Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America
reviewed by Jal Mehta - March 02, 2009
What is it like to Teach for America? Teach For America (TFA), the now nearly twenty year old program that takes newly minted college graduates and places them directly into some of the nations most troubled schools for two year stints, has become the destination of choice for many graduates of todays top colleges. Journalist Donna Footes indispensable new book, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America, takes us along on that journey by tracking the lives of four new TFA teachers over their first year at an extremely troubled South Los Angeles high school. With remarkably skilled documentary attention, Foote captures the alternating waves of idealism and disillusionment felt by these young recruits as they enter adulthood in one of the most challenging and high stakes settings imaginable. In a field filled with empty clichéshigh expectations! effective leadership!Foote invites us to explore a world populated with real people trying to muster the energy, will, and skill to deal with an almost limitless array of social, academic, and bureaucratic problems. While there are some aspects of the story that support the claims of Teach for Americas critics, ultimately it is hard not to be won over by the sheer determination of the organization and its young teachers to do everything in their power to improve the opportunities of the impoverished students they serve.
It would be difficult to imagine a more difficult environment to start teaching than at Locke High School in Watts, the setting of Relentless Pursuit. The book opens with a student peeing in a water bucket in one of the teachers first classes. Twenty-four of every 100 ninth graders are expected to graduate on time, 3 out of 100 have completed the requirements for a four-year college, and statistically Lockes academic performance is the second worst in L.A. Students are routinely jumped enroute to schoolFoote reports that students carry clothes rather than books in their bags so that they can change colors as they navigate through different gang territories. A school social worker estimates that nearly a dozen Locke students have died violent deaths in the first half of the 2005-2006 school year. Staff continuity is nearly non-existentthe past five years have seen three principals and 3/4 of the faculty turning over.
Into this chaotic and often dysfunctional environment enter four new TFA teachersHrag Hamalian, an Armenian-American formerly fun-loving Boston College graduate teaching biology; Rachelle Snyder, an athletic University of Pennsylvania graduate teaching special education and coaching soccer; Phillip Gedeon, a talented African-American Connecticut College graduate who almost instantly establishes authority over his math students; and Taylor Rifkin, a type A University of Southern California sorority girl with a 3.85 college GPA teaching English. All of them are impressive and accomplished young peopleonly 12% of TFAs applicants are accepted in 2005but it is clear that little in their experience has prepared them for this.
What results is a schizophrenic first year, as the teachers oscillate wildly (and even daily) between I dont know what Im doing, Im overwhelmed, TFA didnt prepare us for this, and I want to quit and I love my students, Im figuring this out, Im committed to this mission, and I wouldnt trade this job for anything. All of this is compounded by a constant state of exhaustion: not only are they learning to teach, they are also attending TFA events, getting credentialed at night from the local university, and learning to live on their own for the first time. While the book will inevitably be read as a data point in the ongoing policy battle over Teach for America, it is also a powerful coming of age story, tracking the transition of these four from their affluent colleges to the extreme poverty of South Central L.A. And despite their recurring misgivings, the dominant picture that emerges is one of resilience. Over time they improvise their way towards success, learning through trial and error, from other teachers, and from visits to other more highly functioning schools. By the end of the year they have excellent rapport with their students and are seen by the principal as among the better teachers at the school. Academically, Taylor and Phillip have clearly moved their students significantly forward (1½-2 grade levels in Taylors case).
Footes invaluable reporting also contains the most detailed to date behind the scenes look at Teach for America the organization. The picture that emerges is a peculiar mix: one part exclusive society; one part idealistic fervor; and one part business-like efficiency. Teach for America has from its founding in 1990 believed that the key to making teaching seem attractive to elite graduates was to make it as selective as other post-college destinations. In this they have succeeded: Foote reports that in 2005 a record 17,000 people applied for 2,000 spots. Twelve percent of Yales graduating class applied to TFA, as did 11 percent at Dartmouth and Amherst and 8 percent at Harvard and Princeton. What lured these graduates away from the consulting firms and the investment banks (this is 2005) was the promise of making a difference and reducing educational inequality. This is the organizations guiding credo and it inspires an almost religious-like devotion to the cause among its leaders and many of its teachers. But in how it is trying to make a difference, TFA is one of a growing group of social entrepreneurs that is drawing on business methods to achieve idealistic ends. With the help of strategy firms like McKinsey and the Monitor Group, the organization is relentlessly focused on using test score data and other metrics to refine its selection procedures, training methods, and in-field support to try to achieve measurable gains of the high poverty students it serves.
So, can Teach for America change the world? Relentless Pursuit suggests a two part answer: 1) TFA still has considerable work to do with its own corps members; and 2) TFA is succeeding in pockets, but broader success will require that its efforts be supported by other significant changes in the educational landscape.
On the first point, one of the most valuable things about the perspective of Footes book is that it views TFA the organization through the eyes of its new teachers. And here TFA receives mixed reviews. TFAs five-week summer institute, while more useful than the credentialing courses at the local university, is still viewed as a hazy memory as the teachers grapple with ongoing dilemmas in their classrooms. TFA also provides ongoing observation and feedback on instruction and pedagogy from a TFA observer throughout the year. This is far more than the district provides: once in the year it sent a monitor who wrote up Taylor for the messiness of her classroom. But still, observing and revising practice of new teachers is a difficult and fraught task: there are problems because the observer doesnt know the subject area, or because of a lack of trust between teacher and coach. More than once the TFA teachers report that they view the during the year contact from TFA as more of a hassle than a help. Some also see TFA as the parent who can never be pleased, and they clearly sometimes resent the organization for what they see as placing its mission over the well-being of its members. Overall, the picture that emerges is one in which TFA is light years ahead of the rest of the profession (at least in most high poverty urban districts) in its focus on instruction, in its emphasis on pedagogical feedback, and in its use of data to revise and improve practice, but it is still too distant from the daily lives of teachers to create the needed support structure for high quality schooling.
Where TFA clearly has made a difference is in the talent, energy, and will of the people that it has infused into the school system. Statistical studies have been inconclusive as to whether TFA teachers perform better than traditionally credentialed ones across the board, but it is clear that at least in schools like Locke they are a godsend. The principal of Locke each year promises himself that he will hire fewer TFA teachers because of concerns about retaining them, but he breaks his vow when faced with the vast differences in quality between the TFA applicants and the others. The new TFA teachers, struggles and all, are astonished to find themselves lauded by the principal as model teachers. If Im a model teacher, they think, what does that say about everyone else? Foote reports that because of general disorder and absenteeism the school doesnt feel like a real school any time except when there is testing going on; the principal estimates that 35% of teachers dont belong in the classroom at all but are protected by tenure. The climactic scene in the book is a faculty vote over whether to move from six periods to seven so as to help the kids catch up, and the vote goes down by a 2 to 1 margin amid union concerns about a longer workday. The gulf between a few of the younger teachers, many but not exclusively TFA, and the majority is disheartening and confirms every negative stereotype about unionized teachers who are more in it for the adults than the kids.
And this is the tragedy of Footes story and one limitation of Teach for Americas otherwise compelling vision: the efforts of small numbers of idealistic and energetic teachers are often swamped by the effects of the dysfunctional schools in which they work. The few examples of sustainable success that Foote discovers are less about lone heroic individuals and more about forging spaces within the larger environment where talented and engaged teachers are able to cluster together, share ideas, and build upon each others enthusiasm. For instance, the science department under the leadership of a nationally board-certified chair develops some common lesson planning to support new teachers, and a small school within Locke created by a number of TFA teachers is able to raise graduation rates and test scores. These are good for the teachers as well as the studentsin contrast to everything else at Locke, they provide support and a sense of being part of something that works. Judging by Relentless Pursuit, if TFA does not accomplish its goals, it will be due less to the quality of its teachers and more to the difficulty of changing the schools in which they are placed. TFA says that it is training not just teachers but leaders; these leaders have a lot of work ahead of them.