Hot for Teachers

This book review originally appeared in The New York Post

Commentary | April 28, 2008
Related Issue(s): Teacher Quality

"You are quite evidently deranged," Wendy Kopp's senior thesis advisor responded after she described her idea for a "Peace Corps for education" that would place new university graduates in American schools.

She may have been mad, but the idea worked: Launched in 1990, Teach For America has helped not only the quality of education in this country, it's made teaching cool for thousands of college students.

By 2005, "Teach For America was the postgraduate program of choice for the elite of America's top universities" reports Donna Foote in her new chronicle "Relentless Pursuit." This change isn't insignificant. As she notes, "High-achieving college students…viewed teaching as a downwardly mobile career. Those who didn't go directly to graduate school after graduation tended to head for investment banks or marketing firms. To most, becoming a school teacher was unthinkable."

Just last year, more than 10 percent of the senior classes at Amherst, the University of Chicago and Spelman applied to participate. In 18 years, Teach For America has placed more than 17,000 teachers in schools around the country and more than six in ten participants continue to work in education in various roles after their two years are up; many continue teaching or can be found in leadership positions throughout education.

School reform is that simple. And equally hard.

Foote spent a year with four teachers in Los Angeles' troubled Locke High School. The result is a vivid parallel account of the challenges these new teachers face and the challenges of building a movement for change within education.

In Foote's narrative, Rachelle Snyder matures from a teacher who loses control of her class and has a student urinate publicly to an effective special education teacher who can navigate the broken special education system and help students. Hrag Hamalian's exhausted frustration is tangible as he deals with the fallout of a disorganized field trip that ends with a fight and Hrag himself getting punched. Today, however, Hamalian is on the way to opening his own school. These teachers struggle, but their tenacity speaks at once to the scale of the urban education challenge and also the very real possibilities of how we can do much better for students than we do today.

The experience changes the teachers as well. While chaperoning the high school prom, Taylor Rifkin runs into some college classmates at the hotel. "When they asked Taylor why she was at the Biltmore," Foote writes, "she told them she was a teacher and that she was chaperoning the Locke prom. They were drunk and they didn't get it; they couldn't understand what Taylor was doing with these black kids dressed up like Lil' Bow Wow. If Taylor needed any reminding of how happy she was to be teaching at Locke, she got it then."

Foote had the good fortune to set her story at Locke, which has become a touchstone in the school reform debate. Last year teachers there rebelled against their union and the school district and the school ended up being turned over to the non-profit charter school network Green Dot Public Schools. Though not formally affiliated, Green Dot is part of the same quasi-entrepreneurial and public spirited education reform movement as Teach For America.

Not surprisingly, a lot of resistance greeted Teach For America from an education school establishment, as well as those who felt that the idea itself did violence to efforts to make teaching into a true "profession" akin to law or medicine. Kopp was turning the traditional training approach on its head by favoring selectivity over training when it came to hiring teachers.

Now Kopp is winning that debate. Schools and school districts clamor to use Teach For America and studies have found that the program's volunteers are as effective or more effective than veteran educators.

Kopp already enjoys rock star status among education reformers, philanthropists and the civic elite; this could be the book that moves Teach For America firmly into the broader national consciousness.