Shelf Life

EXCERPT: A Chance to Make History

Christina Huh Jan 25, 2011

The following excerpt is from “A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All.” Listen to an interview with Wendy Kopp and learn more about the book.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM DAVE, Megan, Maurice, Priscilla, and
other teachers like them has shaped my convictions about the prob- lem of educational inequity and its solutions. I take three main lessons from their examples.


What is most striking about these examples is that they show us what is possible. If Megan can ensure students (including those starting the year reading at a fourth grade level) go on to pass a ninth grade Regents Exam, Maurice can put high school juniors reading on an eighth grade level on a path to graduating from high school and gaining college admission, and Priscilla can accelerate her students who start out so far behind so that they end the second grade on average ahead of grade level, then, clearly, we can solve the problem of educational inequity through efforts centered within schools.

Megan, Maurice, and Priscilla show us that it is possible to do this if we redefine the role of the teacher to mean more than providing access to learning experiences. Instead, these teachers set out to inspire their students to assume responsibility for meeting ambitious academic goals, and they commit to doing whatever it takes to ensure their students succeed–providing the academic rigor and the extra supports necessary to meet their extra needs. They show us that teachers who redefine their roles don’t need to wait to solve poverty before their students can fulfill their potential. Rather, they can partner with children and their families to provide an education that is transformational for them, an education that changes their likely path and enables them to “make history,” to use Megan’s words. This is the most salient lesson of our work.


Every time we study teachers who are having a profound impact on the opportunities facing children growing up in low-income communities, we find teachers who operate like the most effective leaders in any context. They establish an ambitious vision for their students’ success that will make a difference in their academic and life trajectories. They invest others–students and their families– in this vision and in working hard to reach it. They are purposeful and strategic in moving toward it, constantly evaluating their students’ progress and making adjustments to ensure their success. When they encounter obstacles, they do whatever it takes to over- come them, exerting extraordinary time, energy, and resourcefulness. They reflect on their accomplishments and shortcomings, seek and find help from veteran teachers and other colleagues, and improve over time.

Megan, Maurice, and Priscilla each identified powerful motivating visions and goals that would make a meaningful difference for their students. In Megan’s case, passing the Regents Exam in ninth grade would enable students to be placed into advanced classes that would put them on a college track. For Maurice’s students, passing the year-end exam was a prerequisite for high school completion, and gaining college admission was a first step to different prospects than those awaiting the vast majority of Atlanta’s children. For Priscilla’s students, entering third grade ahead of grade level meant that teachers would begin seeing them as gifted and talented, which would influence the perceptions and expectations they would en- counter thereafter. Embracing meaningful, motivating goals can be powerful in any context. Ambitious goals create a sense of urgency, shared focus, and alignment of action that accelerates progress. In schools in our low-income communities, where there often isn’t an expectation of the highest levels of academic achievement–because there isn’t clear and ever-present evidence that it is possible or that it pays off–ambitious goal setting is a crucial element of transformative teaching.

Beyond goal setting, Megan, Maurice, and Priscilla all employed extremely sophisticated strategies to inspire their students to work harder than they’d ever worked in order to reach their goals. By showing students exactly where they were in relation to their goals, and empowering them to track and manage their own progress, they instilled a new level of personal ownership for success among their students. In the context of urban and rural communities, where students are unlikely to consistently encounter classrooms and schools that meet their needs, teachers have to exert extra effort to ensure that students understand that their education and ultimate success are products of their own resilience and hard work–that while it may be unfair, attaining their goals will require greater effort. Through personal relationships, constantly reinforcing messages about the importance of hard work and personal responsibility for success, charging students with tracking their own progress, and engaging students’ families, these teachers are able to get their students on a mission to beat the odds.

We also see that successful teaching requires the same skill in planning and effective execution that is commonly expected of successful leaders in any context. Megan, Maurice, and Priscilla were each obsessed with understanding where their students were against their goals at any given point and using that information to inform sophisticated plans to meet their students’ different needs. These teachers brought intensity to their classrooms each day, maximizing each moment in the effort to move their students ahead, changing and adjusting course as necessary.

Additionally, transformational teaching requires immense resourcefulness, time, and energy, just as great leadership in any setting does. Children growing up in poverty face enormous challenges– often including lack of adequate nutrition, health care, housing, and high-quality preschool programs, for example. Because children in low-income communities are disproportionately children of color, they are also more likely to encounter the effects of societal low expectations and discrimination. These children show up at schools that don’t have the resources to meet their extra needs. Changing their trajectories requires reaching far beyond traditional conceptions of teaching to access the time and resources necessary to meet students’ extra needs and to make up for the lack of capacity of today’s schools. Thus, we saw how Megan worked to spend more time with her students, what Maurice did to orient his students and their families to the expectations of college, and what Priscilla did to garner extra resources for her class.

In sum, successful teaching in urban and rural areas requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires. It requires extraordinary energy, discipline, and hard work. What is encouraging is that there is nothing elusive about it. We can replicate and spread success. By deepening our understanding of what differentiates the most successful teachers and feeding those lessons into strategies for selection, training, and professional development, we can increase the number of highly successful teachers.

Teach For America has been deeply engaged in this endeavor for years now. Given what it takes to be successful, we know we must begin with people who have the personal characteristics associated with successful leadership. We have worked to isolate the characteristics that we can see at the selection stage that predict our teachers’ success and have built an intensive admissions process to identify those most likely to succeed. (The most predictive traits are characteristics such as past demonstrated achievement, perseverance, the ability to influence and motivate others, critical thinking skills, and organizational ability.) Moreover, understanding the approaches that are common across our most successful teachers has led to the development of the Teaching As Leadership framework and support curriculum, which is now the foundation for our teacher preparation and professional development program. Understanding much more about what is involved in successful teaching, we are investing significantly in developing the necessary mindsets, skills, and knowledge through preservice and ongoing professional development.

Given the patterns we see in highly effective teachers’ classrooms, we know that many more teachers–teachers who are merely “good” right now–can in fact be great, achieving a more meaningful and lasting impact in students’ lives. The pervasive perspective that great teaching is magic, and not replicable, is simply not true, and it must not hold us back from cultivating teaching approaches that result in dramatic results for students.


At the same time that these teachers are showing how many more teachers can have a meaningful impact, they are also showing us that heroic teaching like theirs does not offer a likely path to educational opportunity for all. It is impossible to imagine a force of hundreds of thousands of teachers as rare in their abilities and commitment as Megan and Maurice are, and it is impossible to imagine hundreds of thousands of them sustaining the requisite level of energy and devoting the requisite amount of time not just for two years but for many years, and on a teacher’s salary to boot. We can’t expect all of our teachers to shoulder the responsibility of creating transformational classrooms within schools that often don’t have the mission or capacity to change students’ trajectories, let alone provide teachers with the training and professional development necessary to teach this way.

Our own experience at Teach For America bears this out. To be clear, these examples represent the very best of our teachers. Despite years of research and observation, millions of dollars, and the attention of the best minds we could find, we are still working to produce even a relatively small force of teachers who are consistently effecting the level of student progress that we saw in the classrooms of Megan, Maurice, and Priscilla. Yet we would need hundreds of thousands more to close the achievement gap.

At Teach For America we always aspire to be better than we currently are, and we do believe that–in light of what we are learning from highly effective teachers–we can improve to the point where we have a leadership force of teachers who are much more consistently highly successful, even in the most challenging of environments. We believe it is important to persist in this work for the sake of kids growing up today. We also believe that by realizing their full potential as successful teachers, our corps members will become more effective long-term leaders and advocates for the changes necessary to scale success.

But ultimately, the sustainable solution to educational inequity will involve building systems around teachers that support the approaches and outcomes we see in classrooms like Dave’s, Megan’s, Maurice’s, and Priscilla’s. As we’ll see in subsequent chapters, we can create transformational schools that are centered around a vision of academic and life success, inspire student investment and achievement, provide the necessary resources and time, and ensure the professional development necessary to enable capable, committed teachers–but not absolute superheroes–to serve children well.

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MEGAN CHALLENGED HER STUDENTS to make history, and they did. They showed that they could overcome the challenges of poverty, and the stereotypes of children of color, to defy the odds. In the process, Megan has shown us that we can make history, too. We can achieve our goal of providing children in our most economically disadvantaged communities with an education that is transformational for them. Accomplishing this isn’t magic or elusive, but it isn’t easy, either.

A couple of years ago, in a particularly striking example of the impact of transformational teaching, a group of Teach For America corps members and non-Teach For America teachers in the small border town of Roma, Texas, worked together to bring their students to Harvard for a college visit. The teachers and students had spent countless evenings selling nachos at middle school volleyball games, reaching out to local businesses, and hosting various events to raise funds for the trip. The teachers (and a Teach For America alumna who was a principal) raised money by reaching out to friends and relatives as well. Having grown up in one of the poor- est counties in the country, many of the students had never been out of Texas except to Mexico, and most of those who had traveled did so as migrant workers picking or canning fruit with their families in other states during the summer. Most had never been on an airplane.

A number of Teach For America alumni at Harvard graduate schools rallied to host the students. Our recruitment director at Harvard at the time, Josh Biber (who himself had been a phenomenal teacher in our corps in Phoenix and is now our executive director in Boston), hosted one event in which he essentially put the Roma high school students in charge. He brought together a group of Harvard undergrads who were considering joining Teach For America and asked the Roma students to tell these college students what qualities they wanted to see in a great teacher. The Harvard students introduced themselves to the Roma students, going around the circle and announcing where they were from and what their majors were. Josh had asked them to tell when they would graduate, and each of them ended with “I will graduate from Harvard in 2009” or “I will graduate from Harvard in 2010.”

When the Harvard students’ self-introductions were finished, a Roma high school student stood up and introduced himself. With great confidence, he announced, “My name is Heberto. I’m a junior at Roma High School, and I will be graduating from Harvard in 2012.” The room exploded with laughter and applause, but Heberto wasn’t finished. He surveyed all the potential future teachers and spoke directly to them: “I want a teacher who will challenge me. I want a teacher who has high expectations for the work I can achieve. I want teachers, and I want you all to become teachers, who will believe in our potential, no matter what. Even on the days when we act like we don’t want to learn, I want teachers who won’t stop pushing us to be the best we can.” And then he pointed at Zach Blattner, one of the teachers who had put the trip together. “I want teachers like Mr. Blattner. Mr. Blattner has me reading Kafka.” Heberto saw doubt on their faces, so he reached in his backpack and whipped out The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. “I’m on page 98–see?” The Harvard students broke into applause.

Heberto and his classmates’ trip to Harvard was just one vignette in an ongoing story of the transformational power of strong leaders in the Rio Grande Valley–both within and outside of Teach For America–who are investing students, their families, and their community in a vision of transformational change. Just five or six years earlier, when Teach For America was placing few if any teachers in the relatively isolated town of Roma, the area’s top-performing students (in terms of grade point average) were either not going to college or attending a two-year vocation-focused college. A few went to the University of Texas-Pan American down the highway in the Rio Grande Valley. For students in Roma, college was just not an expected step in one’s education, and few imagined attending a selective institution outside of the vicinity.

A steady stream of corps members teaching in Roma have insisted on rigorous college-focused instruction in subjects like AP English. Their work helped lead to the first Roma students passing advanced placement exams in a number of courses, including literature, English, U.S. history, and world history. Some of these teachers ran after-school ACT and SAT preparation courses for Roma students and helped focus students on college-ready writing skills.

Today, high-achieving students in Roma–thanks in part to the support, mentoring, academic instruction, and guidance from Teach For America teachers–have more options and possibilities than they once had. Roma has sent students to top-ranked universities all over the United States and Mexico. In the past few years, its top
graduates have headed off to the likes of Harvard, Brown, Duke, Vassar, the University of Houston, the State University of New York, Austin College, and Georgetown.

As I was writing this book, I was forwarded an e-mail that Heberto sent to some of the Teach For America staff members who had hosted him on that college trip four years earlier:

“I will be a junior at Harvard this coming academic year and I am concentrating in Economics and fulfilling my pre-med requirements. With this, I plan to graduate with an MD/MBA in the future and practice medicine for a while and then maybe go into health care or hospital management. Junior year should be a tough year since I will be taking the hardest Economics requirement and Organic Chemistry during the fall. I will just have to work extra hard! Either way, I digress! Harvard has been amazing and I do not regret choosing Harvard and never will. It has given me so much–friends (more like a family), great opportunities, knowledge, etc. In fact, because of Harvard’s re- sources, I studied abroad in Venice, Italy this past summer and will be implementing a water purification system in an indigenous village in Bolivia probably next summer. I just love it!”

Heberto ended his e-mail with a postscript: He is considering joining Teach For America before going to medical school.

Teachers like Zach Blattner show us how possible and powerful it would be to reach our goal of educational opportunity for all. Ultimately, we will need to introduce critical contextual changes to make these teachers’ efforts more manageable, more sustainable,
and more scaleable.

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