TOPICS > Education

Struggling Schools Turn to Top Grads for Teaching Boost

July 7, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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In the latest installment in a series about education reform, John Merrow reports on how public school systems struggling to close the achievement gap are increasingly turning to the Teach for America program for help.
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JIM LEHRER: Now a plan to use rookie teachers in one of the toughest school districts in the United States. The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been chronicling the efforts to improve public schools in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Tonight, he looks at how some novice teachers fared in New Orleans this year.

TEACHER: Say what you mean. You can do better than that. I know what you’re trying to say, but tell me what you’re actually trying to tell me.

JOHN MERROW: Almost everyone agrees that teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s education.

TEACHER: We’re seeing some really good ideas, some really interesting ideas.

JOHN MERROW: But good ones can be hard to find. Teach for America, or TFA, believes it has the solution: recruit top college graduates for a two-year stint in the nation’s toughest public schools.

PAUL VALLAS, New Orleans superintendent: We are rebuilding a public school system from the ground up.

JOHN MERROW: New Orleans Superintendent Paul Vallas is one of Teach for America’s biggest fans.

PAUL VALLAS: They bring an extraordinary work ethic. They’re very innovative. They’re very creative. They’re brilliant. They have high expectations for the kids.

JOHN MERROW: Vallas is hoping TFA will help close the achievement gap in his Recovery School District, where 65 percent of students are at least a year behind. Since his arrival two years ago, Vallas’ district has hired 128 Teach for America members. They and other so-called fast-tracked teachers now make up 20 percent of his staff.

Although they have only eight weeks of training, Vallas believes their intelligence and enthusiasm more than compensate for their lack of experience. Can this be true? What impact do novice teachers have on troubled schools?

Motivation to teach

DANIEL HOFFMAN, teacher, G.W. Carver High School: I think it's vital for me to succeed.

JOHN MERROW: Yale graduate Daniel Hoffman was hired to teach math at George Washington Carver, one of the district's most challenging high schools.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: In my ordinary life, if I fail, I'm the only one failing. If I fail in this classroom, all my kids fail. That's what motivates me to succeed.

JOHN MERROW: Princeton graduate Jeylan Erman was also hired to teach math at Carver.

JEYLAN ERMAN, Teacher, G.W. Carver High School: The whole aura of the city is all about change, all about reform. I never really believed that there could be such an energy and excitement for change until I came here.

JOHN MERROW: Lindsay Ordower, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, was hired to teach science at Frederick Douglass, another low-performing high school.

LINDSAY ORDOWER, teacher, Frederick Douglass High School: What I'm looking forward the most to is actually getting to know my students. I don't want to know them by their handwriting; I actually want to know who they are.

All right. So science is all about investigation, OK?

JOHN MERROW: From day one, Lindsay seemed to be a natural in the classroom.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: It's really important that we know what's in the water that we're drinking. We can't just trust someone else's opinion.

I think today went well.

You want to try one? I knew you would.

I did stay on task. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. They're on schedule for where I wanted them to be.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Everyone has a seat? Start working on your worksheet.

Idealism put to the test

JOHN MERROW: However, Daniel's idealism was put to the test from the start.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Everyone familiar with a liter? Give me a thumbs-up if you're familiar with a liter, thumbs-down if you're not. I need everybody to give me either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

I have not had as much success as I'd like to have. When I'm in the classroom, I'm thinking, "Oh, my god, what am I doing?"

JEYLAN ERMAN: Anyone want to share what they wrote in their power-ups?

JOHN MERROW: Jeylan also had trouble connecting with students.

JEYLAN ERMAN: I thought I'd come into teaching being naturally good at it, because I care so much about students. I automatically thought that, because I care so much, I had to be really great. It's not like that.

JOHN MERROW: A few months into the year, discipline continued to be Daniel's major stumbling block.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Kids getting up, walking around, walking out of class, you name it. I get things thrown at me all the time. A garbage can was thrown at me once.

I need you to go back in class.

STUDENT: What are you telling me for?

JOHN MERROW: Is this what you expected?

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Yes and no. I knew that I was coming into one of the most difficult educational situations in the country. A lot of these kids have seen murder, seen Katrina, and so there's almost nothing that they're scared of. Dealing with that when I am supposed to be in a position of authority, in some ways, my hands are tied.

JEYLAN ERMAN: I want all of you to pass your homework to the front. Pass your homework to the front. Anybody else?

Demands of the job

JOHN MERROW: The demands of long hours preparing for and then teaching her classes had Jeylan hitting the wall.

JEYLAN ERMAN: It's been really, really hard for me to muster up the energy to get up and go into class with that idealism and optimism that brought me down to New Orleans in the first place.

JOHN MERROW: Jeylan's low point came when her class started a petition to get her fired.

JEYLAN ERMAN: I remember sitting at the corner of my room, on my desk, and, like, literally not yet crying, but, like, on the verge of tears.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: Kevin? Where's Kevin?

JOHN MERROW: For Lindsay, our most confident teacher, the biggest problem was attendance.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: Is Walter here today?

I have 26 students on my roster, but on any given day I can expect about 17.

JOHN MERROW: You have 10 right now.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: Eleven.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: One just came in.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: It slows my teaching down a lot. I feel like I'm always playing catch-up.

All right. Who was not here yesterday and needs a handout on metals versus non-metals?

JEYLAN ERMAN: So we're not just dealing with negative X. We're dealing with negative 1X, just like we've been trying for the last few days.

JOHN MERROW: By January, Jeylan's class seemed to be turning around, and the student petition was long forgotten.

JEYLAN ERMAN: I was so adamant that I wasn't going to fail from the beginning, and that led to many different ideas. And when one wouldn't work, I would try another one. When that one didn't work, I kept going, going and going, until I finally found what worked for me and felt natural to me.

I'm going to pass out another worksheet that I need you to finish, good practice for you all.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: What do we see about body color for all three of these groups of frogs? Are they somewhat the same?

JOHN MERROW: Lindsay continued to improve, and her students seemed to benefit.

WAYNE JONES, senior, Frederick Douglass High School: I can tell she was like a pretty cool teacher. I had a real problem with science; she made it easy for me. I could understand it.

MICHAEL MATTIO, senior, Frederick Douglass High School: Out of all the teachers I knew in past years, she was the first teacher who ever told me, if I need a recommendation, come see me, try to help me through college, try to help me find a college. That's the first teacher who did that.

WAYNE JONES: And she pushed us -- the way she pushed us beyond our natural bounds, beyond our natural limits.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: Very proud of my kids. I think they're doing very hard work. Yesterday, all of our re-testers got their test results back. I think at least 80 percent of my students said they passed.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: All right. Let me take a step back, because I realize that there's a little bit of confusion about this activity.

JOHN MERROW: However, Daniel never hit his stride. He continued to struggle, and so did his class.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Eighteen centimeters. You did that. You divide it into 100 and you take 18 of those.

The one thing that really gets to me is when my kids tell me I'm a bad teacher, because I know to a certain extent it's true. It's hard, because you see, you know, something that you think you've taught a dozen times, the same exact problem, with none of the numbers changed, I gave it on the test, and a lot of the kids didn't -- still didn't know how to do it.

Learning at the expense of students

JOHN MERROW: At year's end, we invited the teachers to dinner. They brought two other first-year Teach for America colleagues, Zitsi Mirakhur and Bayoji Akingbola. We asked them to respond to a common criticism of TFA.

Are you learning to teach at the expense of these kids who actually need experienced teachers?

DANIEL HOFFMAN: The kids are the only reason we're here. We're not here for the paycheck. We're not here for anything else like that. We're here for the kids, and we're putting our all into it.

BAYOJI AKINGBOLA, teacher, Frederick Douglass High School: We stay up until like 1, 2 o'clock, stay at school 'til 7 o'clock working on lesson plans, and that energy, which might not be there if you've been in the system for 10 or 15 years, we use as a tool to make positive impacts.

JOHN MERROW: So the energy outweighs your inexperience?

BAYOJI AKINGBOLA: Yes. Yes. It compensates for it.

JEYLAN ERMAN: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: Did you ever find yourself triaging? "Well, I don't have enough energy to help everyone here, so I'm really going to work on these two"?

TEACHER: Definitely.

TEACHER: Absolutely.

TEACHER: Definitely.

TEACHER: Absolutely.

JEYLAN ERMAN: And if you were to take the entire classroom by storm and try to tackle all the issues, I mean, I don't think any one of us is capable of that.

LINDSAY ORDOWER: It's not always in your control. Like, I had a student acting up a few weeks ago that had never really -- he would sleep during class all the time. And I find out that he's homeless. There's no way that me being nicer or stricter or more motivational is going to change the fact that he doesn't have a home.

ZITSI MIRAKHUR, teacher, G.W. Carver High School: I think all of us, our collective society, has to address issues of poverty, very fundamentally, of health care. But we can't just say that we're going to fix the school system and everything will be OK.

JOHN MERROW: But Vallas is adamant that smart young teachers are the answer, even if their commitment is short term.

PAUL VALLAS: I want to have a steady flow of the best and the brightest from the colleges and universities into our teaching corps. And if they stay for two or three or four years and then move on, so be it.

JOHN MERROW: But Daniel Hoffman won't have a second or a third year. At the end of his first year, Carver High School dismissed him.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: It's probably the right thing, but I don't know if -- I'm still wrapping my head around it in a lot of ways.

JOHN MERROW: Daniel is the rare exception. Both Lindsay and Jeylan were asked to stay for their second year, as are almost all TFA recruits. Sixty percent stay a third year.

Vallas himself originally signed a two-year contract, but buoyed by improved graduation rates and increases in scores on state tests, he's signed on for a third year and promises to hire more new teachers for the fall.

JIM LEHRER: You can download a podcast of the full interview with Superintendent Vallas. And also on our Web site, you can get all of John Merrow's reports on the New Orleans, as well as the Washington, D.C., schools.