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A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America

Written by Donna FooteAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Donna Foote

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On Sale: April 15, 2008
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26939-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When Locke High School opened its doors in 1967, the residents of Watts celebrated it as a sign of the changes promised by Los Angeles. But four decades later, first-year Teach for America recruits Rachelle, Phillip, Hrag, and Taylor are greeted by a school that looks more like a prison, with bars, padlocks, and chains all over.

With little training and experience, these four will be asked to produce academic gains in students who are among the most disadvantaged in the country. Relentless Pursuit lays bare the experiences of these four teachers to evaluate the strengths and peculiarities of Teach for America and a social reality that has become inescapable.

Excerpt

Lockdown


When the lights went off in room 241 during her fourth-period special ed biology class, Rachelle didn’t think anything of it. The bells seemed to ring constantly at Locke High School. Why should she expect the lights to work?

This Monday was the first day of the first full week of the first year of the first job of her professional life. Never mind that she had had only five weeks of training. Over the summer, Rachelle Snyder, psychology major and former captain of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team, had become Miss Snyder—or sometimes just Miss—special education teacher at Locke High School in Watts. The transition had been surprisingly easy to make. Except for the fifteen pounds she gained, Teach For America’s “institute,” aka boot camp, didn’t bother her. It was like soccer training: she woke up early, worked hard, got the job done. She was exhausted—they all were. But during breaks, when other teachers-in-training were having panic attacks, Rachelle would catnap on the concrete benches that line the walkway along Locke’s inner quad, her long blond hair bunched up beneath her head like a pillow, trousers rolled up, her pale skin bathed in the harsh white light of the L.A. sun.

The day had started well. She’d gotten to school early, reviewed her lesson plan, and made sure that the desks were still arranged in clusters of four, exactly the way she’d left them on Friday. The morning had flown by. The kids in the early periods were attentive, eager to please. She particularly liked her girl-heavy third period. Three fourteen-year-olds had children of their own at home, and a fourth was pregnant. She found that out after she had the kids make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a way to introduce the idea of steps and procedures in science. “You think I don’t know how to make peanut butter sandwiches?” retorted one girl. “I got a baby at home and he always be screamin’ for them.”

Maybe it was Rachelle’s blond hair and light blue eyes—the girls seemed drawn to her. Some even brought their friends to the classroom to get a look. “See!” they squealed. “She looks just like a Barbie doll!” Rachelle couldn’t access their computerized Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), the government-mandated plans of instruction and services specially tailored to meet the specific needs of each student with a diagnosed learning disability. So she had no way of knowing how these smart, streetwise girls had come to be sitting there, hanging on her every word.

She had a pretty good idea how the twenty boys in her fourth-period class got there. They were in special ed because their behavior interfered with their ability to learn. It was certainly interfering with her ability to teach. These boys were rude, crude, and disrespectful. She didn’t think it had anything to do with her gender, her race, or her youth. She was reasonably certain that they behaved badly with every authority figure.

It was only five days into the school year, and she felt she was already losing control of period four. She had been wrestling with how to handle all her special ed kids, but these boys were especially troubling. Her instinct was to try to win them over with kindness. They’d probably had enough tough single women in their lives. She wanted to show them something else. Do I continue to be nice? If I do, will they break me? As the boys straggled in, shorts hanging low on their hips, T-shirts on inside out, some with do-rags hugging their heads, she’d felt tense.

She worried about two of her African American students—cousins Martel and Deangelo—who’d almost gotten jumped on their way to school the Friday before. The boys had come into class that day subdued, scared to leave the building unless she walked them out. What would they be like today?

Then there was Raúl. Last week she’d handed out a survey asking generic questions about the kids’ goals and attitudes toward school. Raúl's response stopped her cold. He said he hated teachers and liked to “kill.” He drew a picture of a building with a boy on top firing a rifle. The bubble said “Die Fucker.” There were stick figures on the ground running away from the words “Kill, Kill, Kill.” Rachelle grabbed the seating chart and was surprised to find that the artist was a quiet little Latino kid, one of the few boys in class who didn’t cause trouble. He kept his head down and his eyes averted. She didn’t think he was looking for attention with his threatening handiwork; she thought he was an emotionally disturbed boy who needed help. She alerted the principal, Dr. Frank Wells, immediately. He seemed on top of things, but Raúl was one of some 3,100 kids in his charge. Will Raúl be in class today? Will he have killing on his mind?

Five, ten minutes had passed before everyone was seated. The day’s lesson was about the scientific method. The kids were going to test the manufacturer’s claim that the fertilizer Miracle-Gro was guaranteed to produce especially hardy plants. Each group of four was given seeds, a pot of soil, and a bucket of water. Only half the class had shown up, but Rachelle was actually relieved. The fewer there were, the more easily she could maintain control. After explaining the project, she’d moved from group to group—praising those busy at work, gently scolding those who were fooling around. The room hummed with the sound of the kids’ voices as they prepared their pots. Rachelle began to relax.

Then the lights went off. At first it didn’t seem like cause for alarm, but within minutes Rachelle could hear the sound of kids running up and down the stairwell and along the hallway outside her room. Her students heard the commotion, too. Suddenly, the vibe in the classroom changed. The kids were uneasy, distracted. The air felt charged, the room dangerous.

Rachelle peeked out the door. Students were literally running wild, shouting and jumping one another in the darkness. Graffiti artists had whipped out their markers and were signing the walls with gleeful abandon. The security guard who usually sat within ten feet of Rachelle’s room was missing. She slammed the door shut.

“You are not leaving,” she said to her students, her voice rising in fear. “Sit down. Let’s get back to work.”

But the kids were unsettled. Some were at the door, clamoring to get out. Others circled the desks, itching for trouble. When told to sit, they refused. When ordered to continue working, they said the experiment sucked. Rachelle tried to keep teaching. As she bent over to inspect one kid’s pot, her T-shirt inched up her back, revealing a patch of bare white flesh above her hip-huggers. Dante, a tall, skinny black boy, made a farting noise. The classroom erupted in laughter. Encouraged, he announced in a high-pitched voice that he had to pee. Rachelle told him he was forbidden to leave the classroom.

Dante insisted that if he was not allowed to leave, he would pee in the classroom. As he began to lower his pants, the kids taunted him: “It’s so small! Your dick is so small!” They dared him to make good on his threat. “She wants you! She wants to see you! Do it, do it! You want to do it!” they chanted.

He did it. Dante urinated in a water bucket right in the middle of Miss Snyder’s class. At her wit’s end, Rachelle ordered the entire class out of the room: “You guys need to leave. NOW! Dante, you need to stay.”

“I want to transfer out of this class,” said one boy as he left the room. “It sucks.”

“What about me?” pleaded Dante. “Can I get out of here?”



Things were different on the third floor. In room 301 there were only ten minutes left of Phillip Gedeon’s geometry lesson when the screen for the LCD projector went blank. The classroom lights were already off; the new teacher assumed he had blown a fuse by running his Apple laptop and the school projector simultaneously. He wrapped up his lesson and gave his students their homework. As the kids prepared to leave, the sound of their chatter rose to a low rumble. Phillip stood stock-still, a finger raised to his lips.

“There is NO TALKING in this class,” he said. “There needs to be silence. You need to be quiet. I’ll wait.” A stopwatch hung on a red cord around his neck. His new white shirt was still crisp, and the crease in his black trousers would have passed military muster. The noise stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

After less than a week on the job, Phillip was earning a reputation as one of the best of Locke’s Teach For America recruits. During institute, TFA’s summer training session, observers had streamed into Gedeon’s summer school classroom. “Impressive,” “very strong,” and even “revolutionary” were the words used in his assessments. He had graduated weeks before from Connecticut College with a dual degree in mathematics and race relations. He had also taken education courses and ended his senior year by student teaching, so he was ahead of the pack when he entered Teach For America.

He had been nervous about starting his teaching career at Locke, but his nervousness came from concerns about working conditions at the troubled high school—not from doubts about his ability as a teacher. He wondered about the history of violence there, about the issue of crowding, about the teachers, about edgy race relations between the black and Latino students. But every time those thoughts seemed to take over, he reminded himself of the larger truth. I have these kids for 170 days. There’s a lot to accomplish. This is make-or-break time.

From the beginning, his priority had been to establish order; once he had absolute authority over his students, he would teach. So he had spent much of the first few days of the school year laying out his expectations for student behavior and academic achievement. He was very direct. He listed his “nonnegotiables.” Students could not speak without raising their hands. Students could not leave their seats without permission. Pencils were to be sharpened before class began. His rules were effective immediately. On the second day of school, students who came late to class were disciplined. Those slow to comply with Phillip’s directions were told to leave the room. It was working. Just five days into the school year, Phillip seemed to have total control over the forty teenagers crammed into room 301.

Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, as the only child of a single black mother, Phillip had dreamed of being a teacher. Long before he had ever heard of Teach For America, he knew that education was the only way out for his people. The approach Teach For America promulgated was the same one that had worked for him as a child of the underclass; teachers had to set the bar high and then invest students with the tools and mind-set to reach it. TFA had been labeled messianic by some: recruits worked long hours, were expected to lead disciplined lives governed by a set of values that included humility and respect, and believed passionately in their mission. Phillip was a true disciple. He considered it a privilege to be a member.

Only days into his life’s work, Phillip felt almost giddy. Things were going well. There was no place he would rather be than at Locke High School. His fears about racial tensions on campus had so far not been realized. And though he had been warned that Locke students could present discipline problems—especially in a school so steeped in the macho culture of the gangs—he hadn’t encountered anything he couldn’t handle.

Phillip concluded the fourth-period class in his usual way. The bell hadn’t rung, but he took no notice. He didn’t run his classroom on the bell system. He kept his students until the lesson was finished and all was quiet. If kids were late for their next class, it was no concern of his. Satisfied that everything was in order, he announced: “Class is dismissed. Have a nice day.”

With that, Phillip swung open the door. All was quiet. Except for the eerie glow cast by emergency lights, the hallway was pitch-black. The kids hesitated. Phillip did not. He told them to proceed to their next class. The children ventured out into the darkness.


From the Hardcover edition.
Donna Foote|Author Q&A

About Donna Foote

Donna Foote - Relentless Pursuit
Donna Foote is a freelance journalist and former Newsweek correspondent. She lives in Manhattan Beach, California with her husband and fourteen-year-
old son.

Author Q&A

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.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Richly detailed. . . . Her book is the most interesting account of inner-city high school life in many years and only whets my appetite for more. —The Washington Post Book World“A vivid parallel account of the challenges these new teachers face and the challenges of building a movement for change within education. . . . This could be the book that moves Teach for America firmly into the broader national consciousness.” —New York Post “Here is skilled, attentive documentary work become an instrument for the reader’s moral and social reflection — educational idealism, its achievements and its tribulations as they envelop the lives of schoolchildren, and their longtime teachers, their newly arrived ones: the effort to ‘teach for America’ become a social, psychological lesson all its own.”—Robert Coles, author of Children of Crisis “This important book is also a gripping read. From the first page, when Locke High School is locked down, Foote's compelling and inspiring characters draw us into the dizzying challenge of trying save the next generation and redeem the promise of America. Relentless Pursuit is not just for anyone who cares about poor kids and education. It's for anyone who cares about the future of the country."—Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope"This book beautifully conveys the spirit, dedication and heroism of Teach For America and shows why it is such a valuable experience both for its corps members and their students."—Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life“I will put this simply — this is one of the most profound books I have ever read. Donna Foote’s Relentless Pursuit will make you cringe. It will make you cry. It will make you cheer. Most important, it gives proof that education, under conditions that should make every American ashamed, can work with a beauty beyond all imagination. Just magnificent and inspiring.”—Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City“Foote’s account couldn’t be better-timed. Her inside view of TFA’s self-reinvention…demonstrates what relentless reflection on, and revision of, a mission and its methods can accomplish. The lessons on display are especially important for an era in which a ruthless focus on student outcomes risks overlooking a key ingredient of that enterprise: inputs for teachers, who need all the help they can get as they face an educational culture of new pressures and expectations, along with age-old challenges….Foote’s fine-grained account of Locke supplies the larger context and a corrective.”—Sara Mosle, Slate

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