Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Doing Good and Doing Well: Credentialism and Teach for America

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Doing Good and Doing Well: Credentialism and Teach for America

Article excerpt

Much has changed since Lortie (1975) labeled teachers' social position "special but shadowed." Today, entering teaching typically entails more stringent academic qualifications, longer formal teacher education--in some cases, including yearlong practice teaching--and more school-based induction. Although these reforms were mostly intended to enhance teacher quality, several can be attributed to attempts to professionalize teaching and raise its social status (Holmes Group, 1986; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Yet, teachers have been unable to escape Lortie's shadow. Teachers' social status has remained relatively stable, and to many, teaching remains a semiprofession (Ingersoll & Perda, 2008). The academic backgrounds of entering teachers typically reflect teaching's middling social status: entering teachers' test scores have continued to lag the average college graduate (Hanushek & Pace, 1995; Podgursky, Monroe, & Watson, 2004). In some ways, the shadow has darkened: numerous reports partly attribute U.S. students' poor international performance to inadequately prepared, low-quality, and ineffective teachers (Akiba, LeTendre, & Scribner, 2007; Schmidt et al., 2007; Sub & Fore, 2002; Teaching Commission, 2004).

The status of teachers in low-income areas is even worse (Ingersoll & Perda, 2008). Schools in these areas typically struggle to attract higher quality teachers--as measured by licensure tests, undergraduate institution selectivity, and SAT scores--and struggle even more to retain them (Bacolod, 2007; Ingersoll, 200lb; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). Current policy rhetoric, especially at the federal level, has introduced the phrase "the teacher quality gap" into the educational lexicon (Cohen-Vogel & Hunt, 2007), implying that teachers in low-income areas are of generally lesser quality than their suburban-teaching peers. Teaching's relatively low status does little to attract higher education's top students, but the even lower status attributed to teachers in low-income schools, coupled with the typically poorer working conditions (Ingersoll, 2001b; Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005), makes recruiting recent high-achieving graduates still more challenging. It is for these reasons that the success of Teach for America (TFA) is so puzzling.

TFA recruits new college graduates to work for 2 years in hard-to-staff schools. Most TFA participants have strong academic backgrounds. The 2009 TFA cohort had an average grade point average (GPA) of 3.6 and received an average standardized aptitude test (SAT) score of 1,344, and most attended competitive universities (TFA, n.d.-c). TFA has grown considerably since its inception in 1989. Since 2000, the number of TFA applicants has more than quintupled (from 4,068 to nearly 25,000 in 2009) and the number of new participants has more than quadrupled (from 868 to nearly 3,600 in 2009; Decker, Mayer, & Glazerman, 2004; TFA, 2009a). In general, TFA has been, and currently is, very successful at placing high-achieving, high-status students in low-achieving, low-status schools; it is so successful, in fact, that TFA's acceptance rate is lower than several of the prestigious universities from which it recruits (TFA, 2009a).

TFA thus represents an anomaly: it attracts higher education's top students to primary and secondary education's least desirable jobs. Explaining this paradox has not been straightforward. This article draws on credentialism theory, especially as developed by David Labaree (1997, 2004), to develop a framework for understanding TFA's success. This framework helps organize existing research and commentary on TFA, clarifies their connection to existing theories for the program's success, and illuminates a key characteristic of TFA that differentiates it from other programs, namely, that TFA provides a credential that is fundamentally different from those provided by other preparation programs. …

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