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My Reasons for Optimism on Education

Ohanian Comment: My sole reason for posting this is for two bits of information:

  • all 12 winning states in the Race to the top Competition mentioned Teach For America in their applications.

  • Teach for America is the top employer of graduating seniors at over 40 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Spelman and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

  • Scary.

    By Wendy Kopp

    Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the latest winners of Race to the Top, the initiative he devised to leverage federal dollars to drive education reform at the state level. While no grant process is perfect, the competition drove a remarkable volume of new plans and even new laws designed to advance educational opportunity. Many states showed boldness—and I'm particularly excited that all 12 winning states mentioned Teach For America in their applications.

    This fall marks Teach For America's 20th anniversary, and I have spent much of the summer reflecting on the sea change that has taken place in public education over the last two decades.

    When we set out to recruit our first corps of teachers in 1990, it would be fair to say that there was no organized movement to ensure educational opportunity for all children in our nation. The prevailing assumption in most policy circles was that socioeconomic circumstances determined educational outcomes. Thus, it was unrealistic to expect teachers or schools to overcome the effects of poverty.

    When Jaime Escalante led a class of East Los Angeles students to pass the AP calculus exam in 1982, the Educational Testing Service questioned the results, and Hollywood went on to make the hit movie "Stand and Deliver" about his success. Escalante was lionized as an outlier—not as someone whose example could be widely replicated.

    Today, there are myriad examples of teachers who are setting out to accomplish what Escalante did. They are aiming to change their students' expected trajectories and doing whatever it takes to accomplish this end. Every day teachers across the country demonstrate that with high expectations and extra support, economically disadvantaged students can succeed on an absolute scale.

    A decade ago, though I saw teachers making exceptional progress with their students, I struggled to find more than a handful of schools in high-poverty areas that were putting students on a successful academic path. Now there are hundreds. Schools like those in the growing charter-school networks and an increasing number of traditional schools are showing that we can ensure educational excellence in low-income communities.

    The question facing us now is whether we can provide educational equity at a system-wide level. In cities like Washington, D.C., New Orleans and New York City—places which, a few years ago, had among the most stubborn achievement gaps in America—we are seeing signs of real progress. The school systems in these cities have not yet achieved excellence, but they are demonstrating that it is possible to turn the corner and change outcomes for kids at the scale of whole districts. And Race to the Top now aims to create proof points at the state level—a goal so audacious that it couldn't have been credibly suggested 20 years ago.

    Despite my optimism about the potential to change educational outcomes, I worry that we underestimate the work that lies ahead. Without the willpower, capacity and patience to carry out the hard work, good policies are mere pieces of paper. Transforming our students' futures requires the same intense energy and discipline that is required to accomplish ambitious goals in any endeavor. As in other sectors, at the core of the solution is leadership. Wherever there is transformational change for children, whether at the classroom, school, or system level, there is transformational leadership.

    One of the biggest reasons for optimism, given the role we know effective leadership plays, is the outpouring of interest among our nation's future leaders to channel their energy toward this cause. This year, 46,000 young people applied to Teach For America; more than 4,500 will be teaching this fall. We are the top employer of graduating seniors at over 40 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Spelman and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

    As our 2010 corps members prepare to enter their classrooms in the coming week, they are teaching in communities that increasingly believe success is possible. Yes, we have a long way to go. But reflecting on how far we've come in the past 20 years gives me confidence that, with sustained focus and effort, we can realize educational opportunity for all American children.

    Ms. Kopp is the founder and CEO of Teach For America. She is the author of the forthcoming book "A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All" (PublicAffairs).

    — Wendy Kopp
    Wall Street Journal


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