Opinion
Teacher Preparation Commentary

TFA: Our ‘Chance to Make History’

By Wendy Kopp — March 14, 2011 7 min read
Teach for America corps member Jessica Haskell teaches math to children at Scott Montgomery Elementary School in Washington in 2007. Today, she is the managing director of programs in TFA's Washington regional office.

“This is your chance to make history.”

Two years ago, this is what Teach For America corps member Megan Brousseau told her 9th graders in New York City’s South Bronx. It wasn’t just talk.

Wendy Kopp

Most of the young people in Megan’s class came from low-income backgrounds, had learned English as a second language, and were significantly behind academically. Megan charged them with taking and passing the New York state regents’ biology exam, something that few students in the Bronx do. With a lot of hard work, they met their goal and far exceeded the average district passing score in the process. Megan’s students proved to themselves and to others that they should be on a college track. Megan set up her students to make history—first by defying the odds academically and, over time, by attaining an education that will enable them to help shape our collective future.

Twenty years ago, when the first Teach For America corps members began teaching, most people would have chalked up Megan’s success to something elusive that couldn’t be replicated. We all knew that some children could beat the odds, but the prevailing notion, backed up by the research at the time, was that, on average, socioeconomic background predicted educational outcomes.

Today we know differently. We know that Megan is attaining such life-changing results through an extraordinary act of leadership. She established an ambitious vision, motivated her students to work incredibly hard to reach it, and worked purposefully and relentlessly to get there. Megan shows us what is possible, but there are only so many Megans who can teach in this way. It is incredibly hard and exceedingly difficult to sustain.

Thankfully, as an education community, we’ve also learned over the last 20 years that we can foster the impact of successful teachers and make the work more sustainable by creating whole schools that operate differently. Today, in urban and rural communities across the country, there are hundreds of schools that are putting students on a path to graduating from college at much the same pace as students in economically privileged communities. These schools have leaders who, like Megan, have embraced a mandate different from what most of our public schools embrace—to put students on a course that their socioeconomic backgrounds would not predict—and who invest the same energy and use the same strategies that it takes to attain very ambitious outcomes in any endeavor. They focus on recruiting and developing strong teams of teachers; build powerful cultures to invest children, families, and staff in the same mission; manage aggressively to ensure continuous improvement; and do whatever it takes—expanding schools’ time and services as necessary to meet the end goal.

We are also seeing unprecedented progress in whole school systems—such as New Orleans and the District of Columbia—that were viewed as impossible to move a mere five years ago, and we are seeing changes in the policy arena that promise to make it easier to grow the number of transformational schools. Where school systems and policies are changing in meaningful ways, leaders are embracing the lessons learned from transformational schools and focusing primarily on attracting, developing, and empowering school-based leadership and teachers to do whatever it takes to attain transformational results.

This is remarkable progress for two decades and should fuel our collective sense of possibility. And yet, the reality is that we have not yet made a meaningful difference in narrowing the nation’s achievement gaps in an aggregate sense. What will it take to dramatically increase the pace of change?

Perhaps the most crucial thing we must do is grow the leadership force for transformational change. Wherever we see change that has a meaningful impact on students’ academic and life trajectories, we see leaders who know what Megan Brousseau knows, who believe as deeply in their students as Megan does, who understand all that it takes to set them on a course for success, and who have a different level of conviction about the necessity of change than most. If we look carefully at the progress of the last 20 years, we will see that wherever we find transformational change in education, there are transformational leaders who have the conviction, insight, and determination that comes most often from having taught successfully in low-income communities.

Ultimately, attaining the change we need is going to require transformational leadership at every level—inside our classrooms, at the school level, and at the system level, in our communities, in our unions, at every level of policy, and in the professional sectors that influence our policymakers. Anything less buys us incremental change, at best. And in the face of a problem of the magnitude and consequences of the one we’re addressing—one where whole communities put more children into prison than into college—there is only one morally acceptable option. Incremental change is not enough. We need transformational change.

Ultimately, attaining the change we need is going to require transforming leadership at every level. ... Anything less buys us incremental change, at best."

This imperative, and the lessons we as a nation and education community have learned over two decades, are what drive us at Teach For America to work to become much bigger and much better. Our mission is to fuel a movement to eliminate educational inequity by developing leadership to expand opportunities for children and ultimately to effect the systemic changes necessary to realize educational opportunity for all.

Almost 48,000 graduating seniors and young professionals applied to Teach For America this year; we will select about 5,000 of them based on their leadership qualities and place them across more than 40 urban and rural regions in the next school year. Over time, we will work to continue growing our corps and, in turn, our alumni force.

As we grow, we will continue to place a particular priority on recruiting and developing individuals who share the racial and economic backgrounds of the students with whom we work. We have seen that teachers who share their students’ backgrounds can be important role models and can relate personally to the challenges and dilemmas they face, and we have also seen that it is impossible to bring about lasting change unless the leaders in our broader movement come from diverse backgrounds. Today, 32 percent of 2010 Teach For America corps members are people of color, including 11 percent who are African-American. Additionally, 28 percent are Pell Grant recipients from low-income backgrounds. We are significantly more diverse than our nation’s most selective college campuses; at the 400-plus higher education institutions where we recruit, for example, only 5 percent of the graduating seniors are African-American, and only 18 percent received Pell Grants. Even so, we are working to become still more racially and economically diverse.

We also are working to increase the impact of our corps members so they become a force of transformational teachers for their students and, in the process, gain the foundational experience necessary for effective long-term educational leadership and advocacy. Studies from the last two years in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee showed Teach For America at the top of the states’ new teacher providers in impact on student achievement. Furthermore, rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental research shows that corps members are, on average, equally or more effective compared with all other teachers, including traditionally certified and veteran teachers. We nonetheless must do more to continue learning and improving our preservice and ongoing professional-development programs so that our corps members make an even greater impact.

Finally, we are working to foster and accelerate the leadership of our alumni. They have played important roles in the progress of the last two decades by modeling exceptional teaching; leading and staffing many of the new generation of very successful urban and rural schools; assuming significant leadership roles in fast-improving school districts, and initiating, supporting, and advocating for policy change. Sixty-five percent of our alumni force works full time in education, and others remain engaged from sectors outside education. Moving forward, we are focusing on accelerating their leadership at the school principal and district levels, in policy, advocacy, and elected office, and as pioneers in the development of scalable innovations.

Today we see an unprecedented opportunity for our nation. We can act on the lessons learned over the last two decades and ensure that all of our nation’s children, regardless of where they are born, have the opportunity to fulfill their true potential. If we do, the students who overcome poverty to realize their full potential will grow up to become some of the most inspiring leaders our nation has ever known—leaders who have the strength of character that comes from succeeding in the face of extraordinary challenges and the kind of education that will enable them to solve the problems we face as a society.

We can enable children in urban and rural schools to make history. The main question in our minds is whether enough of our nation’s future leaders will commit themselves to ensuring we do so.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Our ‘Chance to Make History’

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