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Teaching for a better America

ONE WAS almost transported back to the '60s as young people crowded into a Washington hotel to hear Marian Wright Edelman and US Representative John Lewis reminisce about the glory days of the civil rights movement. But the real story was how young people are trying to launch a new movement of their own

The occasion was the 15th anniversary alumni summit of Teach for America, drawing some 2,000 people in their 20s and 30s who have taught in some of the toughest classrooms in America. By now, the tale of how Wendy Kopp dreamed up the idea of Teach for America while a senior at Princeton has become a legend among the younger generation. She believed that closing the gap in education between rich and poor and white and minority children is the greatest domestic challenge facing America. Her idea was to recruit graduating seniors from top-flight colleges to sign-up as teachers for two years in urban and rural schools, earning entry-level wages. Within a year of graduating in 1989, she had spurred enough volunteers and collected enough corporate donations to field her first class.

There have been plenty of bumps since. Some teachers unions were resistant to these upstarts who hadn't come up through traditional ranks. Some schools of education looked down their noses.

In recent years, however, Teach for America has taken off, and the eyes of the nation are turning toward it. As media have reported, no less than one out of every 12 graduating seniors at Harvard College and at Princeton applied this past spring for Teach for America. At Yale and Spelman College in Atlanta, the rate was better: one out of eight. Large numbers applied, too, at places like Duke, USC, and the University of Texas. Altogether some 17,000 competed for 2,100 slots. Had they all been accepted, Teach for America would have been the largest single employer to recruit on many campuses.

For children in classrooms, there is an immediate payoff: Some of the nation's most talented graduates are becoming their partners. Corps members this past year had an average GPA of 3.5 in college and an average SAT score of 1310; 93 percent held leadership positions in college. Sadly, the regular teaching profession these days rarely attracts that quality. TFA believes that on average, its teachers over the course of a year lift student performances by 1.5 years.

The media seemingly believes that's where the story starts and stops -- with the two-year time in service. Cynics even suggest that the service is less impressive than it looks because these must obviously be a bunch of elite kids who are padding their resumes so they can make it into a good law or business school.

Wrong on both counts. Experience is showing that the most serious contribution of the corps members actually comes after they finish their two-year TFA commitment. Consider: Of the 9,000 alumni, some 60 percent are still working full-time in education -- with more than 90 percent of that number serving low-income communities. Of those alumni who have left education, about half are still working with low-income communities.

The message that rang through their Washington reunion is that these young men and women have emerged from their two years of service as the vanguard of a new generation of social entrepreneurs committed to education equity and social justice. Instead of ''retiring" into affluent careers, they are trying to bang down an old system that isn't working and replace it with new one that might.

Two alumni started the KIPP Academies, charter schools that have had some of the best results of any schools in the country. Others launched Jump Start, the New Teacher Project, and New Leaders. Altogether, some 80 alumni are now serving as principals for charter schools. One alumnus who stayed on in regular public schools just won the 2005 National Teacher of the Year award, the first recipient ever from the District of Columbia. He says he would not have entered the classroom had it not been for Teach for America. These are results that both left and right can celebrate.

What Teach for America suggests is a period of giving back to the country when you are young creates citizens for life. Universal national service is an idea whose time is here. So far, our political leaders have given lip service but they have never fully stepped up to the challenge with dollars or commitment.

There are many other Wendy Kopps in our midst. They are bringing passion and imagination into building new ventures that can renew the nation's promise. With Teach for America alumni among their best leaders, they are pointing the way to a new ethic of service -- and possibly a new social movement.

David Gergen is a professor of public service at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership.

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