THIS WEEKEND, dozens of young men and women gathered to enthusiastically discuss the fascinating, life-changing experiences that they had when, as recent college graduates, they decided to forgo graduate school and the corporate track to spend two years teaching in difficult, low-income public schools. Sound implausible? It isn't -- or certainly no more so than Teach for America, the nonprofit, nongovernmental "teaching corps" that sent them out to those schools in the first place -- and which is celebrating its 15th birthday with a large alumni meeting in Washington.
In its early days, Teach for America -- the invention of Wendy Kopp, who thought up the idea while still a student herself -- attracted skepticism from the teaching profession, who thought its teachers, who mostly have not gone to traditional teaching colleges, would be too inexperienced to teach. According to Ms. Kopp, that is no longer the case: In one recent poll, two-thirds of principals said they thought Teach for America teachers are more effective than their other staff members, and the program's internal measures show a substantial number of its teachers push their classes to make a year and half's worth of progress in a year's time.
The program provides substantial train- ing, including education courses. But over time the secret to the teachers' success has not been what they've learned, but who they are: the top students from the best universities in the country, committed to a cause, hard-working, chosen through what has become an extremely competitive process. Last year, 17,000 students -- including 12 percent of the senior classes of both Yale University and Spelman College -- applied to the program. Only 3,600 were chosen.
Skeptics have asked also whether such students would stay in the teaching profession. Many do leave -- but substantial numbers continue to teach or stay involved in education in some other way. Twenty Teach for America alumni serve as principals or vice principals of public or public charter schools in the District, for example. One alumna served on the D.C. Board of Education. Ms. Kopp envisions a swelling army of Teach for America veterans, whether still teaching or not, who recognize the urgency of providing decent schools to all children and who work toward that end.
Not everything Teach for America does can be repeated in every school district. But the program does suggest that schools that foster public spirit and high ideals can also produce high achievement, and that it is possible to reach even the toughest children in the toughest schools. Over the next 15 years, we hope the program continues to attract political support at all levels -- local, state and federal.