Had Hurricane Katrina not occurred, south Louisiana would still have figured prominently in a book and articles about Teach for America written by program founder Wendy Kopp.
Since the beginnings of the program — more than 20 years — TFA has recruited bright college students from some of America’s best colleges to become teachers and sent many of them to the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas. Kopp’s Princeton University thesis has grown a program now international in scope, but mainly focused on U.S. schools where poor children desperately need good educations to escape from the grip of poverty.
In two regions, New Orleans and south Louisiana based in Baton Rouge, the program has recruited and trained teachers. The TFA corps members pledge to serve two years, and many stay longer.
In Louisiana, where the ravaging effects of poverty on education are so stark, there are some high-profile TFA teachers who stayed in education, although perhaps not directly in the classroom. They included Mike Wang, who went on to be an education aide to Gov. Mike Foster, and Sarah Usdin, who founded New Schools for New Orleans.
Because of the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the New Orleans story is a big part of the TFA story. Innovations by Usdin’s group helped to fuel the exciting experiment in charter schools in the city.
She is now an elected member of the Orleans Parish School Board. Kira Orange-Jones, a former corps member now employed by TFA, is an elected member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. While he taught elsewhere, state Education Superintendent John White is a TFA alum, as are many of his aides in the state department.
For years, TFA enjoyed strong bipartisan support from such luminaries as former first lady Laura Bush, and today it is one of the programs blessed by Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of the Education Department under President Barack Obama.
But as so often happens in education, politics is eating the young.
Perhaps because of recession-era budget cuts laying off teachers, unions have become more hostile to TFA. “Teach for Awhile” is a common jibe, although TFA can present studies showing its teachers — after an intensive “boot camp” experience — can perform as well in the classroom as more-experienced teachers. TFA, after all, gets applications from students who are tops in their classes.
Some TFA teachers are going to wash out, or go on to more-lucrative careers, but the same is true of teachers trained in traditional university education programs.
Perhaps one cause of union hostility is that TFA provides recruits for classrooms in the new charter schools. The South Louisiana organization hopes to double its size as public charters seek to turn around long-challenged north Baton Rouge schools in what the state Department of Education calls an “achievement zone.”
If they succeed, students there are profoundly better off.
Is TFA the magic bullet? Obviously not, but recruiting teachers from top students at the nation’s universities — as a supplement, not a replacement, for the teachers coming from university education programs — should not be threatening to anyone interested in progress in education.
Louisiana may be an even bigger part of the TFA story in the next few years, and a good thing.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.