Unions challenging teacher recruitment in education bill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teach for America, the national nonprofit organization the governor wants to invite to West Virginia as part of his proposed education overhaul, already is recruiting professionals and recent college graduates from the state to serve in high-needs public schools across the country, organization officials say.
The governor's legislation would provide the temporary certificates that Teach for America participants would need to enter West Virginia classrooms. It would also provide them a way to pursue a permanent certificate, should they choose to stay.
A couple dozen West Virginians are currently taking part in the two-year program, which seeks to improve student performance in low-income areas, said Will Nash, executive director of the group's Appalachian region.
"We've got a good number of people who are West Virginia natives and are interested in teaching in West Virginia," Nash said.
He added, "The interesting thing is, they all have to leave the state."
Critics of this part of the governor's legislation include groups representing teachers. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, contrasted it with other provisions that increase teacher-training requirements. Those more rigorous standards aim to aid Tomblin's goal of ensuring that every third-grader finishes the year reading at grade level.
"Someone without a degree in education can take five weeks' training and teach [kindergarten through third grade]," Lee said Monday. "Tell me how that makes sense. It just lowers the standards of the profession."
Teach for America prepares participants through a five-week training program billed as intensive. Nash estimated that it will accept only about 12 percent of the more than 60,000 who apply to take part.
Program officials cite high marks for the effectiveness of its teachers in Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee. Fans of Teach for America's training approach include Gaston Caperton, a former two-term governor of West Virginia who stepped down as president of the College Board in October after 13 years. The program now sends around 10,000 beginning teachers to districts in 36 states, including neighboring Ohio and Kentucky. Virginia's Legislature passed a measure earlier this year, requested by that state's governor, creating the sort of provisional certification that Tomblin seeks in his bill.
Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, questioned why Tomblin isn't focusing on an in-state alternative certification program approved by lawmakers last year. The West Virginia program sets a higher education standard, Hale said.
While would-be teachers would still need a bachelor's degree under Tomblin's bill, it would no longer have to be in a discipline offered in public schools -- a change that would apply beyond Teach for America participants.
The in-state program "offers a great opportunity for us to have homegrown West Virginia teachers in the classroom," Hale said. "We think this is a far superior process to bringing in people from out of state who have no commitment and no roots to West Virginia, who are not certified to teach and under the bill will not have to work toward that certification."
Besides noting the number of West Virginia residents currently in Teach for America, Nash cited studies showing high retention rates for program participants in high-poverty schools. Nash said that about half of the program's 40 teachers he oversees in Kentucky school districts grew up in that state or attended college there. He added that the Kentucky Education Association, the counterpart to Lee's West Virginia group, has welcomed Teach for America there. A KEA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Tomblin public policy director Hallie Mason said the need for teachers outpaces the capacity of existing alternative certification programs, which she said are still getting up to speed. Mason also said that it will remain up to county school boards whether to hire Teach for America participants.
Lee questioned whether West Virginia has the sort of vacancy problem that Teach for America has sought to address in other states.
"In West Virginia, we don't have a teacher shortage problem; we have an export problem," Lee said. New teachers "are leaving the state because they can make $6,000 to $20,000 more in any of the surrounding states."
Nash said Teach for America has already spoken to officials in McDowell County, which has struggled to fill classroom slots with qualified teachers. That county's ailing schools are the focus of Reconnecting McDowell, a five-year, multibillion-dollar attempt to improve student outcomes by also tackling community problems. Hale's group helped assemble the effort's public-private coalition.