Wendy Kopp is co-founder and chief executive of Teach for All and founder and chairman of Teach for America.
In the spring of 1989, I turned in my undergraduate thesis proposing a national teacher corps, and my adviser pronounced the idea “obviously deranged.” He eventually became one of our greatest advocates, but he was hardly the last person to question what we were doing.
In the 25 years since, Teach for America has enlisted more than 47,000 individuals to commit two years to teaching in some of America’s neediest schools. Long after they finish their commitment, 86 percent of Teach for America alumni still work full time in education or professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities. About 11,000 alumni are teachers; more than 800 are school leaders. Alumni have started and work in education nonprofits and help shape policy in districts and state education departments. Teach for America has helped inspire similar organizations in 34 countries, which now make up a global network called Teach for All.
As we have grown, so has the criticism. Some of it includes valuable feedback from our teachers, alumni and partners. Alongside many others, Teach for America is tackling the complex problem of educational inequity — an enormous challenge that has required huge leaps of learning. We are constantly working to get better.
But some of the criticism is based on misrepresentation and toxic rhetoric. Critics say, for example, that Teach for America “endangers students’ education.” Some characterize our teachers with phrases such as “Ivy League short-term student saviour” and allege that we are “an experiment in ‘resume-padding’ for ambitious young people.” One organization mounted a social media campaign to discourage students from applying.
It is crucial that we have an honest, open-minded conversation about what it will take to improve educational — and ultimately life — outcomes for kids. But a very different kind of conversation is playing out. As this country debates everything from raising standards for students to teacher tenure, Teach for America is often condemned without consideration of the facts.
One of the most serious criticisms we get is that Teach for America teachers are not helping kids learn. We recognized from the beginning that there are significant skills, knowledge and mind-sets essential to effective teaching. Over the years, we’ve built an intensive program of pre-service and ongoing professional development with more than 700 staff members devoted to supporting our teachers. A rigorous study of secondary math teachers, published last year by Mathematica Policy Research, found that Teach for America members moved their students forward an extra 2.6 months during one school year. In the three states (Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee) that rank teacher preparation programs based on the impact their graduates have on achievement, Teach for America comes in at or near the top.
But there is always room to improve — and we’re working hard to support our teachers to provide students with the world-class educations they will need to fulfill their true potential. Most recently, in March, our co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard launched two pilot programs: one to provide a year of upfront training for recruits, and the other to extend our professional development to teachers who remain in the classroom for a third, fourth and fifth year.
Another frequent criticism we face is that Teach for America isn’t diverse enough. We agree — teachers who share the economic or racial background of their students can approach their work with deep understanding and show students what is possible through their own examples. We’ve worked hard at this and this year, 50 percent of our incoming teachers are people of color, while 47 percent are from low-income backgrounds. This is far more diverse than the field of teachers overall.
Critics also allege that our members care less about education than about their own careers on the way to becoming corporate executives. Yet 64 percent of alumni now work full time in education and another 22 percent work in jobs that relate to improving education or quality of life in low-income communities.
In the communities where we’ve been providing teachers for 15 years or more, the impact of Teach for America is clear. Twelve years ago, D.C. students were scoring at the bottom compared with their peers in other large cities. Today, although there is still much to be done, schools in the nation’s capital are improving faster than any other urban district’s. This change is the result of the efforts of many people, but without Teach for America alumni, we’d lose much of the energy behind it. We’d lose schools chancellor Kaya Henderson and much of her cabinet, the mayor’s deputy for education, the state superintendent, the past four “Teachers of the Year,” the managers of the school principals, 20 percent of principals, hundreds of teachers and the leaders of many nonprofits working to support schools and students.
Would the United States really be better off if thousands of outstanding and committed people did not apply to Teach for America? We should be cheering those who devote their energy to working alongside others to meet the extra needs of our most marginalized kids. Not all of them will be teachers forever. But teachers can’t solve this problem alone. We also need those who choose careers in education administration, policy, public health, law and business, who will carry with them the conviction and firsthand experience to lead change from outside the classroom.
This country is failing our kids, and the conversation we’re having is not helping. It’s not elevating the teaching profession. It isn’t changing kids’ lives or giving them the best chance to fulfill their potential. It’s undermining trust in the efforts of so many to improve education, and driving away what we need most: The energy and attention of every person willing to work for our children.
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