Q: “Relentless pursuit” is the first of Teach for America (TFA)’s five core values. Why did you choose to name the book after this? A: The phrase seems to sum up the organization’s approach to its mission—and that of the corps members it selects. The relentlessness starts with founder Wendy Kopp, who has persevered against all odds to transform what was basically a garage start-up into one of the premiere social entrepreneurships of our day.
Q: You follow the first year teaching experiences of four new TFA Corps Members (CMs). How did you pick those particular teachers? A: First, I picked the school. I chose Locke High School because I knew it was home to the largest cluster of TFA teachers in Los Angeles, and it also happened to be one of the school sites for TFA’s five week “Boot Camp”—which meant I would be able to follow a group of recruits there from training through teaching.
Aside from wanting all the corps members (CMs) to be working at the same school, I was looking for a group of teachers who would be representative of the TFA corps as a whole. There were some 15 TFA recruits hired to teach at Locke High School for the 2005-06 school year. Among that cohort, I was looking for ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity. I also wanted both male and female candidates, and I wanted them to be teaching in different content areas. What I did not, and could not know, was how each would fare as the year unfolded. In that respect, Taylor, Hrag, Rachelle, and Phillip were random picks.
Q: Where did your initial interest in TFA come from and how were you introduced to Locke? A: I was working at Newsweek in 1990 when TFA first began. I remember reading a few pieces about this young Princeton grad called Wendy Kopp who was trying to change the world by starting a teacher corps. I was intrigued. I clipped the stories and eventually filed them away. Though I kept an eye on TFAover the years (and two of my nieces ended up joining TFA) I never found a strong enough peg to hang a story on. That changed in 2005, when I read a press release that reported that 17,000 people had applied to TFA, and among them were 12 percent of the graduating class at Yale. The Yale statistic struck me as extraordinary. I wanted to know more. Why would so many grads from elite schools like Yale, with presumably many better paying offers, give up two years of their upwardly mobile lives to teach in low performing schools across the country?
At around the same time, a good friend who was new to teaching got a job at Locke High School. Her war stories were gripping; she invited me to come to her classroom to help out and see for myself. My visit was a revelation. Most of the kids in her 9th grade English class couldn’t read. And it wasn’t just that they were stumbling over words. They literally could not read. The day I observed, her students were sounding out words like C-A-T! When she mentioned that TFA held its summer training institute at Locke, everything suddenly clicked. I decided I would tell the story of how we educate our poorest students through the eyes and experiences of our most privileged.
Q: When you approached TFA about this book, how did they respond? A: Once I explained the nature and the scope of the project— that I wanted to take an in-depth, serious look at the TFA experience and the yawning achievement gap it aims to close, through the un-jaundiced eyes of a group of first year teachers—Teach For America was open to the idea. In fact, TFA was very cooperative. I received unprecedented access.
Q: What were the logistics of your reporting? Did you attend the TFA “boot camp” and observe during the academic year? A: Yes, I attended TFA’s five week summer training institute known as “boot camp”—though mercifully was spared the lesson planning and student teaching required of recruits. Throughout “boot camp”, I focused in on those recruits who would be staying on at the Locke campus for the school year beginning in September. I attended their training sessions and observed each one at work in the classroom. It wasn’t until the first weeks of school that I had narrowed the fifteen down to the four who bravely agreed to participate in the project. Once that happened, I set up a schedule of classroom observations. I randomly picked one period per teacher and stuck with that class throughout the year. I ended up attending Taylor’s 2nd period, Phillip’s 3rd, Rachelle’s 4th and Hrag’s 5th. In addition to the classroom observations, I met with each teacher individually for lengthy debriefings every week or so. The reporting in the book comes directly from those meetings and from my classroom observations.
Q How did the students respond to your presence? A: The students at Locke were enormously respectful of me. After a while, I don’t think they even noticed me. Rachelle’s kids called me Miss Donna.
Q: You point out in a few places that TFA has some characteristics of a cult, and at one point call it messianic. A: By messianic I mean fervent or passionate, and both those words are apt. The reference to a cult comes from corps members past and present. As I describe in the book, there is a kind of postcollege, skull-and-bones feel to the organization—a many-are-called-few-are-chosen sensibility. TFA itself is aware that it has been likened to a cult.
Q: What do you think we can learn from Teach For America as an institution? A: Teach For America offers many lessons—about the power of an idea, about a new generation of civic activists, about social entrepreneurship in the 21st century, about the crisis in American innercity education and the urgent need for reform.
Q.: TFA is one of the hottest post-graduate destinations around. Why? A: One of the main explanations for its appeal is that it taps into two different, but not necessarily competing, impulses among America’s young educated elite: a sense of idealism and the idea of exclusivity.
The exclusivity piece is huge among top college graduates, many of whom have been competing for admission spots since they were enrolled in pre-school. Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, once said that she wanted acceptance to TFAto be as prestigious as winning a Rhodes Scholarship. Today, on many college campuses, it practically is. Over 100,000 candidates have applied to TFA in the last eight years—approximately one in ten have been chosen. It seems the more selective the process, the more attractive the program has become. Youthful idealism plays a part in TFA’s success, too. Though the children of the sixties generation don’t take to the streets like their parents once did, they are no less passionate about changing the world. Kopp has declared the goal of leveling the academic playing field between the country’s lowest performing students and their more advantaged peers to be the civil rights issue of her generation. That has appeal to the so-called Millennials, 62% of whom regularly volunteered during college, according to Harvard’s annual youth survey. Another key attraction to joining TFA is the set of partnerships it has created with top postcollege destinations that enable recruits to defer their professional careers or graduate work until after their two-year commitment is complete. Because the organization is recognized for having developed a crack selection process, a stint with TFA looks good on a resume. Far from side tracking candidates, TFA can actually help set them up for future success.
So, for recent college graduates, joining an exclusive organization that offers the enterprising tremendous responsibility along with the chance to make an immediate impact—without foreclosing on other career choices down the road—sounds like a great opportunity.
Q: Teach For America is going to be 20 years old in 2010. Has it closed the achievement gap? A: No, a huge nationwide gap still exists, having narrowed only slightly in the last four years. But it is worth nothing that TFA supplies only a tiny fraction of the teachers in the U.S. public school system. In 2006, there were 4 million K-12 public school teachers nationwide; 4,400 or just .001% of them were Teach For America recruits. TFA reckons its teachers were impacting the lives of 440,000 children that year; there are an estimated 13-14 million children living in poverty in this country.
At Locke the effects of the gap are particularly pronounced. According to a UCLA analysis, in 2005, approximately 240 seniors graduated out of a class that started ninth grade almost 1,000 strong. That number shocked me, but the statistic that propelled my reporting and writing is this: when those 240 seniors graduated in June of 2005, UCLA reports that only about 30 were eligible to attend a California State University. Think about it: Thirty students out of 1,000 who entered in 2001 left Locke eligible for college four years later! If that number isn’t enough reason for reform, I don’t know what else could be. What happened to the rest of the original Locke Class of 2005? Where are they today? Almost certainly, an appallingly high percentage of those kids are dead or are in prison. Very few were given the tools to become productive members of society.
Q What has TFA accomplished? A: Teach For America may not have narrowed the gap, but it has certainly brought attention to the issue and underscored the need to bring new and improved talent into our low-performing schools. TFA recognized from the start that sending a few thousand recruits into our neediest classrooms was not on its own going to get the job done. Though it had no doubt that TFAers could have immediate impact on their students, the achievement gap could not be closed without reforms to the entire system. So it developed a two-pronged theory of change. In the short term, individual CMs would effect catalytic change in the classroom; longer term, it reckoned, the CMs who had been carefully culled for leadership qualities would be so transformed by their teaching experience that they would lead systemic change from the positions of power they assumed post-TFA. Though TFAbelieves it has the data to show its CMs are improving student achievement, the jury has been out on whether or not TFAalums will turn out to be systemic reformers beyond the classroom walls. Now that the early corps members are beginning to enter their forties, TFA hopes its theory will begin to bear fruit. There are some promising signs. For one thing, TFA has seeded many of the top reforming philanthropies and educational non-profits with former recruits. In 2006, TFA counted 191 school leaders and five elected officials among its alum. And last year, former TFAer Michelle Rhee was named DC schools chancellor. By 2010, TFAaims to have 800 alums as school leaders. Ultimately, the measure of TFA’s efficacy will be in what its alumni end up doing to help reform the system.
Q In the past the education establishment has sparred with TFA over its approach to teacher training and the actual efficacy of the program. Give us an update. A: Some well-respected educators in the education establishment believe TFAhas the wrong end of the stick. Sending young teachers into our country’s most difficult schools with a scant five weeks of training hardly seems like the way to close the achievement gap. What’s more, they argue, money donated to TFAcould be better spent on teachers who intend to make education a career. TFA’s position is that the enormity of the problem requires out-of-the-box solutions. It has been in the vanguard in its use of data to track student achievement—and teacher quality. It has identified discrete teacher traits it belives are key to success in the classroom, and, perhaps most importantly, it has a proven track record of attracting top talent to tackle the issues facing education today. In fact, the gap between TFA and the education establishment is not as wide as one would think. Both sides agree that the single most reliable predictor of student achievement is the quality of the teacher. And there is little argument over the urgent need to recruit, train, develop, and retain high quality teachers if student achievement is to take place. The argument is over how to create a top class human capital system for our lowest performing schools.
Q: This is an election year. Philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates have pledged to spend up to $60 million on a campaign they are calling “Ed in’ 08” to put the issue of education reform front and center on the political agenda. What hope for reform? A: So far, “Ed in ’08” doesn’t seem to have much traction. Americans consistently cite the war in Iraq and the faltering economy as the two issues that most concern them; education remains a mid-to-low priority. In California, 2008 was declared the “year of education,” but with a $14.5 billion deficit and $4.8 billion in proposed cuts to California’s public schools announced by Governor Schwarzenegger in January, that is clearly a non-starter.
Q: Do you have any updates on Rachelle, Hrag, Taylor, and Phillip? A: They are an amazing group. TFA is criticized for its low long-term retention rate, and the joke is that TFA stands for Teach For Awhile. The truth is, not many candidates who join intend to remain in education after their stint is up. Certainly, among the four I profiled, only Phillip expected to make teaching his career. The rest were determined to leave the classroom as soon as they had fulfilled their obligation. But as it turns out, all four are in education for the foreseeable future. (In fact, of the thirteen CMs who completed their two- year commitment at Locke in June 2007, all but one are still teaching.)
Phillip has gone on to work in a newly opened LAUSD high school; Taylor teaches at a new Green Dot charter school near Locke. Hrag won a very prestigious fellowship called “Building Excellent Schools” and hopes to open his own charter school in Los Angeles in September 2009. Rachelle still teaches at Locke where she remains JV girls soccer coach and has taken up a leadership position within the Special Ed department. But she says this will be her last year there: the school has become too dangerous.
Q: Of all the experiences you observed at Locke, which one was most meaningful for you and why? A: I’m not sure I could pick just one experience. In many ways, it was the cumulative effect of living and working in a school like Locke for an entire school year that ultimately was the most meaningful experience to me. Certainly, there were “moments” that stand out. Phillip’s end of the year classroom “square” touched me; Taylor’s “big goals” speech was a marker; Hrag’s mind-blowing labs were mind-blowing; Rachelle’s field trip to Catalina was unforgettable. I am still moved to tears when I think of the farewell campfire there.
Q: What impact do you think and/or hope RELENTLESS PURSUIT will have on TFA? A: I didn’t write the book intending to have any impact or influence on TFA. I wrote the book hoping the narrative would be compelling enough to lead the public—and policy makers—to appreciate the urgency of the crisis facing public education today, and to critically examine the problems and solutions raised by reformers like Teach For America.