The young can be agents of change

Teach For America asks top graduates for two years of teaching in tough schools. They become life-long advocates for social justice

Educated in the public schools of El Paso, Texas, Aurora Lora experienced first-hand the dramatic disparities that exist in American schools. The daughter of a Mexican immigrant, Aurora encountered the reality that – despite its egalitarian foundation – America’s education, like that in other countries, often provides the fewest resources and opportunities to those who need most help.

Aurora’s next encounter with the disparities behind America’s racial and socio-economic “achievement gap” came just a few years later. She joined Teach For America, a national service corps that recruits recent college graduates to teach at some of the nation’s toughest schools for two years.

She set extremely high goals for her students and ran classes into the evenings and on Saturdays to help her students catch up. The result? Her students advanced two and three grade levels. All passed the fourth grade state test at the end of the year, which was more students than had previously passed the test in the entire school. Aurora’s story illustrates that young people can bring fresh energy, insight, dedication and creativity to even the most entrenched problems in our societies, and that young people can be among countries’ most valuable resources as they endeavour to address poverty and other social problems. We share Aurora’s story to illustrate that systematically enlisting outstanding young people is a great short- and long-term strategy for addressing some of the most serious problems facing our society. Not only are young people invaluable catalysts for immediate change, but engaging them directly in the short run can ensure the development of enlightened leadership for fundamental change in the long run.

Youthful ideals

Before I founded Teach For America 16 years ago, many were sceptical about whether top college graduates would be interested in teaching in poor neighbourhoods. The common assumption is that emerging leaders will go into fast-track jobs in business, the law or medicine. Yet last year more than 13,500 graduating seniors (including 6% of the senior classes of Harvard and Princeton) competed for the opportunity to join Teach For America. We offered admission to the 1,700 outstanding applicants who we felt had the leadership skills necessary to excel as teachers in our nation’s most under-resourced environments, and ultimately to assume positions of influence in our country. The resulting corps was a dynamic and diverse group: their grade-point average was 3.5 on a 4-point scale; 92% had held leadership positions on college campuses; and 32% were non-whites.

The numbers prove that top graduates are more than willing to take on this kind of work. Young people are yearning for a chance to act on their idealism, and they are looking to make a difference at a young age rather than spend years in apprentice roles. We believe that this desire to serve at a young age exists in other countries. When the business community set up a similar corps in Britain, called TeachFirst, to attract top graduates to teach in inner-city London, many doubted that British alumni shared the altruism found among their American counterparts. Yet a staggering 1,300 people applied for 200 spots in the first year alone, and TeachFirst is now number 41 on The Times list of top 100 employers.

An immediate impact

Our experience is that careful recruitment, selection, training and ongoing support can ensure that corps members are effective teachers who have a significant impact on their students and schools. Mathematica Policy Research found that Teach For America corps members effected greater gains in student achievement at the elementary school level than would typically be expected in a year, as well as greater gains than even those of the certified and veteran teachers in the control group.

We could posit several theories about why our young recruits surpass expectations. They are at a point in life – usually without their own family responsibilities – when they can throw themselves into their work and put in the exceedingly long hours that are critical to success, given how big are the challenges facing their students. Being new to the workplace and to teaching, they approach challenges with flexibility and with a fresh eye. Moreover, these are individuals who possess rare personal leadership qualities. While economics and social perceptions might have dissuaded them initially from choosing teaching as a long-term career path, they responded to the call to make a short-term commitment to make the world a better place.

From acorns grow great oaks

A key benefit of tapping young people to work on the front lines of social problems is that those young leaders mature into highly influential older leaders. Teach For America’s example shows that whether or not they stay in the field of service they first entered, they will make decisions that are informed by the insights that they gained working with real people solving real problems.

More than 60% of Teach For America alumni dating back to 1990 are still working in or studying education, around 40% are still teaching. Of those who have left the field of education, most have jobs that affect education or low-income schools. (It is important to note that the vast majority of Teach For America’s recruits were not education majors in college and would probably not have entered the field of education otherwise.)

Moreover, while our alumni are still in their 20s and 30s, they are already assuming leadership roles in education and social reform. They are serving on school boards, running many of the highest-performing urban and rural schools in the country, advising governors and senators on education policy, pioneering reforms in juvenile justice and public health, channelling the resources of corporations and law firms towards education and social reform, and winning the highest accolades veteran teachers can win. We believe that over the coming decades, alumni of Teach For America will hold significant positions in the country’s political and economic establishment, and we think the country will benefit from having leaders who have gained the perspective and knowledge that comes from serving in low-income communities in a meaningful and effective way.

This idea – enlisting talented young people before they assume leadership roles in other sectors, in part because of the impact they will have in those positions of influence – is not new. Businesses are old hands at this: top consulting and law firms are happy to see stars go into government or corporate leadership because ultimately it helps develop business for the firm. Yet there are few examples in which this approach is applied as a theory of social change. We believe there are many opportunities to tap into talented young people to give them experience of working on critical social issues.

Teach For America is recruiting future leaders as aggressively as any leading corporation because we are convinced that doing so will be a catalytic force for ensuring that our country lives up to its ideal of equal opportunity for all. In the short run, teachers like Aurora have the passion, commitment and leadership ability to go far beyond traditional expectations in order to compensate for the additional challenges their students face. In the long run, as the recruits progress in their careers and gain influence across all sectors, they take with them the insight and conviction to work toward the fundamental changes necessary to get at the root causes of educational inequity from inside and outside of education.

Our hope is that others – in America and abroad – will consider developing service corps that give young people significant short-term responsibilities in fighting social disparities. Doing so could have an immense immediate impact in the lives of children and families fighting the realities of poverty today. And imagine how the very ethos – and the realities – of our world would change if more of our leaders had first-hand experience working in these poorer communities.

Wendy Kopp
Wendy Kopp is the founder and president of Teach For America. She is the youngest person and the first woman to receive Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Award, the highest honour the school confers on its undergraduate alumni. Kopp’s numerous awards include the John F Kennedy New Frontier Award, the Clinton Center Award for Leadership and National Service, and the Citizen Activist Award from the Gleitsman Foundation.

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