Can Teach for America Remake Education?

Earlier this summer, Wendy Kopp flew round trip from New York to L.A. in one day. Kopp, the founder of Teach For America—the national teaching corps that recruits high-performing college grads to teach in low-performing public schools—wanted to personally welcome some 700 new recruits to summer boot camp. When she took the podium, the teachers-in-training started cheering before she could finish saying her name. Then it was rapt silence as she exhorted them to engage in the battle for educational equity, first as quality teachers, then as leaders of the systemic reform needed to close the appalling achievement gap between the richest and the poorest students. It was a rousing call to arms not unlike the one I heard the summer of 2005 when I began to follow four TFA recruits through their first year of teaching.

Today TFA is not only the postgrad destination of choice for many of America's top college seniors, it's also a magnet for reform-minded philanthropists. Despite a battered economy, TFA is on target to raise $110 million in fiscal 2008, a 40 percent hike over the previous year's record intake. The number of applicants has spiked to a record high—now 25,000 college seniors compete for the privilege of taking on one of the toughest jobs on earth. Among the candidates: 11 percent of seniors at Yale, 10 percent at Georgetown and 9 percent at Harvard. This summer, 3,700 corps members who were carefully culled for their leadership skills through TFA's data-driven, envy-of-Wall Street selection model underwent an intensive, five-week crash course in teaching. In a few weeks, they will begin their two-year classroom commitments.

They will be assigned to schools like Locke High School in Watts, where I spent my year as an embed. At Locke, a school hemmed in by competing gangs, 2 percent of ninth graders are proficient in algebra; 11 percent read at grade level. Too many can't read at all. I learned that when a friend asked me to visit the school months earlier. As I sat in her classroom, she carefully enunciated the word "cat" while holding up a finger for each sound in the one-syllable word. "Cuh-A-Tuh," intoned Ms. Levine: "CAT." Her embarrassed ninth graders reluctantly repeated the exercise. It was excruciating to watch. When I later realized that Locke would be a training site for TFA's L.A. summer institute, I wondered: what could be learned about how we educate our most impoverished students through the teaching experiences of our most privileged?

Lessons emerged on a daily basis. Some of the most important:

The American system of education is broken. America has been wrestling with the problem of declining student achievement ever since 1983, when the government issued the report "A Nation at Risk," which warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" that threatened our country's future. Twenty-five years on, the tide is in. The United States truly is a nation at risk—our graduation rate ranks 19th among top developing countries. At Locke, 1,000 ninth graders were enrolled in 2001. Of the 240 who graduated four years later, only 30 were eligible to apply to a California state campus. Note to Obama and McCain: do the math. The impact an uneducated populace has on the integrity of the country's social fabric and the health of the economy cannot be underestimated.

It's the teachers, stupid! The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher. And yet, we have no effective system to attract, train, retain and promote high-caliber candidates for our schools. Today's teachers score in the lowest quartile of college grads and too many of the schools that train them are diploma mills. By making its program highly selective and attaching status to the job, Teach For America has proved that it is possible to get the best and the brightest into our classrooms. But no one—not TFA, not the districts, not the unions—has figured out how to keep them there. TFA's most recent alumni survey indicates that one third of former corps members are still teaching K–12. Critics charge that the recruits' short forays into the classroom exacerbate the critical issue of staff churning in our neediest schools and gibe that TFA really stands for Teach For Awhile. But the truth is, up to half of all the country's 3.5 million teachers bail within five years. Low pay, low status and low satisfaction undoubtedly drive many out. The transformation of teaching into a financially rewarding profession with high standards of admission—and accountability—would go a long way toward establishing staff stability.

Teach For America recruits can't close the achievement gap, but its alumni might. TFA knows that it will take systemic change to zap the gap. It's banking on its alums—in whatever field they eventually choose—to lead the charge. Some already are. In Washington, D.C., the reforming schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is a 1992 TFA alum. The founders of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the wildly successful chain of 57 charter schools, are 1992 TFA alums, too. Nationwide, there are now 360 school leaders and 16 elected officials who got their start in public service with Teach For America. By 2010, the ranks of America's next generation of leaders will be seeded with 20,000 high-achieving alums who will have seen the crisis in our classrooms firsthand. If, as Francis Bacon once said, knowledge in itself truly is power—if by knowing the profundity of the problem TFA alum will be empowered to find its solution—then Wendy Kopp's battle for educational equity will be won. Big ifs.

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