NAU researcher’s voice being heard in national education reform debates

When Barbara Veltri talks about education reform in America, she speaks with unvarnished urgency and does not flinch at being called an advocate. While her motivation is inequity in education—what she calls “the civil rights issue of our time”—the focus of her research and her criticism is an organization known as Teach for America.

Veltri insists she is not on a mission to disband Teach for America. Instead, she is on a mission to change it.

“The program is not working the way it’s supposed to be working,” Veltri said.

Veltri, an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University, has gotten noticed in a national education debate that is drawing as much attention for its acrimony as it is for the issues.

"Learning on other people's kids"The focus of Veltri’s panel will be a discussion about Teach for America. The rapidly expanding organization is not the only element of debate among educators and education observers, but it’s a big one. The National Education Association recently “took a swipe” at TFA, as have bloggers, newspaper columnists and others. Equally vocal and apparent are staunch supporters of the organization.Since publishing her book, Learning on Other People’s Kids, in April 2010, Veltri has been mentioned in the Washington Post by Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, and cited in a U.S. federal appeals court brief focused on education inequity. Veltri is also an invited panelist at the “Save Our Schools” conference in Washington, D.C., from July 28-31.

Teach for America describes itself as a “national corps of outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors and career interests who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity.”

The organization has grown rapidly since its inception in 1990, with more than 8,200 corps members reaching more than 500,000 students. Some of those members have come from NAU. Its annual budget, funded by a mix of public and private sources, now approaches $300 million, including a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

One former corps member with NAU ties is Robert Kelty, Coconino County superintendent of Schools. Despite what he called “an exceptional experience” with TFA more than 10 years ago, Kelty said he does not take a side in the debate, but continues his support for both Teach for America and colleges of education. Instead, he said, “I support any organization trying to put quality teachers in struggling schools.”

Now in a doctoral program at NAU while serving as superintendent, Kelty said he still appreciates the organization’s focus “to go where no one else wants to go.” The mission resonated with Kelty as a young philosophy graduate who wanted to “find a way to participate in a program that targeted poverty elimination.”

He did just that, teaching in Crownpoint, N.M., and then in Flagstaff at Puente de Hozho Bilingual Magnet School, eventually being named Arizona’s 2008 Teacher of the Year. The real challenge throughout, he said, and the challenge facing any teacher today, is being mindful of culture.

“You just have to be committed to creating a curriculum that’s culturally relevant, engaging and innovative,” he said. “No entity can truly prepare anyone for the challenges of the classroom, but if you have heart and strategies from established teachers, you can be successful.”

Veltri said she does not dispute the need for “alternative pathways to the classroom” to address the country’s perceived education gaps, and she does not claim that Teach for America is entirely ineffective. But she does identify what she regards as its fundamental flaws.

First, she said, members are ill-prepared for the classroom. Once accepted, corps members go through a five-week training course. But Veltri counters, “You cannot be trained in five weeks to teach any child.”

Compounding the issue, Veltri said, is that corps members are sometimes placed in out-of-subject areas; for example, an anthropology major teaching math. “The biggest issue I find with Teach for America is that they’re placing these rookies in special education,” she said. “It’s dangerous, it’s unethical and it’s illegal.”

Finally, Veltri suggested that corps members are displacing trained educators and diminishing opportunities for recent graduates of education programs.

“We’ve got students graduating from colleges of education who can’t find a job,” Veltri said. “They’re praying for an interview while TFA corps members are told ‘come on down to the head of the line.’ Something is wrong with that picture.”

Despite these points, Veltri said she is pressing for changes, not abolishment.

“What I want to see TFA do is require corps members to take university classes in education before they get to the classroom, and to get them trained locally before they attend TFA training,” she said.