Mind the Gap: In Defense of Teach for America


An inner-city schoolteacher defends Teach for America.

This is the first in a two-part series on the education reform organization, in which the author is a second-year corps member.

I'm generally very even-keeled, especially at school, but the other day a colleague of mine made me nearly blow my top.

She'd asked me what I planned to do next year, when I'll have fulfilled my two-year commitment to Teach for America and am free to opt out of my school. I said I wasn't sure yet, which prompted a rant about how "all TFA-ers leave the classroom after two years."

Then came the kicker.

"These people just take resources from schools. All TFA-ers should pay their schools back for the resources they take if they leave after two years." In effect, she was saying that our time in the classroom was devoid of value, that our temporary presence detracted from our schools.

I've been told before that if I leave after two years, I will have had no impact on my school. I’ve also been told TFA is counterproductive for the education reform movement. But after this latest comment, I'd had about enough.

Over the last two decades, Teach for America has brought thousands of motivated, intelligent, skilled young people into high-need classrooms around the country. In doing so, the organization and the movement it spawned has turned education reform into a cause celebre. Some corps members and the organizations they subsequently created have redefined what's possible in low-income communities. Even if corps members leave the classroom after two years, their country and their students are better off for their service.

First of all, Teach for America has amplified and advanced the national conversation on the educational achievement gap. On elite college campuses, students are researching educational inequity en masse in preparation for their interviews. When Wendy Kopp founded the organization 20 years ago based on her senior thesis at Princeton, she aimed to compete with the recruiting zeal of the big Wall Street firms, who were siphoning off a large percentage of top graduates. Despite that, TFA has successfully redirected the passions of some of this country's most promising students towards a more humanitarian, albeit in some cases temporary, aim. Need more evidence? Nearly 50,000 people applied for about 4,000 spots this year.

As a result, the media is agog over the program. Education reform is a hot topic, and low-achieving schools and the students they serve are getting the attention—from the Obama (and Bush) administration to the Gates Foundation to the people who read and comment on articles such as this—they desperately need.

Consider the impact TFA alums have had and are poised to have. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), YES Schools and Idea Schools are all high-achieving charter networks founded by TFA alumni. Former corps members head the Washington, D.C. school system as well as the New Teacher Project. Alums advise Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Harry Reid, and run over 10 percent of the public schools in Oakland, D.C. and other regions around the United States. Alum Steve Zimmer was recently elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board, which runs the second-largest school system in the country, and TFA's burgeoning Leadership for Educational Equity program is positioned to assist more corps members in running and winning elected office.

Too many people misunderstand TFA's approach to eliminating the achievement gap. The organization does not pretend its corps members' two years in the classroom will close the gap. Rather, TFA aims to have its alumni tackle the issue from many different points, starting with classroom teachers and school leadership and expanding out into law and policy, medicine and public health, media, advocacy, and other fields. By placing high-achieving young people in the classroom while also facilitating alumni's rise in myriad fields, TFA is simultaneously pursuing a bottom-up and top-down approach to achieve systematic reform of the public education system.

The byproduct of this approach is playing itself out all over the country, as some of our country’s most promising leaders throw themselves into one of our nation’s most-pressing issues—the dramatic racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. Consider the plight of a friend of mine, a former student body president who ran Obama's campaign in a major New Hampshire city. He had an array of opportunities open to him thereafter, yet he now spends his days wrestling with middle schoolers.

My friend is bound for a career in public service, and that career will now be rooted in the challenges he’s encountering today. As such, future generations of students like his will reap the rewards of his transformational experience and perhaps be able to say that they helped close the achievement gap.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.
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