A GROWING number of the nation's brightest college graduates are delaying their life plans to become classroom teachers in hard-pressed urban and rural areas in a program called Teach for America. Yes, the graduates fill a need at schools desperate for teachers. But the experience will let them take into their professions exposure to the lives of poor children in a way that may shape their understanding of the disadvantaged for the better.
Teach for America is a new do-something-worthwhile effort drawing top graduates from Ivy League schools and other colleges and universities. These graduates, who averaged a 3.5 GPA, make the two-year commitment on their way to medical, law, and other post-graduate studies. They don't fritter away the time but use it to ponder the next step in their lives. For some, the experience prompts them to consider careers in education, while others stick with their original career path.
The idea for a teacher corps, similar to the Peace Corps, grew out of a Princeton student's senior thesis project. After Wendy Kopp obtained corporate funding, 500 young teachers were sent to classrooms in 1990. Now, some 3,700 Teach for America teachers are in schools considered by the government in high need.
The schools are open to hiring the young people, even though they lack certification. While the experts are still debating their effectiveness, one study said the college grads were no more effective or perhaps less so than regular staff, but another found that 63 percent of the principals with Teach for America members in their schools said they were more effective than regular faculty.
The program is not necessarily intended to persuade graduates to go into teaching. But if some do so, that's an added bonus.
One point that's beyond dispute, however, is the graduates' enthusiasm for the teaching experience. The pay is low because they only earn first-year teachers' salaries. The work is hard and anything but glamorous. They use the experience to build their resumes, but they are building something else perhaps more important.