Reviewed by Jay Mathews
Sunday, June 15, 2008
A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America
By Donna Foote
Knopf. 338 pp. $24.95
Marvin Bressler, chair of the Princeton University sociology department, was intrigued by Wendy Kopp, a slender undergraduate from Dallas who came to see him in 1988. She had fire-breathing self-confidence. He dismissed her proposed senior thesis on creating a national teaching corps as "quite evidently deranged," but she wrote it anyway. Like everyone else, Bressler succumbed to her iron will, gave her an A and helped her turn the idea into reality.
In this richly detailed, sometimes hopeful, sometimes depressing account, Donna Foote, a California freelance journalist and former Newsweek correspondent, reveals what has happened to Kopp's brainchild. We learn why Teach For America has become so popular with top college graduates and why it has done so little to lift the apathy and mindlessness that infest urban schools.
Foote follows four TFA corps members through the 2005-06 school year at Locke High School in Los Angeles as they fight to get their students' attention and meet what they sometimes consider their program's overbearing expectations. Their stories confirm the cleverness of Kopp's decision not to let just anybody sign up for the two-year stints teaching low-income children. From its beginning in 1990, Teach For America recruited at the most selective colleges and rejected most students who applied. Foote's four heroes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Connecticut College, Boston College and the University of Southern California. The fact that they were among just 2,100 selected from 17,300 applicants made the opportunity irresistible to them, at least until they realized how much pain and frustration they were going to encounter at the South Central school.
Named after Harvard's first African American Rhodes scholar when it opened in 1967 as a symbol of hope after the Watts riots, Locke had deteriorated and was by 2005 a mostly Hispanic campus with street-gang influences. It had the second-lowest test scores in the city. Only 24 percent of incoming freshmen graduated four years later, and only 3 percent completed requirements for state university admission. It had seen the usual succession of principals and teachers charge into the school eager to make a difference but then limp away in defeat.
TFA recruits, Foote reveals, are better trained now than in the program's first few years, but they still have only a summer to prepare, and they usually find the first few weeks in a radically new environment almost intolerable. Critics of the program, cited often in the book, note that many corps members leave teaching after their two years are up, and 13 percent quit before that. Like most inner-city teachers, they have no solution for the many students who don't listen, don't try and in many cases don't come to class. Foote portrays the teachers here vividly, showing how their frustrations sometimes boil over, such as when a student urinates in the classroom or when TFA monitors drop by for visits that seem more annoying than instructive.
But by the end of book, the four teachers at Locke have begun to validate Kopp's vision. They are better teachers and are thinking of staying in education or at least finding ways to help schools like Locke. Foote argues that even the first-year corps members, clumsy and frightened as they are, devote more energy and enthusiasm to their students than the weary, long-term substitutes that principals would have had to hire if TFA did not exist.
The fact remains that these young teachers are considered temporary and their ideas rarely gain traction. In a disheartening scene, some activist teachers, with support from the four TFA newcomers, propose a longer school day, one of the few inner-city school reforms that has worked in recent years. What they get in response is an outburst of resentment. "I don't think you need to bring up how hard you work and how much you care," says one school veteran just before the plan is rejected by a 72-36 faculty vote. "Most of you aren't gonna be here."
After a bitter political fight among its teachers, the teachers' union and the Los Angeles school administration, Locke High is about to be taken over by the Green Dot charter school organization and broken into smaller schools. I hope Foote, having devoted so much time to this school, can be persuaded to delve into what happens next. Her book is the most interesting account of inner-city high school life in many years and only whets my appetite for more. ·
Jay Mathews is an education reporter for The Washington Post. His next book, "Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created America's Best Schools," comes out in January.