Harvard Educational Review
  1. Lessons to Learn

    Voices from the Front Lines of Teach For America

    By Molly Ness

    New York: Routledge Press, 2003. 256 pp. $24.00.

    On the heels of Michael Johnston’s book, In the Deep Heart’s Core, comes the broader-themed Lessons to Learn: Voices from the Front Lines of Teach for America (TFA) by Molly Ness. Ness, who joined the national teacher corps in 1999, writes a book that seeks to describe the broad range of experiences corps members report, and to “tell their stories of hope and determination” (p. xiv).

    Teach for America, the national teacher corps conceived in the 1989 senior thesis of Princeton undergrad Wendy Kopp, has often been criticized by the education establishment for promoting the perception that anyone can teach. While the organization prides itself for recruiting talented undergraduates through a rigorous selection process to the neediest public school classrooms, some scholars argue that the six-week training and weak model of ongoing support is a detriment to schools and students most in need.

    Claiming not to be a propaganda vehicle for the often-controversial organization, Ness describes in detail the typical journey of TFA corps members, from their training to their impressions about teaching gained through their two-year commitment. She shares multiple vignettes of corps members throughout the history of Teach for America’s existence to illustrate the challenges of public education. Ness claims to have spent six months “pounding the pavement” in search of the most diverse group of interviewees from the first decade of TFA. The book offers stories from both male and female corps members of various races and ethnicities, and includes both success and failure in urban and rural classrooms and beyond, but tips toward the positive:

    I write about the successes of Teach for America corps members not to imply that they are saviors in a public education crisis, but to show that young people with little training in difficult circumstances can make significant classroom contributions. (p. xvi)

    Chapter one offers a quick synopsis of the evolution of the organization itself — following a story similarly told by founder Wendy Kopp in her 1999 book, One Day, All Children . . . The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way. Ness sprinkles this history with snapshots of corps members teaching in schools woefully in need of basic materials. She also acknowledges her own passionate commitment to the mission of Teach for America to recognize the day when all children have access to a quality education. All of this notwithstanding, the tone of the book illustrates the salience of this mission to the thousands of young people who have applied to and participated in the corps.

    Subsequent chapters detail the evolution of the summer training institute by presenting the voices of corps members and external critics. Ness reviews the various models for corps member success in the classroom, highlighting the work they do outside the “classroom walls.” She chronicles what corps members have done once they have completed the two-year teaching commitment and offers some predictions about the future of the organization as its ranks of alumni swell.

    Most of the stories shared by corps members detail the way their work with Teach for America opened their eyes about the inequity in public schools. Almost all of these young people share situations where they connected with a student in a way that changed not only the child’s life, but also the life of the young teacher.

    One Los Angeles corps member, Kelly, was transformed by her TFA classroom experience because it gave her insight into “what it means to be poor, what it means to live in the inner city” (p. 182), which now informs her politics and understanding of economic inequity in the United States. While teaching fourth grade, Kelly began to see and understand how the system hindered and ignored the needs of her students:

    Kelly watched students at both ends of the spectrum, who embodied both despair and hope. She remembered her 4th grader Deshaun, who was functionally illiterate. As Kelly began to understand the life challenges Deshaun faced . . . she sensed that he had already been written off by a school system incapable of providing him with the intervention he needed. . . . Kelly remembered her student Jose, the son of low-income immigrant parents. In spite of the challenges, Jose relied on his innate intelligence and his drive to get into a magnet high school. He traveled two hours each way on public transportation to get to and from high school. . . . Kelly saw Jose as a miracle. “He epitomized the children in public schools who have to do so much just to get a fighting chance.” (p. 181)

    Ness leaves her readers with her own personal questioning of Teach for America’s success and how best to reach the goal of educational equity: Can it be reached by increasing the number of TFA corps members? Will providing the best possible training and support be enough? Are the works and the accomplishments of the alumni network the most promising path to educational equity? Throughout the book, she offers critiques of the organization — the main one being that schools in crisis need more than underprepared teachers who commit for a mere two years. She claims to still look at the organization “with intrigue, but also skepticism” (p. 224).

    For Ness, leaving her teaching assignment after completing those two years was bittersweet. In the end, she claims, the weight of her TFA commitment to her students did not leave her shoulders once she was out of the classroom. It seems that her writing this book is another effort to keep acting on her desire to see the day when all children do receive a quality education.

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    Book Notes

    Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms
    By Mark Berends, JoAn Chun, Gina Schuyler, Sue Stockly, and R. J. Briggs

    A Student’s Guide to Methodology
    By Peter Clough and Cathy Nutbrown

    In the Deep Heart’s Core
    By Michael Johnston

    Using Data/Getting Results
    By Nancy Love

    Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds
    By Wendy Luttrell

    Lessons to Learn
    By Molly Ness

    Case Study Research
    By Robert K. Yin