Teach for America celbrates 20th anniversay and calls for ” revolution” to close achievement gap

By Liana Heitin

At the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit this weekend in Washington, a panel of some of the most recognizable names in the education reform movement discussed the need for a “revolution” to close the nation’s achievement gap.Teach For America is the nonprofit organization that places high-achieving college graduates in under-resourced public schools around the country. Many education reformers have held the program up as a model because of its commitment to disadvantaged students and its emphasis on student and teacher performance. The summit served as a call to action for the 11,000 attendees, largely current and former TFA corps members, gathered in the nation’s capitol.

Panelists in the conference’s opening session—including former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, founder of the Harlem Children’s zone Geoffrey Canada, and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein—were asked to compare the fight for educational equity to the uprising in Egypt that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s reign of power.

“We’re at a place I’ve never seen before,” said Rhee, who recently founded the nonprofit StudentsFirst. “Education reform has now hit the mainstream with ‘Waiting for “Superman”‘ and NBC’s Education Nation. Normal people … are able to understand what’s at stake and what’s happening. … Unless we’re aggressive right now, knowing that opposition and controversy might arise, we’re not going to be able to do this.”

“This is America’s issue,” Klein told the audience. “What will change it? Each one of you insists that each school in America is one you’d send your child to. Forget incremental change—we need radical change.”

Canada asserted that the last time he’d seen people assemble so passionately around an issue in this country was during the Civil Rights era. “I never thought I’d see this moment. I thought we’d go down for the cause. … Now I’m thinking we could really win!” However, Canada said, he fears the movement’s momentum could diminish. “We have to understand as a nation that we’ve become soft around fighting for what we believe in.”

“I challenge you to make this our Egypt moment,” said Klein.

Several panelists pointed to the network of Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, which serve low-income communities and are some of the highest-performing schools in the nation, as evidence that it is possible to eradicate the achievement gap. KIPP was founded by two TFA alumni.

The Unions’ Role

One voice of dissent at the conference came from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Teachers’ unions have historically been critical of Teach for America’s five-week training program and two-year commitment, as well as school districts’ continued hiring of TFA corps members while veteran teachers are being laid off. In a breakout session moderated by Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Weingarten emphasized the problems associated with teacher turnover.

Both research and common sense point to the fact that teachers are better in their third and fourth years than their first and second years, said Weingarten. “I don’t want there to be churn in the first years,” she explained. “You lose so much knowledge. This doesn’t happen in other professions. We need to create a knowledge base in terms of teaching.”

For people who use teaching as a “stepping stone,” said Weingarten, referring to Teach for America corps members who go on to other professions after their two years, “fine, they have a right. But in this economy, with these dollars, I don’t think it’s the right thing.” According to Weingarten, the country wastes $7 billion per year on teacher attrition.

“We have to make schools a stable environment for our kids,” she said.

Outside that session, critiques of teachers’ unions peppered the discourse at the summit. “Part of the problem we have in this country is that the union’s job is to stop innovation,” said Canada. “It’s not about being anti-union. But if you have a history of blocking reform, you are part of the problem.”

Klein warned against allowing unions to stand for the teacher voice. “Don’t buy into this notion that if all the adults collaborate [through the unions] it’s going to be O.K. for kids,” he said. “Adults have been collaborating and kids are getting screwed.”

Duncan, Obama Chime In

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan—donning casual attire, with no tie or jacket—also gave a keynote address Saturday afternoon, praising TFA for “changing the face of public education in this nation.”

TFA does more than just provide great teachers, said Duncan. He told a story about sitting down with Douglas Shulman, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, to try to simplify the federal financial aid application—an effort that he said has since enabled 750,000 more young people to go to college. Duncan explained that when he expressed gratitude for Shulman’s eagerness to help, Shulman replied, “You don’t know this about me. But I’m a Teach For America alum.”

Even President Obama had a message for those at the summit. In a pre-recorded video, he congratulated the organization on its 20 years and thanked corps members for their dedication. “Thank you especially to those who’ve stayed in the classroom after your two-year commitment,” he said.

The summit coincided with the release of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp’s new book, A Chance to Make History. Kopp’s keynote address focused on giving students a way out of poverty through “transformational education.”

“We have not yet made a meaningful difference … in an aggregate sense,” she said. “The achievement gap remains the same as it was 20 years ago.” For that reason, she said, “Teach for America must continue to grow.”