“It's not enough to have a dream”, reads a banner over the whiteboard in Nancy Sarmiento’s Baltimore classroom. Most of her 12-year-old pupils qualify for a free or cheap lunch. About 70% of the school’s new arrivals last September had reading and mathematical skills below the minimum expected for their grade. Americans call such schools “disadvantaged”. Whatever the label, most countries have schools where most children are from poor families, expectations are low, and teachers are hard to recruit. And in most, the falling prestige of the teaching profession makes matters worse.
But Ms Sarmiento, who graduated from a four-year biology degree course a year early, had to see off fierce competition to win her teaching spot. Teach for America (TfA), the scheme that placed her, accepts just one in six applicants. It looks for a stellar academic record and evidence of traits that distinguish the best teachers in tough schools, including leadership, resilience and motivation to help the poor. Recruits get five weeks’ training and pledge to work for two years in a disadvantaged school.
When TfA’s founder, Wendy Kopp, came up with the idea while an undergraduate, her adviser told her she was “deranged”. She proved him wrong. After two decades of growth, the number of applicants is falling slightly as the graduate jobs market strengthens. But it is still popular: with five weeks remaining till this year’s deadline, it has received 36,000 applicants—twice as many as a decade ago. And thanks to its 25-year history and 40,000 alumni, Americans are no longer surprised that bright, ambitious graduates want the most demanding teaching posts.
Now schemes modelled on TfA are spreading around the world. A quarter of European and Latin American countries, as well as Australia, China and India, have something similar. Many of the schemes are new, with just two or three cohorts placed in schools. Teach for Haiti, launched in January, became the 35th. Ambitious youngsters are attracted by the lack of a requirement for a teaching qualification, the chance to make a difference—and the high-energy approach. Lithuania’s programme is called “I Choose to Teach!”; Latvia’s, “Mission Possible”. Many applicants have degrees in mathematics and science, subjects where teachers are scarce. Typically just one in ten is accepted.
Results seem positive, though so far there have been few rigorous evaluations. Pupils of TfA recruits do just as well in reading as those of other teachers; in maths, their test scores are better. Britain’s Teach First has been credited with helping to improve standards in London. It now provides nearly a quarter of new teachers in the country’s most difficult schools.
Critics, including teachers’ unions, fret that a few weeks of training is too little for a novice teacher, no matter how gung-ho. But Teach First’s training has been rated “outstanding” in all 44 categories reviewed by Britain’s schools inspectorate. Like its counterparts elsewhere, Teach First provides the graduates it places in schools with support. Experienced colleagues help them with lesson planning and mentors visit their classrooms. Most enroll in a teacher-certification course (some countries insist on this), meaning that university tutors are on tap, too. Few new teachers anywhere else get so much hand-holding.
That help is essential. New teachers, whatever their route into the classroom, struggle most in their first two years, even in the easiest schools. Tomas Recart, who co-founded Chile’s programme in 2009, learned that the hard way: after three months, a fifth of the first cohort had dropped out. Now 90% return for a second year—a higher share than for all novice teachers, in all types of schools. The early retention rate is similar for TfA itself.
Some countries add weekend gatherings and seminars for participants to swap ideas and commiserate. Recruits may even be “overloaded with support”, says Dzameer Dzulkifli, who runs Malaysia’s scheme—which could be a waste of more than their time, since such support is expensive in the rural areas where many are based. Indeed, the cost of the TfA model is what may prevent it going mainstream. Australia’s programme is best thought of as a demonstration project, says Bill Louden of the University of Western Australia: “excellent and tiny” and showing what can be done with three times the usual spending per trainee.
But such pilot programmes matter because they can drag standards up across the board. Several schemes, including those in Bulgaria, India, Malaysia and Mexico, are doing better than the state at tracking teaching quality and student outcomes. Local and national governments are starting to take note. And most countries’ programmes aim to turn out alumni who will lead more than a single classroom. Some, they hope, will become head teachers. Several help participants find private-sector jobs after their two-year stint. Ideally, leaders in any sector who have seen the battlefield will become powerful allies in the quest to improve the worst schools.
Around 50-70% of those who have been through the established programmes stay in education for the long haul. Many take senior positions in public administration. Fifteen of the 115 who have completed Peru’s programme now work in its education ministry. A team of alumni from Lithuania’s scheme recently helped draft its ten-year education strategy. A fifth of school principals in Washington, DC, are TfA alumni, as are its schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, and several of her senior staff.
Many of those who leave teaching move to social programmes or start-up ventures. Chaitra Murlidhar, an engineer and alumna of Teach for India, now works for a non-profit foundation set up by Thermax, a large manufacturer. A teacher-re-training scheme she designed is being used in Pune, an industrial city in west India. Alumni in Australia and Spain have created online teaching resources for teachers and pupils, such as digital and video lessons that can be personalised.
One of the most useful things TfA and its many offshoots can do is what Brett Wigdortz, the founder of Teach First, describes as “detoxifying the brand of teaching”. Last year Teach First was runner-up in a national poll to find Britain’s most prestigious employer of graduates. Just as important, says Evgenia Peeva of Teach for Bulgaria, is to demonstrate that poor children from barely literate families can learn—if they have excellent teachers. Back in Baltimore, Ms Sarmiento says her main task is to ensure her pupils believe that, too.