Teach for America at work in St. Louis

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

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.

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.

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.”

Scott Baier, executive director of Teach For America St. Louis, also emphasized the importance of student investment. He told me about a corps member that has his students track their own progress throughout the year, giving them diagnostic exams three or four times and making sure they aren’t just ready for the tests, but also excited about them.

So how does TFA turn out so many successful teachers? Besides its meticulous recruitment process, it helps the teachers to form visions of success and to work toward those visions.

“Because of Teach For America, I thought it would be possible for students to grow that much,” said Leach. “Without the focus from TFA that this kind of growth is what is expected, I don't know that I would have pushed my kids to reach for such big growth.”

Kopp said the corps members with the greatest impact are aiming far beyond test scores. “They are stepping back and doing what great leaders do. They are motivating kids to work hard and reach their vision, and they are working purposefully and relentlessly to get there.”

Baier said that TFA staff works with and mentors the corps members throughout their whole teaching experience, and that great teachers are really born out of hard work.

“In order to have a transformational impact, they must be operating from a vision that is absolutely clear on what they want their children to achieve,” said Baier. “They must invest students and families, work relentlessly, stop and monitor where they are going, and possibly adjust their course. You will not find a classroom where you will see a transformational teacher without seeing at least those elements. We manage our teachers toward being proficient in all of those, so they can be so purposeful in all of the work they are doing, and never waste a minute.”

At Gateway Middle School, all of this hard work is paying off. Last year, its Scholastic Reading Inventory scores grew more than those of any other school in the Saint Louis Public Schools system. In 2008, only 12.6 percent of the sixth graders scored proficient in communication arts, and none scored advanced. But in 2010, 27.4 percent of the same students scored proficient and advanced, with less than 10 percent scoring below basic.

But a score of "proficient" in reading doesn’t necessarily mean that TFA teachers and their students have met their principal goal. “The ultimate test is whether our kids learn," says Kopp. "Are we setting our kids up to graduate college? You can’t measure that on an annual basis, you need to be aiming toward that.”

Leslie Rieder, a former Monitor intern, will be a Teach for America corps member next year.

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