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In Defense of Optimism in Education

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Last year I published A Chance To Make History to share my reflections on what I've learned from our teachers, alumni, and colleagues in urban and rural communities since launching Teach For America twenty years ago. My determination to end educational inequality and optimism that it can be done has only grown stronger over the years as we've seen more examples of what is possible. But my experiences have also deepened my appreciation of the magnitude of the problem and led to a nuanced vision for change. It was disappointing to see the views expressed in the book flagrantly misrepresented in a recent article in the New York Review of Books by Diane Ravitch. I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight and clarify what I believe and don't believe.

Ravitch argues that Finland should serve as a model for education reform in the United States, and that the efforts to expand educational opportunity in our urban and rural communities, which Teach For America has championed, are misguided. We certainly have a lot to learn from the best practices of Finland and other high functioning education systems. Finland's system for selecting, training and developing teachers in particular is worth exploring as we think about strategies for elevating the teaching profession in this country -- a goal Ravitch and I share.

However, we must recognize that most of our lessons won't come from a small, homogenous country that does not have the same pervasive socioeconomic and racial inequalities we do. Four percent of Finland's 800,000 school-aged children, or 32,000 kids, live in poverty. The U.S. faces massive obstacles to providing 16 million children living below the poverty line with the kind of education that will truly give them access to the same opportunities in life as their wealthier peers.

I believe that we should do everything we can to reduce poverty, just as Ravitch does. At the same time, as I explain in A Chance To Make History, over the last twenty years we in the United States have discovered that we don't have to wait to fix poverty to dramatically improve educational outcomes for underprivileged students. In fact, there's strong evidence that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty is to expand the mission of public schools in low-income communities and put enormous energy into providing children with the extra time and support they need to reach their potential.

Throughout her article, Ravitch accuses Teach For America of having a superiority complex. She writes that we believe our "young recruits are better than other teachers, presumably because they are carefully selected and therefore smarter than the average teacher" and that we "claim that these young people, because they are smart, can fix American schools and end the inequities in American society by teaching for a few years."

If Ravitch had carefully read my book, she would know that one of the central messages is how difficult it is for individual teachers -- even exceptional ones -- to achieve great results working within schools that aren't set up to support them. While we applaud the example of a few exceptional teachers who overcome every obstacle to put their students on a different trajectory, if we're relying on classroom heroes alone, we're setting ourselves up to fail.

What is encouraging is that hundreds of schools around the country are proving that it is possible for talented, committed teachers -- but not absolute superheroes -- to put whole buildings of children on different life trajectories. From many pioneering public charter schools, and from growing numbers of traditional public schools, we've learned how to build schools with the mission, teams, cultures, teacher professional development, and student supports that foster sustainable results for young people.

We're also learning how to create the conditions in school systems that encourage the development of more of these high-performing schools. Ravitch discounts my examples of the progress made in places like New York City (where fourth graders are a full year ahead of where they were a decade ago based on national assessments and the graduation rate has risen a full 15 points in just five years) and New Orleans (where the percentage of students meeting state standards has doubled in the past 4 years). But anyone who claims we haven't seen meaningful change in the public schools in New York City and New Orleans has not been spending time in those schools. Parents who have children today in the low-income communities of those cities have very different prospects for their children than they would have had a decade ago.

Ravitch is also wrong to suggest that Teach For America corps members aren't effective. A significant body of rigorous research shows that they are more effective than other beginning teachers and, on average, equally or more effective than veteran teachers. Still, I am the first to admit -- as I do in my book -- that "the bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide" and "our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students."

I'm not arrogant enough to think, as Ravitch claims, that Teach For America corps members are going to fix this problem during two years of teaching. Ending educational inequality is going to require systemic change and a long-term, sustained effort. There are no shortcuts and no silver bullets. At the core of the solution will be leadership -- people who will pursue bold change as teachers, principals, and district leaders, and who will work to shape a supportive policy and community environment as political leaders, policy makers, and advocates. More often than not, the most effective leaders have been shaped by teaching successfully in high needs classrooms. Because of their experience, they know that it is possible for low-income children to achieve on an absolute scale and understand what we need to do to allow them to fulfill their potential.

Teach For America is working hard to be one significant source of the leadership we need. More than two-thirds of our 24,000 alumni are working full-time in education. Although few of them intended to enter the field at all before their involvement with Teach For America, today a third of them are teaching, 600 are serving as principals, and many others are working as district leaders. Of the remaining third of our alumni, half have jobs related to low-income communities or schools, and only three percent are working in the private sector -- hardly the "corporate" stereotype Ravitch is so fond of perpetuating. This growing alumni force is working, together with many other dedicated teachers and leaders across the country, to fundamentally change things for the better.

We know we don't have all the answers. Far from "scorning seniority and experience," we seek it out and know we have much to learn from veteran teachers and education leaders. Indeed, we yearn for a more collaborative effort and a more open public discussion about how to ensure that the children growing up facing the immense challenges of poverty gain the opportunities they deserve.

I'm happy to admit that I'm a hopeless optimist. There is too much unproductive cynicism in the dialogue about education reform today. Pieces like Ravitch's -- which completely misrepresent the views and disparage the efforts of those who are working incredibly hard to have an impact -- don't help. Now that there's more concrete evidence than ever before that it is possible to give our nation's most disadvantaged children an excellent education, we have a moral imperative to step up, immerse ourselves in the lessons from their success, and act on them with urgency.

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