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Teach for America Aims to Level Educational Playing Field


Nicole Baker is vice president of new-site development, research, and evaluation for Teach for America, an organization that recruits recent college graduates who majored in any field to commit to teach for two years in an urban or a rural school system. Baker taught fifth grade through Teach for America in Compton, California. She holds a doctorate in education from UCLA and joined the staff of Teach for America after serving as a research specialist for the Council of Great City Schools.

Education World: What are your responsibilities for Teach for America?

Nicole Baker: I oversee two areas at Teach For America: site development and research/evaluation. We currently are involved in an expansion plan at Teach For America; by 2004, we plan to place corps members in an additional four to six sites across the country. My role in this process includes researching and identifying potential new sites, developing relationships with school districts, establishing a university partnership for ongoing professional development, hiring local Teach For America staff, fundraising, and developing community support.

EW: How are recruits trained before they go into classrooms?

Baker:Corps members accepted to Teach for America attend a national five-week institute held in Houston or New York City. Teach for America then partners with school districts in those cities to run a summer school program for students. Corps members work in teams teaching classes, while receiving feedback from experienced teachers. In the afternoons, corps members participate in professional development activities coordinated by a faculty of Teach For America alumni.

The goal is to ensure that corps members gain necessary basic teaching skills, including the following:

  • Instituting long-term planning around clear student goals.
  • Designing lesson plans around clear objectives.
  • Building a classroom culture focused on academic achievement.
  • Assessing student progress.
  • Devising specific literacy-building approaches.

The program also provides corps members with access to practical teaching tools, such as specific classroom management strategies, lesson openings, and questioning techniques.

EW: What would you say to people who ask if a two-year commitment to the program really makes a difference for the kids?

Baker: Every classroom teacher has the opportunity to affect students' lives every year -- whether she or he stays in the teaching profession for two years or 30 years. Throughout our 12-year history, we have seen first-year corps members spur amazing gains in student achievement. Although our corps members initially make two-year commitments, we're pleased to note that of our 7,000 alumni, 60 percent still work in education full-time as classroom teachers and administrators.

We [also] see compelling evidence that the 40 percent of our alumni who no longer work in education continue to make a difference for kids. We have alumni who work in public policy organizations, serve on local school boards, practice education law, and fight for equity in school finance or, as physicians in low-income communities, provide quality health care for children.

EW: What do you think is needed to ensure that all children get a quality education?

Baker: Our country first needs to commit to the larger goal -- that all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, can and will receive an excellent education.

A few tangible ways we can work toward this goal:

  • Resources: Children in low-income communities don't deserve just equal resources -- they deserve more, considering the financial disparity between them and their wealthier peers. This includes increasing teacher compensation to attract the highest-quality teachers to our most under-resourced schools. We need to make sure that all children have access to resources that can truly help level the playing field.
  • Institution-building: We have to recognize that building successful school systems is like building successful organizations in any sector. We need to recruit great people, invest in their working toward clear goals, and set up systems to encourage constant learning and professional development.
  • Recruitment and support: Districts should launch campaigns to aggressively recruit talented people from every quality sector.

EW: What sort of feedback about the Teach for America teachers have you received?

Baker: Overall, our feedback from other classroom teachers has been positive. As with any new teachers, our corps members sometimes face initial challenges in their schools. We work very hard, however, to instill the core values of respect and humility in our teachers. We encourage our teachers to come to school with enthusiasm and commitment, balancing those traits with recognizing the value of experienced teachers and their unique knowledge of the local context. When corps members truly embody this value, other teachers welcome and receive them -- in spite of the fact that they arrived in the classroom through a different preparation pathway.

This e-interview with Nicole Baker is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.