Julian Heilig

Although Teach for America, known as TFA, does not maintain an official position on charter schools, a recent study suggests the organization has significant ties to groups lobbying for charter school expansion.

The study, conducted by researchers at  Carroll University, North Carolina State University and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, identified organizations that were founded by TFA alumni, had TFA alumni in senior level positions or had formal partnerships with TFA. The study suggested that TFA is a major part of an alumni network that promotes the growth of charter schools, or schools that are publicly funded but operate independently of school districts, and the privatization of education.

There were 73 UT students who joined TFA last year — the most among large schools — according to TFA’s September 2013 list.

Education associate professor Julian Heilig said he agrees with the study’s assessment, and he said while TFA argues that it is part of a broader reform movement, the organization has aligned itself with organizations that seek to provide education privately.

“As funny as it sounds, the TFA reformer war is the least interested in reform,” Heilig said. “If they’re not reformers, then they’re ideologues.”

Heilig, who blogs about education issues, said he believes TFA’s two-year commitment is insufficient because more teaching experience is necessary to increase teaching effectiveness. He also criticized its teacher training program.

“You don’t send your young, new employees to your toughest clients,” Heilig said. “They’re sending the least prepared teachers in their toughest situations.”

According to TFA Recruitment Manager Adam Reichow, TFA has no position on charter schools.

“This is the approach that some of our alumni from the 1990s and early 2000s had,” Reichow said. “That was their own solution to our problem [of education].”

Education professor Richard Reddick, a TFA alumnus, said there is as much variety in quality education programs among charter schools as there are among typical public schools.

“Is Teach for America involved in the charter school movement? Absolutely,” Reddick said. 

According to Reddick, the issues that critics have with charter schools apply to all schools. He said a major concern is whether all students have access to quality education.

“I sit on two charter schools boards and I ask these questions,” Reddick said. “Are we making our schools accessible for all students?”

Reichow said the efficacy of charter schools is a complex and controversial issue, but TFA is learning from the approach alumni who have started charter schools have taken. He said in his experience as a corps member in a Dallas charter school, parents were thankful for the ability to have more choices about what school their child could attend.

Christen Thompson, a Plan II Honors and Spanish senior and a TFA campus campaign coordinator, said she thinks TFA’s alumni network distinguishes it from other teaching programs.

“It’s biggest strength is this network of alumni — this ability to reach across different fields and collaborate for change,” Thompson said. “The education system is so complex that with people in multiple different fields, we have a better chance of change.”

Clarification: This article has been clarified since its original posting. The study cited in this article was conducted by faculty members at Carroll University, North Carolina State University and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

The Texas State Board of Education’s vote to eliminate algebra II as a public high school graduation requirement will decrease the student body’s diversity and college readiness, according to associate professor of education Julian Heilig.

The state’s minimum foundation program dictates the 22 credits a student must complete to graduate. The program will require three math credits instead of four after the changes go into effect for students entering high school in fall 2014.

Heilig said African-American and Latino students disproportionately receive high school diplomas that have lower degree requirements. Heilig said measures such as House Bill 5, the bill that allowed for the elimination of the algebra II requirement, will have a disparate effect on the students.

“Our state is changing, and we really want our University to represent the state,” Heilig said. “[If we] don’t have students that are college-ready or [they] don’t have the right credentials from high school, then what it will do is impact the diversity of UT over the long term.”

Heilig said in order to be competitive applicants, students must have four years of math, science and English.

“If you don’t start early on the pathway to college, then by the time a student is a junior and decides he wants to go to college, it’s too late,” Heilig said.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said algebra II is still required for students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class to be eligible for guaranteed admission to a state-funded public university.

“We encourage students to determine what plan they want to choose, and one of the things we emphasize is that students consider including the Distinguished Achievement Program, especially if they want to attend a four-year university,” Culbertson said.

Culbertson said the bill aims to increase coursework options that will allow students to graduate and to reduce the number of required standardized course exams from 15 to five.

“The goal is to create more paths to graduation for students,” Culbertson said. “It mostly gave [school] districts more flexibility.”

Laura Lavergne, assistant to the director at the Office of Admissions, said University applicants who exceed high school coursework requirements may benefit during the application review process. Lavergne also said certain colleges within the University have a calculus readiness requirement for admission. The requirement may be met by attaining a minimum score on the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate calculus exam, or the Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces exam.

Out of 15,335 students admitted to the University for the summer and fall 2013 semesters, 12,517 students graduated from Texas public high schools, according to Lavergne.

Heilig said after compulsory education was established in Texas, the state created vocational tracks for students who were considered incapable of receiving college degrees. He said the bill eliminating algebra II as a requirement is reminiscent of this historical narrative.

“It’s been reframed as ‘students need an option,’” Heilig said. “It’s not actually students who are making these choices — it’s the state and those districts.”

In June, Charles Graham Jr. will leave his job at an Austin law firm and move almost 2,000 miles to Philadelphia to embark on a new teaching career. Graham, who received his government degree in December, will spend his first summer as a UT alumnus training for Teach For America. According to Teach For America, a program that signs recent college graduates to two-year teaching commitments at underprivileged schools, more of the program’s teachers came from UT than any of the other 630 institutions in 2010. Graham said he is excited to be a part of such a competitive institution, which accepts about 4,500 of its 46,000 applicants. “I always said that I wouldn’t be a teacher,” he said. “When I decided to be a government major, people would ask, ‘What are you going to do, become a government teacher?’ and I always answered no.” Graham is not unusual — one in six of the program’s participants say they never considered education before joining the Teach For America corps. He said he is looking forward to learning about how to improve the nation’s education system and hopes to take his teaching experience with him long after his two-year commitment. “My long-term goal is to work in education policy, and I saw this program as a way to get in the classroom and see some of the problems of the education system firsthand,” he said. “I saw Teach For America as an opportunity to give back and reach future generations.“ Graham plans to attend graduate school after his two-year commitment ends, which some critics of the program argue could be problematic. Some criticize the program because its participants leave the classroom after their commitment is up and pursue other careers, said assistant education professor Julian Heilig. “In its initial conception, it’s a fantastic idea, because they are trying to get high-quality teachers to students that our nation has left behind,” Heilig said. “The problem is that they attract teachers to those schools, but they can’t keep them there.“ Heilig argued the program functions as a “temporary agency” and “perpetuates the cycle” of underqualified teachers in underprivileged schools. “I think the criticisms would melt away if their members would make five-year commitments instead of two, but this is just a stopover for most kids,” he said. A 2008-09 Urban Institute study shows that corps members have positively impacted student achievement as first- and second-year teachers, said program spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock. “Our alumni, inspired by their two-year teaching experience, become lifelong leaders in a variety of professional fields in their effort to expand opportunities for kids growing up in low-income communities,” Gastrock said. Etherial Edetan, a UT alumna and current corps member in Atlanta, has taught kindergarten and first grade since joining the program in 2009. In May, she will spend her final days in the classroom but not in the field of education. “I’m going to continue working in education in some kind of way, but I don’t think I can be the strongest advocate of education by staying in the classroom,” she said. “I think I need to go outside of the classroom to make effective improvements.” Graham said he hopes to instill “confidence and a love for learning” into his Philadelphia elementary students. The program will provide him with weeks of training, preparation for his teacher certification test and relocation funds. Then he will be off to his classroom. “I know it’s going to be a hard job, and I think that if I can do this, then I can do anything,” Graham said. “I’m not going to shy away from the challenge. Actually, I’m looking forward to it.”