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participants' responses to this interview.
Sellers, Executive Director, Teach for America - Twin Cities
Sarah Kemper, Teach for America, Associate
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
July 8, 2011
Verne Johnson (chair), Janis Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (phone), Sallie
Kemper, Tim McDonald, Wayne Popham (phone), Clarence Schallbetter
Summary of meeting:
Teach for America ("TFA") is the national corps of outstanding recent
college graduates who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural
public schools in the effort to expand educational opportunity and
eliminate educational inequity. Drawn to Minnesota by the
disturbing statistics on the minority achievement gap here, Teach for
America will soon support 95 corps members teaching in the Twin Cities.
Their efforts were bolstered by the recent enactment of legislation in
Minnesota that will make it easier for all prospective teachers, including
Teach for America teachers, to pursue alternative pathways to their
Executive Director for Teach for America - Twin Cities Daniel Sellers and
Associate Sara Kemper describe Teach for America's strategy in creating a
new culture of achievement inside teachers' classrooms, and the impact
this can have on students' lives.
Welcome and introductions
Sellers is the founding Executive Director of Teach For America - Twin
Cities. Sellers, a graduate of South High School in Minneapolis and
Gustavus Adolphus College, joined Teach For America in 2006 as a corps
member with a two-year teaching assignment in Eastern North Carolina.
During his first year in the classroom he increased the percentage of his
students who passed the North Carolina state standardized math exam from
40 to 75. The following year, he led 97 percent of his students to pass
and was a finalist for Teach For America's Sue Lehmann Excellence in
Teaching Award. He single-handedly opened the TFA-Twin Cities office in
2008, and now oversees 95 corps members here who collectively impact over
5,000 Twin Cities students.
Kemper is Associate, Development, District, and School Partnerships for
Teach for America - Twin Cities. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from
Vassar College having earned a BA with honors in Language, Culture and
Cognition in 2009. For the past two years she was a Teach for America
fifth grade teacher at an inner city elementary school in Wilmington, DE,
while earning a Master's degree in Education. A native of Saint Paul and a
2005 graduate of Saint Paul Central High School, Sara is the daughter of
Civic Caucus consultant Sallie Kemper.
Teach for America approach to preparing teachers is very different from
what we're used to seeing in the education field," Sellers opened. And the
goal is different, too-to enable teachers to change the shared values of
their classroom and their schools in an effort to overcome the "culture of
compliance" that pervades public education.
Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, as a Princeton student in the late
1980's saw a lot of her classmates being recruited by top corporations and
financial institutions. She asked herself, What if there were a top-notch
social service program that directed these people into classrooms to help
improve the education of "at-risk" students? She proposed such a program
in her senior thesis and in 1990, with $2.5 million she raised for
start-up funding, she launched the effort that recently celebrated its 20th
year of bringing talented leaders into the most challenging classrooms. In
its first year, Teach for America recruited 500 men and women to teach in
participating schools in six low-income communities. Today Teach for
America continues to attract top graduates of highly ranked colleges and
universities to undergo rigorous training prior to accepting two-year
teaching jobs at the nation's most struggling schools.
year Teach for America received applications from just over 50,000 young
men and women-most of whom came from the top 5-10 percent of their class
and held leadership positions within their universities. The program
accepted just fewer than 10 percent of those applicants. Recruits, or
"corps members" as they are known, are asked to relocate and serve as the
lead classroom teacher of record in a low-income community school, where
more than 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-rate lunch.
They go through a rigorous summer institute, which includes student
teaching, prior to starting their teaching job. They also receive training
and guidance from Teach for America staff throughout the two years of
their commitment and attend graduate courses in education in order to earn
a Master's degree. They are hired by a partnering school district or
charter school, receive a standard first-year teacher's salary, and if
required, join the local teacher's union.
Changing from compliance-based to achievement-based culture for teachers.
approach to teaching, the speakers said, is often to stand at the front of
the classroom and deliver information. With this approach, as long as you
cover state standards and do it reasonably well, you have done your job.
The goal is compliance with prescribed standards. Whether the students
pick it up-and whether they retain it-is up to them.
The strategy of Teach
for America is different, they said. Instead of this compliance approach
they ask teachers to go beyond mere compliance and focus on actual student
achievement. The organization asks TFA teachers to:
Create a plan to
achieve that goal--including unit and lesson plans.
Invest others in
that plan--do what is necessary to get students to "buy in" to the
goals, which often requires getting parents invested in accomplishing
the plan as well; maintain high expectations.
day--make the necessary executive decisions based upon each day's
results; adjust plans as necessary to assure each student's academic
Reflect on your
experiences--continually think about what's going well and what you can
relentlessly--never stop pursuing achievement, no matter how long or
hard the job. "Our teachers are often the first to arrive and last to
leave; that's what it takes to make progress. There are no excuses."
Creating a culture with 'no excuses'.
teacher first starts out in TFA, the speakers said, something you would
likely notice if you sat in on a meeting between the teacher in the
classroom and a TFA instructional coach is that the teacher will often
begin by making excuses-saying what an observer could reasonably expect
them to say: the student didn't have a quiet place last night to do
homework; the family is having problems; the teacher is not supported
within school, etc.
coach will then say, "That's fine, but what's within your locus of
control?" The teacher is re-focused on what specific things need to be
done in the classroom in order to get the student back on the achievement
track. Sellers went on to explain: "This approach leads to dramatic
student achievement. And that is a transformative experience for the
student as well as the teacher as they both see proof positive that the
old idea that 'poverty is destiny' is simply false. For the teacher this
reinforces the TFA core belief that the achievement gap is ultimately
Achievement data is tracked with almost obsessive attention to detail, so
teachers regularly get clear, unadulterated feedback on student progress.
"Every study we've seen shows that our teachers are effective, often
considerably more effective than their peer teachers-and when our teachers
see tangible results it is inspiring."
It is a
sort of bait and switch, he joked-the teachers are attracted to the
program for many reasons, but once they see that students can learn and
that as teachers they can close the achievement gap, it is enormously
motivating. They stay interested and involved in education forever, even
if not always as classroom teachers. About two-thirds of TFA alumni work
longer term in some area of education or in government positions that deal
with education policy.
The other part of their strategy: Influencing public policy.
for America can't solve the nation's education problem by pumping 10,000
new teachers into the system, the speakers said. The ultimate solution
resides beyond the individual classroom, but will likely stem from the
longer-term influence of the TFA alumni. The program boasts among its
former corps members many education leaders including 400 principals, 15
superintendents (in Washington, DC, Newark, New Orleans, Tennessee, and
elsewhere), and 12 elected officials and policy makers.
communities where we have seen the needle move," Sellers said, "TFA alums
have had an impact." Their immediate goal in Minnesota is to provide
students with a talented teacher, who is energetic, excited about getting
kids to achieve big goals and not jaded by the "compliance culture" and
the low expectations so often entrenched in the school system. In the long
run however, TFA - Twin Cities' goal is to be the talent pipeline for
education reform in Minnesota.
Question and Answer
How does a TFA teacher work within a school?
When I was working in the classroom the past two years in Wilmington,
Delaware, I was working under an "emergency certificate," and earned my
standard teaching license during those two years through ongoing teacher
education. In the position of lead teacher I was responsible for
everything that any other first-year teacher is responsible for.
districts mandate a curriculum. As a TFA teacher I took this mandated
curriculum and figured out how to work with it to produce the exceptional
achievement results we are trained to expect from our students. I used the
training I received in our intensive summer institute, which stresses
leadership and planning, but also covers classroom management, diversity
issues, learning theory, and literacy.
the biggest challenges of teaching, of course, is to figure out how to
best get information and ideas across to students. Much of it is
traditional direct instruction, standing in front of the class and talking
or demonstrating; sometimes it helps to make learning into a game; often
it is helpful to introduce some form of technology into the lesson. On
average, in one hour of classroom time I might have used a 'lecture'
format for around 20 minutes, although that will vary quite a bit
depending upon subject and grade level.
Take us through your year teaching.
I often structured my fifth-grade classes using the 'I-do/we-do/you-do'
format. Something is always needed to grab their attention and you need to
plan accordingly. You need to be able to articulate to students why the
lesson is important, to tell them what they will be able to do by the end
of the day, and tell them why it's important to their future. I would
spend no more than 20 minutes an hour lecturing before moving on to other
activities to reinforce the topic.
learned quickly, especially about classroom management issues. In my first
year I sent students to the behavior specialist a lot. Then I realized
that some students like being sent out because then they don't have to do
the work in the classroom.
is hard not to get discouraged sometimes, keeping your sights set on TFA's
high standards is essential. Teachers must begin by setting a goal and
vision. If you can get to 100 percent passing a test, it can do remarkable
things to the spirit of the whole class.
Are the teachers too constrained in bringing a new approach to a
It depends on the school. Some districts have a prescribed curriculum with
varied degrees of flexibility.
that what you would see generally when you put a Teach for America teacher
into a classroom is someone who has created a new environment within his
or her classroom walls. The teaching will consist of some direct
instruction to a whole class, then breaking them into differentiated
groups: individual students on computers, small groups, some doing book
work, all depending on the individual needs of the students.
Can TFA teachers contribute to entrepreneurship in education?
I think that's the role our alumni play. When they come into teaching they
are operating for two years in a compliance culture-and spending two years
creating an achievement island in a compliance sea.
gives the teachers the experience, which is critical. Almost all of the
schools making headway today are run by people who themselves have the
experience of working in a classroom of poor kids and making progress with
them. I'd estimate that there are 200 really good life-changing schools in
this country for poor kids. Of these 200, it is difficult to find a school
that is making progress with poor kids that is not run by a former
teacher, one who was once an incredibly successful teacher in a classroom
doing the hard work.
You've started with the assumption that kids learn through
involvement-you're setting up teams so students have to work together. Is
that the key to success?
I think truly it's not about what the teaching approach is. What really
matters is the quality of the teacher -the average TFA teacher graduates
from the top 10 percent of their class.
perspective on technology is this: do whatever works. Does that mean that
giving every student a laptop will bring them to where they need to be
academically? No. In many districts there is a lot of money spent on
technology without any real, effective implementation.
new book, TFA founder Wendy Kopp describes the Philadelphia School of the
Future that had everything that $100 million could buy in state-of-the-art
educational facilities and technology. In three years the school was
underperforming the average Philadelphia Public School. Four blocks down
the street was Mastery Charter School, which ran on comparatively few
funds, and was in the basement of a church. It blew them away on
achievement test scores.
How did TFA get into Minnesota in the first place?
This is the statistic I'd like to share about Minnesota: if you're an
African American fourth-grade student you're likely to perform
academically at a higher proficiency rate in Alabama or Georgia than you
would in Minnesota. This was the impetus for our coming to Minnesota.
Minneapolis Superintendent Bernedia Johnson had a great experience with
TFA in Memphis before coming here as deputy superintendent. She was
encouraged by then-Superintendent Carol Johnson to bring TFA in to the
Minneapolis schools. Governor Pawlenty was helpful in the effort as well
by getting the Board Of Teaching to change some restrictive rules. Hamline
University went out on a limb, took a lot of heat, and decided to partner
with TFA to provide ongoing teacher certification coursework. Since
Minneapolis would only take 10 teachers I had to put on my salesman hat
and get 14 charter schools to agree to take TFA teachers as well. So we
started in 2008 with 40 TFA teachers. We are now up to 90 teachers in two
districts, Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center, and in more than 20 charter
schools and are shooting for 180 teachers by 2015.
year Governor Dayton enacted legislation that makes it easier for
alternative licensure programs to train teachers to teach in Minnesota
schools, Sellers said. Teach for America-Twin Cities is looking forward to
expanding their presence in the state and helping in the schools most in
need of the competent talent TFA can recruit and prepare for this
demanding and meaningful service to the community.
all around to the speakers for joining us today.