NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Among the Obama administration's ambitious goals for education reform is to close the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor, which is also the overarching goal of Teach For America - the program that sends thousands of the country's top college graduates into rural and inner city schools every year. In 2005, journalist Donna Foote followed four TFA recruits assigned to one of the worst schools in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles to see what they did for their students, for the school, for themselves and for that long-term goal.

Along the way she encountered long-running debates about testing, unions, tenure and the movement for change in public education. Later in the hour, William Langewiesche tells a story of mighty impotence and little power about a French cruise ship and Somali pirates. And your letters. But first, Teach For America - if you are or were part of that program, if you're a teacher at a school that uses TFA, tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at NPR.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Donna Foote's book is "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America." It's out in paperback. And she joins us from NPR west in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. DONNA FOOTE (Author, "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America"): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And did those recruits you followed help close that achievement gap at Locke High School in Los Angeles?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, against all odd, I have to say they made significant gains in the student achievement of the, you know, limited number of students that they taught. But Teach For America has a two-pronged theory of change and one is that there will be catalytic change in the classroom. But the more important one and the one that is most likely to impact or close that achievement gap is the idea that the experience in the classroom will be so transformative for these young leaders that they will, no matter what they do in the future, if they leave the classroom, stay in the classroom, they will become agents of change. And they will be the ones who will go on to effect the education reform needed to close that gap.

CONAN: So, a tactical goal of - they would have an immediate impact by helping some kids in one school for two years, but the strategic impact would come on later as all of these kids, these thousands and thousands of kids - these are the best and the brightest, some of the finest students in the country from some of the finest schools in the country - they would go on to become not just teachers and educators themselves, but executives, politicians, whatever, and agents of change.

Ms. FOOTE: Exactly.

CONAN: And how is that part working out?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, it's interesting. Of the four that I followed at Locke High School, all four are still in education. One is opening a charter school here in Los Angeles in September. Another is getting her PhD and is an assistant to the CEO of a literacy agency. Another one is getting his admin credentials and expects to be a principal next year. The third has taken a break and is coming back to teaching in September. So these are - all but one of them were people that would never have entertained the notion of entering the teaching profession and are still educators now.

CONAN: So, on the long run, do you think that this is going to work out?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, I think that we're beginning to see - I think it's too early to say, actually.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. FOOTE: But we are beginning to see seeds of change. As you will know, Neal, Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor in D.C. is a TFA alum. KIP schools, which are a very, very successful chain of charter schools founded by two TFA alums. And if you look around the reform landscape, you'll see in a lot of the foundations, TFA has seeded the ranks with their alumni. So I think that the questions that TFA has raised are ones that are now being embraced by the Obama regime.

And that basically is that through Teach For America the conversation has shifted from that of input to output, where it's no longer credentials and time served in the classroom. Obama is going to be pushing to have teachers judged by the results they get with their kids. That's huge.

CONAN: By results they get with their kids. Again, something that's difficult to measure, but at least it's an objective measurement.

Ms. FOOTE: Absolutely.

CONAN: And another aspect of this is you run across - it's fascinating, one of the arguments that you hear about Teach For America is that, well, these kids just go there for two years and then they leave. They're just doing this to pad their resume and indeed Teach For America says, well, yeah, we don't deny that, that's kind of the point.

Ms. FOOTE: Right, right, exactly. The other thing to remember is it's not just Teach For America teachers that are bailing. I mean, we have a major retention problem in this country. Within five years, all new teachers leave. Fifty percent of all new teachers leave. And within two years, you know, you've lost about 14 percent, especially in the inner city, hard-to-staff schools.

So Teach For America would be crazy to think that these young people who could make many, many more dollars and have a much more, in a way, easier job, are going to stay in teaching, a profession that is not esteemed or valued in the country right now.

CONAN: And what was the reaction of the teachers at Locke High School who, well, came in and lived under the old system, where terms of academic qualifications and in terms of time spent in the classroom, that was the measure?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, interesting. I mean, some of the veterans really resisted the idea that these young smarty pants would come in and, you know, they have lots of enthusiasm. They're very bright. They're problem solvers, real critical thinkers. And so there was sort of a, you know, institutional resistance.

Having said that, the principal, who also resisted at first, came to think of the Teach For America recruits much the way - he likened them to the U.S. Army. You know, a volunteer army, they only stay for a couple of years, really well-trained, smart and as long as he could be assured that he would have more young recruits coming in to fill the spots of those that left, he was fine.

CONAN: And these were kids who were taking spots that, well, nobody else was taking.

Ms. FOOTE: No.

CONAN: The alternative was to go for long-term substitutes, right?

Ms. FOOTE: Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, and that's one of the arguments, and it's a very valid one, is that Teach For America does contribute to teacher churning in these hard-to-staff schools. But your point is well taken, Neal. The alternative is, you know, a longtime sub, many of whom have no training whatsoever, you know - have never been in a classroom before.

CONAN: Well, we want to hear from members of our audience, whether they're in TFA or graduates of TFA or have taught alongside people who taught for America, give us a call. What's been your experience? 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Josh. And Josh is with us from Helena in Arkansas.

JOSH (Caller): Yes, I think that - I'm losing signal - but that's...

CONAN: Well, if you go quickly, Josh, we could still hear you.

JOSH: All right, sorry. I was going to say that I'm a Teach For America corps member. And I teach kindergarten music, but that my mentor teacher has been a really big help. And she is a part of the Helena community and is the leader of our local teachers union and really got me involved in both the union, as well as Teach For America.

And so I think learning a lot from her and seeing that she as a union member has taught me a lot - has been really helpful and made my experience really good and really made me want to stay in education for the long run. And so I think, you know, so often we see perhaps the media saying that, you know, oh, it's unions against reform or that, you know, that unions are against reform, et cetera. But I definitely don't see that. And I think that we tend to agree on, 99 percent of the time, on what education reform should look like for our schools.

CONAN: Okay, Josh, we'll let you and your battery off the line, but thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. But Donna Foote, he raises, well, a point which you said, certainly on an individual basis, there does seem to be a lot of cooperation, but that's not to say that the unions and TFA have the same goals.

Ms. FOOTE: Well, the TFA and the unions actually never take each other on, and TFA is very careful about that because schools are, of course, the places where TFA recruits are placed. And so I really think your caller is quite correct - on 99 percent of the issues, unions and Teach For America and other reformers want the same thing - we want a better education for our kids. It's just how you get there.

And I think Obama has made it very clear that he's not going to do anything to teachers, he's going to do things with teachers. But he's also made it clear, he's definitely drawn a line in the sand, you know, there's going to have to be accountability in a way that we haven't had before.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Caroline(ph) on the line. Caroline is with us from Buffalo, New York.

CAROLINE (Caller): Hi. I'm a former Teach For America corps member, and I taught for three years. And I just want to say, I think one of the most powerful things about Teach For America is giving people who are going to be future leaders in their discipline the opportunity to see what's really happening in struggling communities. 'Cause oftentimes I think it goes beyond what's happening in the classroom and in education and to allow people to take these experiences and carry them into government or politics. I'm personally in public health now. I think that that's one of the big strengths about Teach For America.

CONAN: Caroline, can I ask you where you went to college?

CAROLINE: I did my undergraduate at Barnard College. And I did my graduate work at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

CONAN: And when you started at Barnard, had you thought that you were going to get into public service?

CAROLINE: I actually thought that I was going to be a teacher for the rest of my life, but my experience in Teach For America really showed me that there were other issues going on, and I wanted to do something else, so I moved into public health.

CONAN: And would you have expected that you would end up doing the kinds of things and have the kind of experiences that you've had?

CAROLINE: No. I think that, you know, I used to tell stories about what was happening in my classroom, and people were just shocked that that sort of thing was happening in America, that there were students living in these conditions. I read the excerpt from Donna Foote's book online about the boy urinating into a bucket. And, you know, that's the kind of story I would tell, and people would be like, that would never happen in American classrooms. And, you know, I mean, it's just - you see what's going on in education and that there are really a lot of problems and there's not just going to be one solution. It's got to be across multi-disciplines and all different fields.

CONAN: And I have to say, Donna Foote, not because the urinals weren't working, it was a challenge to his teacher.

Ms. FOOTE: That's right. That's right.

CAROLINE: Right.

CONAN: And Caroline, very quickly, where did you teach in TFA?

CAROLINE: I taught in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at Prescott Middle School.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

CAROLINE: Thank you very much, have a great day.

CONAN: And she seems to illustrate that point of doing some time and moving on.

Ms. FOOTE: Yes, absolutely. I mean, Teach For America, I think would tell you that, you know, two-thirds of their recruits actually end up still in education. And certainly my reporting the four, as I said, that I have followed, are going to be lifelong educators probably. But an awful lot do go on.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FOOTE: Consider that this year alone, 11 percent of all Ivy League college seniors applied to Teach For America, though.

CONAN: We're talking with Donna Foote about her book, "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America." If you've been part of that program, if you're a teacher at a school that uses TFA, tell us your story and about, well, the movement for change in American education. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Donna Foote is our guest. We're talking about the Teach For America program. She spent a year following teachers for her book, "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America." You can read more about one of those teachers, Rachelle Snyder's early experience in the classroom, in an excerpt on our Web site.

And how the psychology major and former captain of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team handles her special ed class when the lights suddenly go out in the classroom. That's at NPR.org/talk. If you were or are part of Teach For America, if you're a teacher at a school that uses TFA, tell us your story, 800-989-8255.

Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site at NPR.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Beth. Beth calling from Tucson, Arizona.

BETH (Caller): Good afternoon. I worked with some Teach For America teachers in northern Arizona and while I found them to be very dedicated in the classroom, when you look at education and you - as a profession, longevity in profession builds professionalism and quality instruction. And when you're replacing teachers every two years, there's a loss of that continuity in the profession.

CONAN: And...

BETH: So while it's a good program, it's not necessarily a program that promotes the professionalism of education as a long-term commitment.

CONAN: And so you would describe it as more of a Band-Aid than a solution?

BETH: Right. And I respect what your guest was saying about how many of the people in Teach For America stay in education, but my question is, how many of them stay in education in the same communities where they were Teach For America volunteers?

Or are those communities having a constant influx of new, you know, green teachers who lack experience, but have, you know, have good hearts. You know, what kind - what is that doing to those communities who lack that long-term development of educational opportunity?

CONAN: Donna Foote?

Ms. FOOTE: That's a real problem. But, again, I think it is a problem across the profession. You know, we're talking about a corps of 6,000 teachers in a teaching universe of 3.5 million. And the fact is 14 percent of first year teachers leave after the first year. And as I said before, a third are gone by the third year and 50 percent leave by the - by the fifth year.

So we as a nation have to address this problem. And Teach For America is just a small part of the issue of teacher churning. I think we have to raise the salaries, you know, and make this profession something that people would be proud to join.

In Finland, only the top 10 percent who apply to become teachers are accepted into their teaching profession. And, you know, they're number one in the world. We have to raise the standards and raise the remuneration for good teachers.

CONAN: Beth, does - in your experience, is Donna Foote right about the, well, the professional teachers who lead the profession, as well?

BETH: I completely concur with what she's saying. We're having a budget crisis in Arizona. They're looking at laying off thousands of teachers. And, you know, it's hard to see the profession continuing until it's seen as a profession that deserves a professional salary and professional respect from the community. I absolutely agree with what she's saying.

CONAN: All right, Beth, thanks very much.

BETH: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go to - this is Terry(ph). Terry with us from I-75 in Ohio.

TERRY (Caller): Yes. I have a question. The lower achieving student and students that have, like, self-esteem issues and things, what will this do for them? I had two of them in my family. They were just pushed off into a continuation school. And it just seems the system was more geared toward the higher achiever than the lower achiever.

CONAN: Donna Foote, do you describe a system where the TFA teachers, the TFA corps teachers are asked to provide results or 80 percent of their class is improving?

Ms. FOOTE: They are asked to set these high goals, not all of them make it. The question about the special ed students. I think, again, you know, that's an issue we have to deal with as a nation, how we educate our lowest performing students. But it's…

TERRY: My daughter - they weren't special ed. They were - mine - one of them was borderline special ed.

Ms. FOOTE: Oh.

TERRY: And the other one was just basically self-esteem. She just had a very, very low self-esteem.

Ms. FOOTE: Yeah. Well, you know, I think we just to have high expectations. And you see in a lot of the - certainly in the KIP schools - where they serve a lot of low performing students, they're showing that the actual is possible. That, you know, given quality teachers, you're going to get quality results.

CONAN: Terry, thanks for the call. We wish you and your daughters good luck.

TERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from David in San Francisco. I have taught successfully in two very challenging districts, Los Angeles Unified and New Orleans parish. In both cases my experience with Teach For America teachers was less than encouraging. Many could not make it through the first year, often leaving in the middle of a class in tears.

None of the TFA teachers I've worked with are still in teaching. We used to have a joke - they left to do something easy, like go to law school. In the long run, TFA hurt the profession by turning it into an afterthought, rather than a profession.

Ms. FOOTE: Well, that is the big rub against Teach For America, among the education establishment, is that it - by offering a very limited training program and then requiring only two years in the classroom, you were de-professionalizing a profession.

And, you know, that is still being debated today. Having said that, you know, I think a third of the teachers in Teach For America are actually still in the classroom, a third of the alum. And, again, you're, you know, as I said before, I think 11 percent of the Ivy League college seniors in this country applied to Teach For America. And whether or not they get in, we are looking at leaders and these are the - these are the people that can affect change eventually.

CONAN: Let's talk with Greg. Greg with us from Louisville.

GREG (Caller): Hi. I keep hearing that teachers are transferring out of or that there are schools that are hard to staff, but no one seems to address that issue. And I think what it is is that whether you're Teach For America or a full-time professional teacher that stays with the profession, teachers transfer out of schools where they are assaulted, cursed at, spit on, you know.

And they're, and often teachers try to deal with the population of students that hold everything they stand for in total contempt. And often it doesn't matter if it's Albert Einstein in front of these students, you're never going to close the achievement gap until you hold students accountability for their behavior and their academics.

And that's why teachers bail. They're, like, I can't do this. I get no support, the rules are not enforced, student code of conduct is not enforced. And then everybody looks at the teacher and says, how come you're not teaching? It's because they're put into impossible situations with no support.

CONAN: Donna Foote, that comes up a lot in Locke High School, which is a very - can be a very tough school.

Ms. FOOTE: Yeah, functionally, yeah.

CONAN: And certainly in a very dangerous neighborhood.

Ms. FOOTE: I absolutely agree with your caller. It's an impossible job. I mean, I, really, I, my life has changed after a year in the classroom. You cannot imagine what hard work this is for so many of our teachers who are not supported, who are begging for…

GREG: If I may…

Ms. FOOTE: Go ahead.

GREG: It's disturbing to hear the president say teachers are going to be held accountable for students learning or not learning. Again, you know, I've seen brilliant staff members, people with PhDs, excellent, excellent teachers by any standard, and they quit. They're like, I'm not doing this.

Ms. FOOTE: Mm-hmm.

GREG: I'm not going to be held accountable for something I can't control.

CONAN: Well, Greg, give her a chance to answer, will you?

GREG: Okay.

Ms. FOOTE: Well, I mean, it's absolutely a very difficult job. It's not an impossible job. And I think the system is broken from the way we select teachers, the way we train them, the way we recruit them, and the way we support them.

You know, this is a nightmare. If you walk into an inner city school and see one like Locke, where two percent of the kids are proficient in algebra or 11 percent are proficient in English, it is an unbelievable task.

Is it not doable? No, it can be done. And I mean that's another philosophical fault line. And, you know, one side of the divide says no excuses. And we know that teachers are the one thing - good teaching is one thing that has the most impact on student achievement.

GREG: Yes, I agree.

Ms. FOOTE: And so we can't, we cannot, you know, excuse the lack of achievement because of a bad family or a bad neighborhood or even an unsupportive district or principal.

GREG: Just…

Ms. FOOTE: On the other side, though, I perfectly understand where you're coming - these kids come to school, they're hungry. The kids that I saw had -just getting to school was an act of heroism because they had to travel through different gang territories. They have, you know, poor health issues. Unbelievable.

CONAN: The description of them carrying not books in their knapsacks but different changes of clothes to be - travel safely through different gang neighborhoods, that was pretty interesting.

Ms. FOOTE: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: But, Greg, you wanted to say one more thing?

GREG: Yeah. I agree that the teacher is the probably the main component. However, I'm concerned that when we say no excuses, it's your job, teach them, that allows parents and students to abdicate their responsibility.

CONAN: Well, I'm not sure that that's accurate, but nevertheless teachers can't abdicate theirs, can they?

I think Greg has left us anyway.

Ms. FOOTE: Yeah. Okay.

CONAN: Anyway, let's - the point is well taken. You're talking about social promotion of kids who should never have been promoted out of third grade graduating from middle school.

Ms. FOOTE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: You're taking about the situation of kids in high school. As you say, very few of them are proficient in these classes. It seems like every teacher has to begin remedially with so many of the kids in the class. And of course, you do have bright kids there who are utterly bored.

Ms. FOOTE: Who are held back, yeah. When I first - the first time I went to Locke, I went to see a friend of mine who had just begun teaching, mid-career and/or midlife. And she was a ninth grade teacher.

And I walked in to see my friend going cuh-att, cat. This is not a remedial English class. This was ninth grade English and these kids couldn't read. You know, I mean, talk about a failure of the system.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Alicia(ph). I am very surprised to hear that it's too soon to measure the strategic impact of Teach For America. It's been around since at least 1991 or 1992 when I graduated from college. Could the author comment on that?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, I think - I mean, we can say that the achievement cap is closed. Are we now more likely to - more aware of the issues and are some of things that Teach For America has raised now on the agenda in terms of reform? Yes, absolutely. And I think, as I said before, if you look at the reform landscape, it is seeded with Teach For America alum who are really impacting the discussion and the dialogue, and hopefully we'll see this reform through.

CONAN: We're talking with Donna Foote, who spent a year in the trenches, as she describes in her book, with Teach For America. Her book is called "Relentless Pursuit."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Brian(ph). Brian, with us from Chattanooga.

BRIAN (Caller): Yeah. Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BRIAN: My question is - I'm a Teach For America person who's trying to get in to the program actually. And I was wondering if - Ms. Foote, if you could speak to whether or not TFA helps corps members get jobs afterwards. I want to…

CONAN: Hmm.

BRIAN: …be a professional teacher. My career goal right now is to do that. And…

Ms. FOOTE: Hmm.

BRIAN: …I was just wondering if you could answer that. I also have another question, which I'll take my answers off the air. How does TFA train future corps members? I know they do a summer thing, and I was just wondering, you know, I've been hearing all these things that, you know, there's so many deficiencies in the classroom. How does Teach For America compensate for that?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, let me take the first one first. Teach For America has a set of enablers, they call them. And basically, it's partnerships with all the top graduate schools, medical, law school, business schools - and on its site, it also has sort of a job fair. And there is absolutely no doubt that having Teach For America on your resume helps get you a job past your commitment.

CONAN: In education and other fields too.

Ms. FOOTE: Other fields too, absolutely. I mean, they - Teach For America understands that a lot of these young recruits are going to want to move on. And to encourage them to actually make this two-year commitment and not get off-track, they have established this unbelievable network which can help any recruit in any field, basically.

CONAN: And tell us also about boot camp.

Ms. FOOTE: Boot camp. Well, boot camp - the training is short and intense and sharp and it is like boot camp. Five weeks though - not very much time. And that again is something that Teach For America comes in for a lot of criticism.

Having said that, Teach For America does have mentoring on - once the teachers are in their classrooms - and they do try and cluster teachers too so that you'll have, you know, three or four, or even in Locke's case, as many as 20 recruits at the same school. And, you know, Teach For America is an alternate certificating program. It's a different pathway into the classroom and they are very, very selective about who they take because it's very, very tough, let's face it, to walk into a classroom after five weeks of training.

CONAN: Had the - well, let me put it this way, how much has the - has TFA helped change Locke High School?

Ms. FOOTE: Well, Locke High School, I was there yesterday, is now a charter school. It's been taken over by Green Dot, which is a chain of charters in Los Angeles. And it is staffed by many, many Teach For America recruits and alum. But technically, it is not a Teach For America, you know…

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Outpost.

Ms. FOOTE: …outpost anymore. But I would say that Teach For America had a tremendous impact on Locke in so far as it became the largest sort of cluster of Teach For America teachers in Los Angeles.

And out of this group of young reformers, one group in my book left and started to charter school with Green Dot, which has now…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FOOTE: … just been recognized as a California distinguished school. And then, as I said, the Locke that you would see now is night and day. There is no graffiti, kids are in uniforms. There is peace. I talked to the police officers yesterday and they're bored. There's not enough…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FOOTE: Truly there's not enough action. Having said that, there is a private armed guard 24/7 there, to make sure that things are peaceful and safe at Locke High School.

Are the kids achieving at the levels they should be? It's only been a year as a charter, so it's too soon to say. I would say it's got to be very, very difficult to raise academic achievement quickly in a place like that. But certainly, the setting is there for learning.

CONAN: Donna Foote, thanks very much.

Ms. FOOTE: Thank you.

CONAN: Donna Foote is the author of "Relentless Pursuit." Again, you can read an excerpt from her book, the story of a young teacher named Rachelle, at npr.org/talk.

She was with us today from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Coming up, pirates continue to plunder off the coast of Somalia while Western navy seem powerless to stop them and almost nobody pays attention to international law. William Langewiesche fills us in on one captured ship and its story. Plus, your letters, a correction on secret decoder rings and a caller inspires a fellow listener to donate a kidney. Stay with us for that.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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