20 Years On, The Influence Of Teach For America Is A Mixed Bag

BLOGGER'S NOTE: In concurrence with the launch of my book, The Influence of Teachers, I'll be using this space -- and my primary blog, Taking Note -- as a place to discuss some central ideas explored in the book. All proceeds from the book, available on Amazon for $14.95, are being donated to Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) organization committed to independent coverage of education. I invite you to join in the conversation by commenting on these posts or reviewing the book online! Learn more about the book at www.theinfluenceofteachers.com.

By all reports, Teach for America's 20th Anniversary Celebration in Washington last weekend was a star-studded event -- as well it should have been given TFA's growing importance.

What began as a Princeton student's senior thesis has become the proverbial 900-pound gorilla in education, a leader and a lightning rod.

I've been part of what I believe has been balanced coverage of Teach for America, on the NewsHour, in a web-based series, and in my new book; that is, I'm not in either of the two large camps -- those who love TFA and those who detest/fear/suspect it. The middle can be lonely, by the way.

Quick story here: We followed seven Teach for America corps members in New Orleans for an entire year, part of our NewsHour coverage. We were being opportunistic: that is, we knew that only two or three of the teachers would make a NewsHour piece but we imagined that we could also get a pretty darn good documentary out of it. By year's end, we had some terrific material, and at that point I began looking for money. I went to a number of foundations and individuals who have an interest in teacher education generally or in TFA specifically and made my pitch: seven profiles, lots of good video of the nitty-gritty of the life of a first- or second-year teacher.

Fundraising is tough sledding under normal circumstances, but this was downright depressing. In every instance, I was asked a bottom line question, essentially "Is it all positive?" or "Is it all negative?"

Well, duh, of course it wasn't. We had captured reality, and reality is full of small victories and defeats. A couple of the TFA teachers were splendid, seemingly born to teach. Two were flops. One got a raw deal from his principal and never hit his stride. It was life, but no potential funders were interested in that story.

We ended up creating seven profiles and putting them on our web site, where you can see them for yourself and make your own judgments.

It's a shame that the world of teacher training has become so political. There's no question that Wendy Kopp and Teach for America have changed the landscape and made a significant contribution. But let's not pretend that it's all good or all bad.

As I write in my book, "It may well be that Teach For America's greatest contribution to education will not be the kids who are helped or the talented young men and women who develop a connection with and affection for public education, but its relentless self-examination -- a process that quite simply puts the rest of teacher education to shame. If Teach For America can work hard to figure out why some of its trainees become better teachers than others, why can't regular schools of education?"