In 2002, Bradley Leon picked up a brochure, and his life took a whole new direction. As he was preparing to apply for law school, he read about an organization called Teach for America (TFA). "I was compelled by the idea that we could close the achievement gap, that it doesn't have to exist," says Leon, who is now executive director of TFA's Memphis office. "It really turned me on."
Founded in 1990 by Princeton University graduate student Wendy Kopp, the nonprofit TFA dedicates itself to eliminating educational inequities among children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. At the heart of TFA's concerns are statistics like these:
• Nine-year-olds growing up in the nation's poor communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.
• Half of these children won't graduate from high school.
• Those who do will read and comprehend math at the level of eighth-graders in high-income areas.
TFA aims to close the learning gap by recruiting top college graduates, with various academic majors and career leanings, who are passionate about helping struggling children achieve. These grads, often the "best and brightest," commit to teaching two years in underperforming and low-income communities. Most don't have degrees in education, but are required to become certified in their subject area.
Considered "corps members," TFA teachers are affiliated with Americorps, the national program that lets people earn money for education in exchange for a year or two of public service. As such, they're eligible to receive loan deferment and interest payment on student loans and grants that can be used toward educational expenses.
TFA started in six areas but now serves 26 cities, including Memphis, which became an approved site in 2006. Local TFA funding comes from several sources, including the Hyde Foundation, the Assisi Foundation, FedEx, and Memphis City Schools. The latter contributes $1,500 per corps member, or $75,000 in 2006-07.
"Working relentlessly . . ."
Before the school year cranked up last August, the 48 Memphis recruits — most of whom chose our city as a preferred destination — received five weeks of intensive training at a summer institute in Atlanta and another week of training here. "They also took courses with veteran educators and collaborated with them to come up with lessons," says Leon.
Like all recruits, the Memphis corps members were selected based on seven factors. "We look at key competencies," explains Leon. "These include past achievement, perseverance in the face of challenges, critical thinking, organizational competency, the ability to motivate and influence others, respect and humility, and a fit with our mission."
That last quality reflects an unflagging belief that the corps member can help every child succeed. Indeed, the "Teaching as Leadership" framework used by TFA stresses six "actions." Among these is "working relentlessly to help students meet high academic goals."
To Leon, while a TFA corps member in New Orleans, "working relentlessly" meant tutoring before and after school. "My eighth-grade students were coming in at fourth-grade reading level, some even lower," he recounts. "That right there is a vivid picture of what we're trying to tackle. We couldn't mandate that students come to these tutoring sessions, but I sent letters home to parents, called them, and in some cases knocked on doors, to let them know their kids needed to be there." His perseverance paid off, with 80 percent coming to tutoring and 52 of his 53 students passing the state achievement exam.
"A huge sense of responsibility . . ."
TFA teachers, who earn $37,000 annually, are charged with achieving 80 percent competency in their subject areas for middle- and high-school students, and producing one-and-a-half to two grade levels of growth in reading and math for elementary-school students. Working with these first-year teachers in Memphis are two TFA program directors.
One is Lindsay Hughes, a Rhodes College graduate and a former TFA corps member in Charlotte; there, she taught fifth grade in a population where 30 percent of students' families were homeless. As a program director, she works with 26 corps members to determine whether they're achieving their goals and, if not, what might be holding them back. Four times a year she reviews student data, performance documents, and lesson plans, as well as the teachers' written reflections on their students and their own performance.
Says Hughes: "My charge is to help them decide how to reach the next level. [These teachers] have a huge sense of responsibility. They know if students fail, it's their job to fix that. So whatever they need — whether it's understanding state standards, assessing students' progress more accurately, or creating stronger lesson plans — I provide help."
Having corps members move into leadership positions, as Hughes has done, is the second thrust of TFA's goal. "My vision," says Leon, "is that our [teachers] will go on to start innovative charter schools, or become principals or school board candidates. If they don't stay in the field of education, they may be doctors who help start low-income health clinics." Nationally, according to Leon, TFA is headed in the right direction: "Of our 12,000 alumni, 63 percent are now working full-time in education and 94 percent are still working in low-income communities."
"The time was ideal . . ."
Several studies seem to indicate that TFA is influencing student achievement. In 2004, Mathematica Policy Research compared the academic gains of students taught by TFA corps members with the gains of similar students taught by other teachers in the same schools. "Even though Teach for America teachers generally lack any formal teacher training beyond that provided by TFA," Mathematica's research stated, "they produce higher test scores than the other teachers in their schools, not just novice teachers, but also veterans and certified teachers." The study also reported that TFA helped their students make more progress in both reading and math than would typically be expected in a year.
Does such positive indication of TFA's worth generate resentment among regular teachers? "I think that's a good question," Leon responds, "but in my experience it has not been an issue. My perspective, and I think most educators would agree, is that you can never get too many outstanding people, so TFA is just another pool for that."
While no hard data is yet available on TFA's impact on local students' achievement, "our department has received very positive feedback from principals" about TFA corps members, says Pat Pratt-Cook, executive director of human resources for Memphis City Schools. Moreover, she adds, "in any large urban city it's difficult to recruit qualified teachers in secondary education and in critical-need areas such as language, math, and science. [TFA] certainly broadens our base of qualified candidates."
In selecting new cities or regions in which to expand, TFA considers need, interest among applicants to live and work in the community, and support from city officials. Says Emily Del Pino, TFA's regional communications director: "The committed leadership of the district and the school board was a critical factor that influenced our decision, and we truly believed the time was ideal, given [Superintendent Carol] Johnson's remarkable reputation."
"A crucial step . . ."
Looking ahead to August, Bradley Leon and his Memphis TFA staff have been working to recruit an additional 50 corps members for assignment at local schools, an expansion that brings the total to nearly 100 for the 2007-2008 school year
Perhaps his most important local effort is the "sponsor-a-teacher" initiative he's spear-heading in Memphis. Leon sees it not only as a way to raise funds but to forge bonds and to build awareness, goodwill, and understanding about TFA's efforts.
"We match a corps member with an individual in the community who will give $5,000 to TFA," says Leon, adding that, so far, 16 sponsors have signed up. "This initiative not only broadens our base of support but it also builds a personal connection between the corps member, the donor, and the community. That's a crucial step as we move forward in Memphis."