego lucrative offers with high-profile company to dedicate two years of their lives to teaching in the worst schools in the country. Some highly engaged teachers complete their service and decide to choose teaching as a career.
But others--overwhelmed with indifferent school administrations, student disciplinary problems, and their own insufficient skill sets--default on their two years or quit teaching as soon as their contracts are up. Teach For America sees a third of their "corps members" leave after two years and ten percent depart sooner. New York's Teaching Fellows sees similar rates of attrition.
Teacher attrition is the achilles heel of teacher volunteer programs. Without the ability to retain their cadre, the programs end up perpetuating the human resource problem in schools. In short, any teacher volunteer program's lifetime goal should be to put itself out of business, but their current appraoch ensures just the opposite, critics say.
And attrition is costly. A National Commission on Teaching and America's Future study quantified teacher turnover and replacement to cost $7 billion per year. Dan Brown, educator and author of The Great Expectations Schools, says the findings "speak directly to the long term health of our education system-- and our economy."
Observers say the revolving door has much to do with teacher training. TFA and New York Teaching Fellows provide five to seven weeks of training before putting volunteers in the classroom. Despite the messianic rhetoric and combat-style skills imparted, it is not enough to prepare the untrained for two years in front of an underserved population.
Nevertheless, it's likely teacher-volunteer programs will see a spike in participation whether they solve national education woes over the long term or not. TFA saw a tenfold increase in applications last year and Americorps--which has the lowest bar to entry--has seen a 400 percent increase in the last four months. With unemployment flirting with ten percent, teacher volunteer programs provide a quick entry into the job market with flexible requirements on an individual's past experience or applicable skills.
Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, described for Big Think just what we might see in the volunteer teacher field in the coming years if the economy stays in a slump.
A study by Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond on TFA's effectiveness
Wendy Kopp on Big Think
A Village Voice expose on New York City Teaching Fellows