MIAMI — In a distressed neighborhood north of Miami's gleaming downtown, a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced instructors from Teach for America is trying to make progress where more veteran teachers have had difficulty: raising students' reading and math scores.
"These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers," said Julian Davenport, an assistant principal at Holmes Elementary, where three-fifths of the staff this year are Teach for America corps members or graduates of the program.
By 2015, with the help of a $50 million federal grant, program recruits could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation's highest need school districts. The program also is expanding internationally.
That growth comes as many districts try to make teachers more effective. But Teach for America has had mixed results.
Its teachers perform about as well as other novice instructors, who tend to be less successful than their more experienced colleagues. Even when they do slightly better, there's a serious offset: The majority are out of the teaching profession within five years.
"I think ultimately the jury is out," said Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an instructor to the first class of TFA corps members.
Teach for America teachers work with not just the poor, but also with English language learners and special education students. They provide an important pipeline of new teachers. But critics cite the teachers' high turnover rate, limited training and inexperience and say they are perpetuating the same inequalities that Teach for America has set to eradicate.
"There's no question that they've brought a huge number of really talented people in to the education profession," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority children, and a longtime supporter of TFA.
But, she said, "Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher. For poor kids, education has to work every single year."
Wendy Kopp started Teach for America while studying public policy at Princeton. For her senior thesis, she developed a plan to place top college graduates in the poorest schools. She sent the plan to dozens of Fortune 500 executives. Within a year, she had raised $2.5 million and had 2,500 applications.
Over the past 20 years, thousands of recent college graduates have taught for two years in some of the most challenging classrooms in hopes of helping close the achievement gap. Applications have doubled since 2008. Foundations have donated tens of millions.
With Teach for America's guidance, groups are being established in India, Chile and other places with deep educational inequalities.
Many countries, including those where students perform higher in math and reading, send the strongest and most experienced teachers to work with the lowest performing students. The U.S. has done the reverse. There are nearly twice as many teachers with fewer than three years' experience in schools where students are predominantly low income and minority.
Family income is one of the most accurate predictors of how well a student will perform. Just 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students, for example, scored as proficient or above in reading on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"When we started this 20 years ago, the prevailing notion backed up by all the research was socioeconomic circumstances determine educational outcomes," Kopp said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've seen real evidence it does not have to be that way."
How to overcome the challenges of poverty is at the center of the debate over education reform, with an increasing focus on effective teaching.
Highly effective teachers are hardest to find at the least advantaged schools.
"The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they aren't there," said Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as the founding director for Teach for America in New York City.
Teach for America believes it can create a corps of such teachers in a short time.
Research, however, shows that beginning instructors improve with experience.
A Harvard study of students in Texas found that a teacher's level of education, experience, and scores on licensing exams have a greater influence on student performance than any other factor. North Carolina research on teacher training programs, including Teach for America, showed that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.
If inexperienced teachers don't perform as well, then why pair them with students who struggle the most?
"When they started, we were staffing our high poverty schools ... with anything that breathed," said Haycock. But, she added, "Saying their solution is better than what came before it is not to say it's the right thing."
Wagner noted that his master's degree in teaching from Harvard hardly prepared him for the challenges of being a first-year teacher. "Unless and until we have a dramatically different system, and a universally high quality system for preparing teachers, I think TFA is a stop gap, and an important one," he said.
Most who apply for Teach for America have not studied education or thought about teaching, but consider it after speaking with a recruiter or program graduate.
For Ryan Winn, it was a picture of a recruiter's third-grade class in Phoenix that persuaded him to apply. The recruiter told him that half the students were expected to drop out by the eighth grade.
"That struck me as incredibly unfair, and I was upset about it," said Winn, a teacher this year in Memphis, Tenn.
At Holmes Elementary in Miami, the classrooms of Teach for America teachers are filled with posters reminding students of the ambitious goals set for them.
"I have to make a change," said Michael Darmas, a first-year teacher at Holmes. "I have to make a difference."
Teach for America training starts with thick packages of readings and then five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who have fallen behind and are taking remedial coursework in order to advance to the next grade.
The fledgling teachers are overseen by another instructor. That could be a more veteran public school teacher, or current or former Teach for America corps member.
"It was a real steep learning curve," said Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes.
When the summer is over, teachers are sent to their assigned districts, which pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member they hire, in addition to the teacher's salary. Many don't find out exactly what they'll be teaching until shortly before school begins.
In interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members, many described classroom triumphs. Several also acknowledged feeling dubious about their abilities as first-year teachers.
"I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me," said Brett Barley, who taught in the San Francisco Bay area. "I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful."
Most of the fourth-graders Barley taught entered reading and writing at second-grade levels. About 30 percent weren't native English speakers; two were classified as blind.
"The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels," Barley said.
In her book, "A Chance to Make History," Kopp tells the stories of several Teach for America teachers who achieved remarkable success in the classroom. But it's not hard to find teachers who come out with a very different story about their experience.
Megan Hopkins, a Spanish major in college who was placed in Phoenix as a bilingual teacher, said she did not receive any training on teaching English language learners.
"I had no idea how to teach a child to read," Hopkins said. "I had no idea how to teach a second language learner to read in Spanish, much less in English. After five weeks of training, I really had no idea what I was doing. I felt that was a big disservice to my students."
Teach for America encouraged her to set a goal of advancing her students 1 1/2 grade levels. She didn't know how to go about building such a measurement, but was able to develop one with other teachers.
Hopkins said she was praised "up and down" for increasing student reading levels, but she questioned the results. One student, a native Spanish speaker, could read fluently in English, "but if you asked him what he read, he had absolutely no idea."
Teach for America, in its own review of external research, concludes that its teachers achieve student gains that are "at least as great as that of other new teachers." In some studies they do better, and in others they do worse.
Teach for America gathers information on how its teachers are performing, but does not release any data to the public. "We just don't feel it's responsible to show," Kopp said. "There are so many flaws in our system."
One consistent finding is Teach for America's high turnover rate. According to the organization, 33 percent of its graduates are still teaching. But in many districts, retention rates are significantly lower. A study published last year from North Carolina, for example, found that after five years, 7 percent of Teach for America corps members were still teaching in the state.
Kopp and others at Teach for America note that turnover rates are high across low-income schools. But among teacher preparation programs, Teach for America has one of the highest.
She said requiring a two-year commitment is critical to attracting high quality candidates. The main reason Teach for America teachers leave the classroom, Kopp said, is because they want to have a bigger impact. Sixty percent of the program's graduates are still working in education, whether it's in policy, or for a nonprofit or government agency, according to TFA.
Throughout their time with Teach for America, corps members are frequently told about the organization's "theory of change." It's the idea that, no matter what field they ultimately enter, they will remain committed to fixing educational inequalities.
Many of the graduates interviewed for this story did leave teaching.
Hopkins, the Phoenix teacher, earned a doctorate in education and has focused much of her research on English language learners.
"But what if their theory of change would encourage their teachers to stay in the classroom as a form of change, as a form of leadership in the field of education?" she asked.
At Holmes Elementary, much is at stake.
If the state isn't granted a waiver from the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, the school could close unless it significantly improves math and reading scores on Florida's standardized assessment.
"I like the pressure," third-grade teacher Daniel Guerrero said . "It makes me want to stay up late and make sure everything is ready."
Assistant Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said clustering Teach for America teachers together has worked in other district schools and he hopes to attract more beyond their two-year commitment.
Davenport, the assistant principal and a program alumnus, said that will depend on whether corps members feel valued.
"If they don't feel that opportunity to exercise their abilities," he said, "they won't be compelled to stay."