When Teach for America began almost 20 years ago as an idealistic college senior's last-minute thesis project, it looked like a crazy idea. Since then, it has morphed into one of the biggest players in educational reform, attracting nearly 20,000 top college graduates for 2,500 spots each year and reshaping the effort to help all students learn. In her new book, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America, freelance journalist Donna Foote documents the first-year struggles of four TFA recruits at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles. In an interview with U.S. News, she discusses why the organization has become such a hot destination for recent graduates and what obstacles its teachers face on the front lines. Excerpts:
How did you get interested in Teach for America?
I was a reporter at Newsweek when Wendy Kopp first started TFA in 1990. I thought it was a really interesting idea and clipped all the stories I could find but just really never found a good news peg for it. I just filed those clips away and kept TFA in the back of my mind. Then three or four years ago, I read in a press release that 17,000 people had applied for TFA in 2005, and among them were 12 percent of the graduating class at Yale. That statistic just blew me away! It struck me as extraordinary that the best and the brightest from elite schools like Yale, with presumably much better-paying offers, would be giving up two years of their upwardly mobile lives to teach in very low-performing schools.
Around the same time, I had a friend who had just started teaching at Locke High School here in Los Angeles. Her stories were unbelievable, and she asked me to come into her classroom to help out. I went in and was shocked. Her ninth graders couldn't read. And I don't mean they were stumbling over words or couldn't pronounce—they could not read! She was actually going through phonetic sounds with them trying to get them to understand words like "cat." So when she mentioned that TFA held its summer training institute at Locke, I just thought, here's a way that I could tell the story of how we educate our poorest students through the eyes and the experiences of our most privileged. It just clicked.
What do you think are some of the biggest obstacles in education today?
I would say that the quality of teaching is probably the single most important factor in predicting student success. We as a nation haven't really figured out how to attract, train, and retain the very best teachers that we possibly can. And not to be too simplistic, because of course there are a myriad of factors that impede student achievement, but in a bad school with no textbooks and crowded classrooms, a really good teacher can make music.
Why is Teach for America such a popular destination?
There are two things. One, it's very elite, and it's speaking to a generation of kids who have been competing since kindergarten. The more elusive the goal, the more you want it. Two, it really taps into something which I think is not unique to this generation but certainly stands out, and that is that there is this feeling of wanting to give back. There's been real attention to community service - I think 62 percent of college students do some kind of volunteer work—and that's very big. TFA has been able to tap into that youthful idealism.
Critics point out that TFA corps members receive a lot of training and resources but then often leave the classroom after only two years of teaching. How would TFA respond to that criticism, and what has Teach for America accomplished so far?
In a system with 4 million teachers and 50 million schoolchildren, TFA is a tiny, tiny component. I think the year I was following Taylor [Rifkin], Hrag [Hamalian], Phillip [Gedeon], and Rachelle [Snyder], the [TFA] corps was 2,000 teachers. So it's not fair and it's unrealistic to think that TFA on its own, by training these teachers and sending them to these small schools, can close the achievement gap [between minority and lower-income students and nondisadvantaged peers].
TFA has a two-pronged theory of change. In the short term, it will send smart, energetic, committed young people into these terrible schools. But the longer-term vision, and the one that is most likely to bear fruit, is the idea that, because TFA has culled so carefully for leaders and because these young teachers will be so informed by this unbelievable experience of teaching in underperforming schools, they will go out and make big changes.
Now that the early corps members are approaching their early 40s, we're starting to see signs that these leaders that have been embedded in society are starting to rise up. If you troll the education reform movements, the big nonprofits, and philanthropies, you'll see TFA alum[s] in their ranks. I think a real marker was laid down last spring when TFA alum Michelle Rhee was named chancellor of the D.C. schools.
Do you feel that there's any tension between teachers who have been trained traditionally and TFA teachers?
Well, certainly at Locke there was a very palpable tension between the old-timers and the new-timers over the notion that these young, smart things would just come in and know it all. I think on a one-to-one basis, a lot of that goes away, and some of the TFA recruits I knew were able to overcome some of those natural resentments. But I would imagine that there is quite a bit of resentment throughout the profession from people who have gone to schools of education for two years and trained traditionally, who then see these young kids come in after five weeks as teachers of record.
What are the four TFA corps members you followed up to now?
Hrag is in the middle of his fellowship with Building Excellent Schools, which he describes as "TFA on steroids," but he'll be opening his own charter school in Los Angeles hopefully in September 2009. So Hrag is a perfect example of a guy who had no intention whatsoever of staying in education and is now in it for the foreseeable future. Taylor is working at a charter school as an English teacher, and Phillip has moved to a brand-new LA Unified campus where he's teaching math and being mentored by the school principal. He has now decided that he wants to one day run his own school. Rachelle still teaches at Locke, where she's the junior varsity girls' soccer coach and is saying that she wants to remain in education, but she is going to leave Locke because it has become too dangerous and too chaotic.
What is the single most important thing you will take away from your experience?
I think it would be not to dismiss these children or relegate them to the ghetto. If you teach them, they will learn. They have something to offer, and we have an obligation to give it to them. This is a national disgrace—we should be ashamed that 20 minutes from my comfortable home, there are children that have no future.