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Teach for America rises to the challenge to ‘Make History’

On Teach for America’s 20th anniversary, its founder, Wendy Kopp, draws on the experiences of the organization’s 25,000 teachers and alumni in “A Chance to Make History” to illuminate what it will take to provide the education necessary to change America’s future.
/ Source: TODAY books

In low-income communities across the country, transformational teachers and leaders — and their hard-working students — are proving that America’s greatest injustice is a solvable problem. In “A Chance to Make History,” Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp explores what’s driving these inspiring success stories. Here’s an excerpt.

Chapter 6: Transformational teaching as the foundation for transformational change

When my son Benjamin was eight, he had to write a school paper. His assignment was to interview someone about a problem she had tackled, and Benjamin decided to interview me about the first year of Teach For America. I guess I had never told him about this, and he was getting excited to hear how it all began. He dutifully took notes. I finished the story and thought we were done. He seemed totally energized by the account. But then he said, “I have one more question.”

“I just don’t understand,” he said, “how if this is such a big problem — you know, kids not having the chance to have a good education — why would you ask people with no experience right out of college to solve it?”

Literally before I could think, I said, “Benjamin ...,” in what must have sounded like an exasperated voice.

He shot back, “Well, I have to ask because I have to write the paper!”

I had to laugh. I was struck by his question because it reminded me how counterintuitive this effort seems at first blush. Indeed, twenty years into this, it seems that I’m still spending just as much time as I did on day one trying to get people to understand what it is that we’re doing. And my eight-year-old had gone straight to the heart of the matter.

So I sat back down with Benjamin and tried to do my best to answer his question. I started by sharing my view that although it’s true that experience can be invaluable, there’s also a power in inexperience — that it can make a huge difference to channel the energy of young people, before they know what’s “impossible” and when they still have endless energy, against a problem that many have long since given up on. They can set and meet goals that seem impossible to others who know more about how the world works.

I think Benjamin got the idea that sometimes youthful idealism is exactly what we need to tackle our most entrenched social problems. But he declared himself done before I could try to explain how the experience of teaching successfully in our low-income communities is shaping future leaders in ways that will have significant long-term impacts on the injustice of educational inequity.


Todd Purvis, a principal of one of New Orleans’s high-performing schools, joined Teach For America’s New Orleans corps in 2003. Assigned to Langston Hughes Elementary in New Orleans, he taught in an overcrowded classroom that had only three walls. The fourth was a wall of bookshelves installed a foot off the ground and going five feet into the air. His smaller second and third graders found they could enter the classroom by sliding on the floor under the bookshelves from the hall. “When anyone came to visit, that was the highlight,” he recalled.

The overcrowding in Todd’s classroom had reached barely manageable levels because neighborhood schools were in turmoil. Todd’s was a “failing” school, but it was just above the corrective action line and so became a school where parents could choose to send children who were attending nearby schools below that line. Even though the actual performance gap between those other schools and his was pretty small, students were pouring into his ill-prepared campus. “There was no space to move,” he said.

On one of the first Fridays of Todd’s third year of teaching, he used an article from the local newspaper about a coming storm to teach his fifth graders about sequencing and the “main idea.” The “main idea” of the article was that the hurricane was projected to loop back on itself and head to Florida. Todd went about his weekend, prepping for the next week of school, when he received an alarming message from a close friend and fellow Teach For America alumnus. “Do we need to get out of here?” his friend asked. Only then did Todd learn that Katrina was coming and that Mayor Ray Nagin was telling everyone to get out of the city as quickly as they could. Todd and a couple of teacher friends evacuated to a friend’s family home in tiny Manny, Louisiana.

Todd recalls the next few days as a blur of shock and sadness. His phone didn’t work, and all he could do was watch the television in horror all day. “I saw one of my students —a fifth grader — walking through the water on television. She was carrying two kids — two of her sisters — and the water was up to her mid-thigh. It was horrible, but I was so glad to know she was alive.” After four or five days, with only two T-shirts and a pair of shorts, and the realization that he could not return to New Orleans, Todd drove north with a plan that he would stay with some friends and his parents until he could go back.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I across the country were glued to the television as well. As our New Orleans staff members scrambled to try to track down our corps members (all of whom were eventually accounted for), we watched the news, terribly saddened as the deficiencies of our public infrastructure drove tens of thousands of families out of their city. Like most of the country, the Teach For America community was searching for ways to help.

I checked in with Mike Feinberg, the KIPP cofounder who runs the KIPP schools in Houston. The children our New Orleans corps members had been teaching were displaced all across the state of Louisiana and beyond; many had been uprooted by bus to Houston, ending up in the Astrodome, among other places. We at Teach For America were trying to decide how to redeploy our New Orleans corps members when Mike came up with an idea. He had access to a vacant school in Houston for one year, and a team that had been preparing to open a KIPP school in New Orleans had also been displaced. Mike said he would provide the administration and the building if we wanted to rally our displaced corps members to recruit students and be their teachers.

Within just a couple of days, Todd and his fellow corps members, now scattered across the country, were getting phone calls from Teach For America staff members explaining that a group of teachers was heading to Houston to start a school for New Orleans kids who were, at the time, sleeping in and outside of the Houston Astrodome. “Do you guys want to be part of this?” the staff member asked. Todd and his friends instantly signed on. Todd was sure some of his kids from Langston Hughes were in the Astrodome, and he could not stand feeling so helpless. The school was to open immediately, so Todd and his friends jumped in the car and drove twenty straight hours to Houston. Todd moved onto the couch of a family who agreed to host some teachers. “Luckily, they had this college-aged son, and I borrowed some clothes,” he explained. The next day, Todd, along with twenty-seven other Teach For America corps members and eight alumni, walked up and down the aisles of the Astrodome signing up kids to attend their new school, “New Orleans West.” In a mere ten days, NOW College Prep — under the leadership of Gary Robichaux, who was the soon-to-be principal of the KIPP school that had been planned for New Orleans — was born.

From its inception, NOW College Prep was a school that served children facing inconceivable challenges. These 400 kindergarten through eighth graders had been ripped away from everything they knew. They were largely homeless, and subsequent studies showed that many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet Gary and Todd and their colleagues decided that they would not let external circumstances, as horrific as they were, undermine the potential of these children. So they designed and delivered an educational experience in record time — one that came to fulfill its promise.

Despite the disruption to their lives, the average NOW College Prep student improved 15 percentile points in reading and 27 percentile points in math according to the Stanford 10 test in their first year in the school. In Todd’s classroom 85 percent passed the Texas assessments, more than double the pass rates for other displaced New Orleans children across Houston and comparing favorably with many students in Houston who had not just gone through the trauma of Katrina.

Todd’s experience leading children to academic success changed his perspective, and the course of his life. Reminiscing about his teaching days, Todd described the transformative experience that so many of our teachers have when they see the potential their students have to excel academically:

Going through that year in Houston is really the reason I’m still here in a school. I remember my last year at Langston Hughes [before the storm]—things weren’t changing. The whole system was absolutely broken.... Our principal was very hardworking and dedicated, and we had a pretty decent staff, but still nothing was changing. NOW rejuvenated my sense of possibility and really reset my expectations of students.... We were challenged every day but working with incredible kids, and we were all so bonded out of Katrina. What happened was horrible and undeserved, but what came out of it and the possibility that a lot of us felt are, I think, why so many of us are still with it.

I met Todd at the New Orleans school where he is now a principal, Central City Academy, a KIPP school. Like many KIPP schools, Todd’s campus has more students and families signing on than spaces available. Students are chosen for acceptance by a random lottery to ensure fairness. In 2007 the school opened with 90 fifth graders, 8 percent of whom were on level in reading, 8 percent in math. Students brought with them the range of challenges facing children in the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, and many had special needs. According to nationally referenced assessments, 80 percent of Central City’s incoming students were in the lowest quartile in reading and math.

Today, Central City Academy serves 360 children in grades I've through eight. As of seventh grade, students have progressed so far that they are three-quarters of a year above grade level based on national assessments, with another year of middle school at Central City Academy still ahead. Todd has closed the achievement gap for his students and put them on track to go to college. “Even in the face of tremendous challenges, I know our kids will successfully climb the mountain through college,” he told me. “Success is about how hard you work, not where you are from. Our kids work incredibly hard every day so that they will be successful in college.”

Todd’s story — that of a talented new teacher whose experience leading students through enormous challenges to dramatic achievement galvanized a lifelong dedication to solving educational inequity and gave him the foundational experiences necessary for success — is precisely the experience we hope all of our corps members will share. It is the story of the transformative power of a successful teaching experience, one that serves as a foundation for a lifetime of leadership and advocacy for children.


Although Katrina makes for a particularly dramatic variation, Todd’s story is representative of the stories of most of the classroom, school, district, policy, and political leaders described in this book and of Teach For America’s theory of change about how to eliminate educational inequity. Highly effective teachers in low-income communities change kids’ lives — and kids change theirs.

Maurice Thomas, the teacher introduced in Chapter 1 who led all of his students to be accepted to college, told me that his experience in the classroom completely changed his life. “The students, parents, and educators I have met will always be with me,” he said. “Without this experience I would probably be in my last year of law school, but now I cannot imagine myself working in any other field. I intend to eventually go back to school to receive an advanced degree in educational leadership and open my own school. I feel like teaching has unleashed my full potential, and if need be, to ensure we solve this problem, I intend to be the first Teach For America governor, in the great state of Wisconsin.”

We did a very informal survey of many of the Teach For America corps members and alumni introduced in this book. Virtually all of them said that they were confident that if they had not joined Teach For America, they would not be pushing the frontier of education reform today. Tim Daly said that instead of working at The New Teacher Project, he would likely have pursued a Ph.D. in history. Sehba Ali, instead of founding and running successful schools, would have been a psychologist. Michelle Rhee, instead of pioneering education reforms, thinks she would probably have been a lawyer, as do Mike Feinberg and Reid Whitaker.

The transformative experience of leading children in low-income communities to great progress plays out across our corps and alumni force. While Teach For America asks for a two-year commitment from its recruits (the vast majority of whom were not education majors and not, they tell us, headed into education), more than 60 percent of our 20,000-plus alumni are working in education, with about half of those still in the classroom. Those working in education from outside the classroom are mostly working in schools or districts, or in organizations meant to support them. Of those alumni who leave education, going into a vast array of careers from law to medicine, from government to journalism to business, more than 60 percent have jobs that relate in some way to schools or low-income communities—for example, as doctors practicing in public health or policy advisers working on education issues.

Many of the new models of excellence on the front lines of the fight against educational inequity were founded or are being driven by current or former teachers whose conviction, determination, and leadership were developed in the classroom. Today, virtually all KIPP school leaders proved their mettle and built their skills by putting children on a new academic path in their classrooms — and nearly two-thirds of the network’s principals started their careers as Teach For America corps members. (A little fewer than one-third of the network’s current teachers are Teach For America corps members or alumni.) Similar stories play out at YES Prep, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and many of the most successful traditional district schools in the country. The path to transformational leadership is through the transformative experience of seeing and fulfilling the promise of children in low-income communities.

I think the reasons for this phenomenon are complex but clear. First, teachers who have taught successfully develop an unshakable conviction about what is possible through education for children growing up in economically disadvantaged circumstances. Their personal knowledge of the potential of their students and of teachers and schools, and their love for their students, drives a deep and personal motivation to right the injustice of educational disadvantage. This understanding becomes the root of their career choices and professional decisions and the driving force behind their bold goals, perseverance in pursuit of them, and persuasiveness with others.

Second, these teachers understand what it takes to put children in low-income communities on a level playing field. They reject any particular silver-bullet theory because they know — they have experienced firsthand — that there is no “one” thing that will solve this problem. They appreciate the extent of the challenges facing their students and know just how much it takes to provide them with the supports and experiences to reach those expectations.

Third, because teaching successfully is itself an act of leadership, these teachers gain the confidence and mindsets critical to effecting change on a larger scale. Washington, D.C.’s Kaya Henderson summed up this effect beautifully: “I think people in this field have gotten so beaten down by not being able to accomplish big things that they don’t have a sense of possibility anymore,” she said, adding, “If I never learned anything else from Teach For America, I learned to have a sense of possibility. Other people say you can’t — actually you can, and you just do.”

It is striking that the very same themes of action that distinguish our highly effective teachers distinguish highly effective school leaders, system leaders, policy makers, and all education reformers who are making a real impact. Just as in the classroom, success is a function of the hard work of great leadership — pursuing a vision of change, investing others in working hard to reach it, working deliberately and strategically, accessing whatever resources are necessary to ensure that education is changing children’s lives, and continuously improving.

From "A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All" by Wendy Kopp. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs.