Teach For America Turns 20

February 15th, 2011

Category: News

On Friday afternoon, I boarded the train towards D.C. to attend Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit.   I went to reconnect with colleagues, listen to others engaged in this difficult work, and hopefully leave rejuvenated to continue the fight. 

While at summit, I heard about successful efforts of Teach For America corps members/alumni in America’s most troubled neighborhoods, past/future political battles of education reformers, and the wave of education innovation that will soon sweep across America.  While I could easily use this space to highlight all of this great work, there was one story, never told before, that I believe speaks perfectly to Teach For America’s success.

During the last plenary session, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted many of the reform efforts discussed previously, such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants.  However, one story that struck a chord with me was when he discussed the federal government’s recent efforts to expand college access to millions of low-income students by streamlining the FAFSA application.

Secretary Duncan discussed his nervousness as he walked into the IRS building, knowing he was in unfamiliar territory in pursuit of a policy that had previously been sought and not granted.  To his surprise, the IRS agreed to take on this work.  In a very short time span, they worked tirelessly to put everything in place to enable this initiative to take off.   As predicted, the initiative produced enormous benefits for low-income students, with an increase of over 750,000 kids receiving financial assistance for higher education.

After completing the work, Secretary Duncan asked the Commissioner of the IRS, Doug Shulman, why he was willing to go through all of this trouble.  The director replied, “Secretary Duncan, there’s something you don’t know about me.  I’m a Teach For America alumnus – and this is my way of giving back.” 

As Secretary Duncan spoke those words, the power of the movement dawned on me.  Here was one man, deeply impacted by his time in the classroom, who went above and beyond his traditional call of duty to put over half a million American students and their families one step closer to the American Dream. 

After hearing the story, I looked around at the over 11,000 current/former corps members in attendance and realized that everyone is contributing, in our own unique way, towards providing all students access to an excellent education.  While the majority of acclaim should rightly focus on the work of teachers and leaders (both TFA and non-TFA) inside our schools, this story highlights the potential of TFA to bring dramatic and lasting change to low-income students.  By enlisting America’s future leaders in the struggle, TFA is building a coalition of stakeholders, emboldened by their experience, to go out and change the world.  Because in the end, as this story highlights, it’s not going to be just teachers; rather, it’s going to be a coalition of leaders across multiple sectors working simultaneously towards educational equality.  That, I believe, will be Teach For America’s ultimate contribution towards this fight – and is something of which I am grateful to do my part.          

Brett Turner




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