Teach First NZ Initiative: Why Not Give it a Go?

This week a New Zealand Herald editorial came out strongly against a joint proposal by the not-for-profit organisation Teach First NZ and the University of Auckland that is designed to help tackle one of New Zealand’s most concerning social problems – educational underachievement in low socio-economic communities. It’s a trial programme in which 20 top university graduates could be recruited to work as teachers after a six week intensive training course.

Teach First NZ’s aim, according to its website, is:

to make teaching a top graduate choice, attracting highly-qualified and well-rounded university graduates – often those who may otherwise have initially chosen corporate careers – to low-decile secondary schools for an initial two-year teaching commitment.

The Herald’s argument against the trial comes down to three points:

1. The university graduates would be out of their depth, especially on behavioural matters

That is for the hiring principal to evaluate.  It’s a risk that any hiring principal could be expected to assess as with any new teacher that might be hired.  Also, these are fresh, capable “highly qualified and well-rounded university graduates” who would also receive on-the-job mentoring by other teachers.

2. Based on Australian and US evidence, about half don’t continue with teaching teachers

True, but they’re not all expected to, as the Teach First website spells out:

To this end, our participants receive training, support and networking opportunities designed to prepare them for leadership roles in education, business, the public sector, and beyond. We plan to support our alumni to remain engaged with the Teach First NZ mission – whatever field they ultimately end up working in beyond the two years. While many will stay in schools, others go on to work in wider education or business, forming partnerships with schools, mentoring students, or becoming school trustees.

Furthermore, the editorial omits the UK from its international examples. A quick look at Teach First UK’s website tells a very positive story, as do the summary facts in Wikipedia:

Since launching in 2002, Teach First has placed increasing numbers of participants in schools each year with 163 joining in 2003, up to 560 in 2010 – and has an ambassador community (alumni) of over 1,200.

Teach First is now rated seventh in the Times Top 100 Graduate Recruiters, with the number of applicants rising from 3,000 in 2009 (with 22% of applicants accepted to the programme) to around 5,000 in 2010 (with 11% accepted).

3. “…[it] demeans existing teachers and their profession. The insinuation is that anyone can become a teacher after a crash course.”

But it is not “anyone”: they will be “highly-qualified and well-rounded university graduates” selected especially for their capacity to do the job. What is the danger? That principals are not competent to make hiring decisions or that the graduates might do a better job than their teacher predecessors/colleagues and embarrass them?

Low decile schools are often stuck in a vicious circle of not being able to attract high quality teachers because the school is underachieving, and underachieving because they can’t attract high quality teachers. It would be surprising if principals who are having trouble recruiting good teachers at present and the parents of pupils attending those schools would not welcome having the option of hiring a fresh, good-all-round, top university graduate teach their kids.

The core idea is to improve schooling opportunities for kids in low decile schools.  And we’re talking here about an initial trial of just 20 highly-qualified university graduates to see if they can help in struggling schools.  Why on earth is the Herald clobbering such a small trial where principals still make the hiring decisions?  It’s surely worth a try.

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