Ten Years of Teach For America

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Over the past 10 years, 5,000 outstanding recent college graduates—people of all academic majors who are among the nation's most highly sought-after young leaders—have joined Teach For America. These corps members, as they are called, have committed two years to teach in urban and rural public schools everywhere from South Central Los Angeles to Louisiana's Southern Bayou to the South Bronx. Almost all of them have chosen to continue working far beyond their two years of service to expand opportunities for children in low-income communities.

As Teach For America gears up to enter its second decade, and as our nation works to address the student-achievement gap and the shortage of highly qualified teachers, it seems time to report to the education community on what we have learned and where we are headed.

From South Central Los Angeles to Louisiana's Southern Bayou to the South Bronx, the Teach For America Corps continues to grow.

In 1989, while the media were portraying 20-somethings as the "me generation," 2,500 college seniors responded to Teach For America's first grassroots recruitment campaign. Since then, more than 30,000 individuals have competed to be part of this movement to ensure that students in our nation's lowest-income areas have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Those who have been selected into Teach For America—roughly one in five of those who have applied—have demonstrated leadership and achievement. Of last year's corps, for example, 86 percent held leadership positions on their college campuses, their average GPA was 3.4, and their average SAT score (self-reported after matriculating) was 1248. The corps members are a diverse group, with 36 percent of those placed being people of color and 23 percent being math, science, and engineering majors.

While we continue looking for better ways to evaluate corps members' impact on students, we have relied to date on the assessment of school principals who hire corps members. On an independent survey conducted by the research firm Kane, Parsons, & Associates, an average of over 90 percent of principals rated corps members as "good" or "excellent" on 23 indicators of successful teaching, including achievement orientation and drive to succeed, openness to feedback, choosing effective instructional strategies, creating a classroom environment conducive to learning, and working with other teachers and administrators. Ninety-six percent of principals reported that the presence of corps members was "advantageous" to their schools, with the majority saying that their presence was "strongly advantageous."

The vast majority of corps members complete their full commitment.

Despite challenging working conditions and the difficult adjustment of relocating to new communities, the vast majority of corps members complete their full commitment; among our most recent group, 90 percent did. Moreover, according to an alumni survey conducted last fall, almost 60 percent of our alumni are still working full time in education. Thirty-seven percent of them are still teaching, and 21 percent are in graduate schools of education, administrative positions, or education organizations.

The alumni remaining in education are already assuming important leadership roles. Dave Levin and Michael Feinberg run the nationally acclaimed KIPP Academies—schools in the South Bronx and in Houston that have received national acclaim (including a recent feature on "60 Minutes") for putting their students on a level playing field with students in privileged areas. Mr. Feinberg and Chris Barbic, who founded a school called Project Yes, run Texas' top two performing charter schools.

Other alumni are assuming leadership on school faculties. Ray Chin created an Advanced Placement biology class in his school in Los Angeles and led 20 of his 26 students to score a 3 or better on the exam. Alumni are also running urban schools as principals, staffing district offices in areas ranging from budgeting to teacher recruitment to professional development, and playing important roles in many of the nation's educational research and reform initiatives.

The other 40 percent of our alumni—those not working directly in education—continue to advocate from other sectors for expanding the opportunities of children and families in low-income areas. In fact, 70 percent of these alumni report that their full-time jobs relate in some way to education and/or low-income communities. These alumni include people like Bill Norbert, who won election to the state legislature in Maine on an education reform platform, and Karen Sun, the chief pediatric resident at San Francisco General Hospital.

Teach For America's learning curve over the past 10 years has been steep.

Teach For America's learning curve over the past 10 years has been steep. While our recruitment effort now reaches out to students at 200 colleges and universities across the country, a refined selection model continues, seeking to identify candidates who articulate a passion for expanding educational opportunity and who demonstrate the leadership traits needed to excel in that pursuit. Our preservice institute has been made more effective by the fact that our corps members now teach in summer schools run by Teach For America, and that we have developed a thorough curriculum to guide our faculty.

Corps members today also receive more effective ongoing support than they did 10 years ago, thanks to our efforts to cluster them within schools, to foster a culture of constant learning through newsletters and meetings, and to provide access to the best available professional-development resources through relationships with local schools of education (such as Bank Street College in New York City and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore).

Although we've improved, today we feel a greater sense of urgency than ever before. Through our efforts in classrooms across the country, we have seen firsthand what the national statistics tell us—that by the time they are 9 years old, children in low-income areas are already three to four grade levels behind their more privileged peers, and that the gap only widens from there, to the point where a child who grows up in Harlem is seven times less likely to graduate from college than a child who grows up in New York's Westchester County.

What makes these disparities so frustrating is that we have also seen through firsthand experience that it is possible for the children in Harlem to achieve at the same level as the children in Westchester.

Where children in low-income areas achieve at the same levels as their more privileged peers, there is no mystery why. There are always teachers with higher expectations, who are willing to go far above and beyond to help their students meet them. There are teachers who establish an ambitious vision of where they want their students to be; who invest their students and the students' families in working hard toward that vision; who maximize every minute of every day to work toward it; and, when the school day isn't long enough, who figure out how to make it longer.

Based on what we have observed over the past 10 years, we are more, rather than less, confident that it is possible to reach the day when our education system provides all of its students with the opportunity to attain an excellent education. It is possible, but it will take many more great teachers. It will also take more school leaders and system leaders with more vision, more energy, and more determination. And it will take people at all levels of policy and in all sectors who understand what is needed and are willing to effect the systemic changes needed to ensure that disadvantaged students excel academically.

For this reason, we are working to multiply the size of Teach For America—so that we can provide more students growing up today in our nation's lowest-income communities with more teachers who will have high expectations and will go above and beyond to meet them, and so that we can build a massive force of leaders and citizens who will fight for what it takes to ensure that children in low-income areas achieve at the same levels as children in higher-income areas

Teach For America's experience has shown the benefits of recruiting as widely as possible.

As important as we believe Teach For America is as a movement for social justice, we know it does not provide a sufficient answer to the much-talked-about shortage of highly qualified teachers. Yet perhaps there is something to be learned from our experience.

The lesson is not, in our opinion, that our model is the only way to recruit and develop new teachers. It is, however, that much can be accomplished with significant investments in recruiting, selecting, training, and supporting new teachers.

Our experience suggests that school systems would do well to invest heavily in attracting and developing the people they need to meet their ambitious student-achievement goals. While most of the discussion about addressing the shortage of highly qualified teachers has to this point focused on improving schools of education, school districts and states understand their needs most clearly.

Teach For America's experience has shown the benefits of recruiting as widely as possible. We have seen how teaching is most fundamentally a tremendously challenging leadership task. It is hard to find people with the personal characteristics needed to excel at the task, and it seems that school districts will need to look everywhere, in schools of education and probably well beyond them, in order to find enough people who have these characteristics.

Moreover, to attract the people they want, districts will need to develop effective recruitment strategies that play to the profession's strengths—that teaching provides unparalleled leadership responsibility and the opportunity to be part of a larger, terribly important effort (in short, that it is the kind of job that most Americans spend their lives searching for).

Finally, school districts will also need to provide all their new teachers, regardless of the extent of their background in teacher education, with effective training and support, so that new teachers understand that their fundamental responsibility is to effect gains in student achievement, so that they understand how to reach that goal, and so that they have opportunities to learn and improve in the effort to do so.

That districts will need to hire so many teachers over the coming decade is reason for concern. But it is also an extraordinary opportunity to have an impact on student achievement and to find the future leaders who will take us forward.

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 48, 52-53

Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as Ten Years of Teach For America
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