As The Economist’s education correspondent, I’ve been invited by Economist Conferences, one of the businesses in the Economist group, to chair a conference in New York entitled “Global Education 2020“. It’s just one day, but if I’m going to make the trip from London, I may as well stay longer and visit some schools. Those in the city’s poor neighbourhoods have long been known for having serious problems–violence, astronomical drop-out rates and abysmal standards of achievement–but in the last few years exciting things have been happening under Joel Klein, the chancellor of the city ‘s department of education, and I want to see some of the success stories with my own eyes.
Monday morning, and I’m off to Starbucks on 93rd and Broadway to meet Wendy Kopp, the Princeton graduate who in 1990 founded Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organisation that recruits top-notch graduates from elite institutions and gets them to teach for two years in struggling state schools in poor areas. I know the basics already–TFA been widely copied, including in England. But I quickly realise that I’ve misunderstood TFA’s true purpose.
All three are tired. Their classrooms are not much like the rest of the school where they work, and their heroic efforts are only supported by Chester and each other, not by their co-workers. “The first year was unbelievably bad,” one tells me. “So many years with low expectations meant a lot of resistance from the kids. Eventually they saw the power and the growth they were capable of–but during the first few months we were just butting heads every day.”