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Teach for America at work in St. Louis

St. Louis schools working with Teach for America see a bump in test scores.

By Leslie Rieder / March 16, 2011

On the 20th anniversary of Teach for America – a project which sprang from her senior thesis at Princeton University – TFA founder Wendy Kopp reflects on what creates "transformational" teachers.

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As a recent college grad prepping to make the adjustment from dorms and homework to elementary education, I was eager to get my hands on a copy of A Chance to Make History. In her book, Wendy Kopp, founder and chief executive of Teach For America, shares what has worked in providing an excellent education for all, and what has fallen short.

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I was particularly fascinated by the data Kopp provided regarding rising test scores in underprivileged regions that are staffed with TFA corps members and alumni. She mentions a public enrollment school in New York that in two years saw a class go from only 37 percent of students scoring proficient in reading to 83 percent.

In Washington DC between 2007 and 2010 the number of secondary students proficient in English increased by 14 percent. In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans has seen some of the most tremendous improvement, “on several of the campuses taken over by the Recovery School District, the growth in the percentage of fourth graders scoring basic or above on state English and language arts assessment has exceeded the statewide growth rate at least tenfold… Two thirds of the campuses serving eighth graders saw improvements between three and six times the state average in English language arts.”

Each of the above initiatives has had TFA corps members, alumni, and supporters in key roles.

I was so intrigued by these numbers that I decided to look into the effect of TFA on the literacy of my hometown, St. Louis.

I had the opportunity to visit Gateway Middle School Center for Math, Science and Technology, a school in the Saint Louis Public Schools district where 89 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. During my visit I watched corps members in action and learned about their students’ accomplishments.

Gwen Leach, a sixth grade communication arts teacher, saw her students grow 1.9 years in reading last year, with several reaching up to four years of growth. Matt Cashman, a former corps member and also a sixth grade communication arts teacher, saw his students grow 2.1 years in reading.

Besides investing a large amount of instructional time in teaching these children to read, Leach said a big part is getting students invested in their own reading growth. “Many students have never had anybody tell them that they are reading significantly below grade level. That little piece of information spurs so many students on. They want to be reading on grade level, they want to make huge gains in reading, and when you give them the information and skills that they need in order to see that happen, they rise to the challenge.”

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