Teach For America, the educational organization founded by Wendy Kopp, as a result of her senior thesis at Princeton, has been moderately successful since its founding in 1989. The organization hires recent college graduates from prestigious institutions, training them for the summer in a dorm-like setting and then placing them into low-income, traditionally underserved schools.
I say it has been moderately successful because the teachers are required to only commit for two years. The program has been successful in getting the brightest, most talented and energetic teachers into the classroom -- receiving 46,000 applicants for just 4,400 teaching slots last year -- but the problem is keeping them.
Perhaps they will address this issue with the $100 million they just received, according to the AP, to launch their first-ever endowment in hopes of making the grassroots organization a permanent fixture in education.
Teach for America has many vocal opponents -- particularly teachers' unions -- who are critical of the lack of experience of these new teachers who are put into classrooms without going through the traditional certification that requires years of training and advanced degrees.
Others offer more philosophical criticism: can recent Ivy League grads respond to the cultural differences of low-income, often inner-city or rural, largely African American student populations?
But Teach for America alums say the criticism is both unfounded and inaccurate. Ayanna Taylor, a Teach for America alum, and graduate of The University of Pennsylvania, worked for 10 years in the classroom, and continues to work as a consultant for public and charter schools around the country. Other alums she said went through the program continue to teach and work in other areas of education reform.
Have critics compiled statistics on the number of traditionally trained teachers who stay on after two years? Or elect to work in traditionally underfunded schools?
"Teach for America changed the concept of what a teacher could be," says Taylor. "Teachers were put into classrooms with extensive knowledge of their content area. It also gave the teaching profession some cachet -- to have Ivy League grads decide to earn $25,000 a year and many of them stayed with the profession after the two year requirement."
According to statistics from Teach for America, 10 percent of alumni are still teaching or are working in the trenches for education reform. It points to studies that show its teachers are at least as effective as those who enter the teaching profession in more traditional ways.
The idea of an endowment started with philanthropist Eli Broad, who pledged $25 million from his Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and encouraged others to commit to the project. Three more foundations stepped up with matching funds: the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and philanthropists Steve and Sue Mandel.
Right now the organization gets its budget from nonprofits, corporations and federal grants, but it's a shaky way to depend on funding each year. With the increased funding, the organization hopes to double the number of teachers and increase the amount of communities they serve from 39 to 60.
What critics often miss in talking about Teach for America is that it offers some poorly underserved schools some of the brightest minds in the country. If Teach for America combines that with proper training, the increased funding will likely keep the program around for a while and it will be a force to be reckoned with.
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