September 25th, 2009

The Zip Code Test

Teach for America’s premise — that top tier college grads with 8 weeks of training can yield stellar results in high-need classrooms — is the subject of raging debate.  We recently followed three TFA teachers in New Orleans as they navigated their first year, with varying success.

Grow your own teachersBeyond the question of whether TFA teachers perform on par with or significantly better than their veteran or traditionally trained counterparts, critics point to the fact that just 60% of TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond their 2-year commitment, contributing to the high rate of turnover that plagues many struggling schools. For many TFA teachers, challenges emerge not just in the classroom — living in unfamiliar, often high-poverty communities proves difficult.

Grow Your Own Teachers Illinois takes a different approach.

In Illinois, where teacher turnover hits 40% in some communities, legislators set the goal of adding 1,000 new teachers from non-traditional sources (not a school of education) by 2016. But instead of looking for new teachers outside the state, the Grow Your Own Teachers Act taps those already embedded and invested in school districts. Parents, community volunteers, and school staff members like teachers’ aides and maintenance workers — GYOT candidates are people who want to teach, but lack the college degree required by other alternative certification programs. They pass what GYOT director Anne Hallett calls “the zip code test. They are people who already know the kids, who love the kids, and who want to make the neighborhood schools better.”

How it works: school districts partner with a public college and a community organization to offer teaching degrees, counseling, and forgivable loans to candidates who commit to teaching in an eligible school for five years. In 2007, 82% of the GYOT candidates were female, 85% were people of color, 87% were parents, and the average age was 39.  Those numbers stand in sharp contrast to the demographics at other alternative certification programs, including TFA, where 30% of the 2009 corps members are people of color.

The program is young - it was signed into law in 2004 - but it’s picking up steam. Arizona, California, Mississippi, and New Jersey are considering similar programs. The struggling economy in Illinois mean that GYOT recently suffered a 10% budget cut, but the organization says its main efforts will continue.

Grow Your Own Teachers website

Related programs: The TFA Effect [ VIDEO, 07/09/09]

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