Teach For America’s Tennessee Executive Director Brad Leon can cite the impressive tangible indicators of success for students taught by his “corps members,” but it’s the intangibles that have even greater impact on him.

“The most gratifying thing has nothing to do with the data,” he said.  “It has to do with the pronouns that supporters and corps members use. When they begin, they talk about ‘these’ kids and ‘these’ parents.  At some point though, the pronouns change to ‘our kids’ and ‘my kids.’  It’s a shift at a very human level and it’s hard to define the emotional impact of it.”

And yet, the impact of Teach For America in Memphis classrooms is clear and profound as it pursues its goal of “expanding the movement to eliminate educational inequity.”  If Teach For America is well-known for anything, it is the balance between its insistence on proven results and its passion, and Leon and his corps members in Memphis City Schools embody both.

“Teach For America is teaching a greater percentage of low-performing kids and corps members are getting significantly higher performance,” said Leon.  In particular, the results produced in Kingsbury High School have been fodder for upbeat news reports by journalists accustomed to the prevailing opinion that little can be done to improve student achievement.

At Kingsbury High Schools, three Teach For America corps members doubled the number of students passing the state Algebra I Gateway exam – from 45% to 92% – and led more of the school’s students to score advanced on the exam – 65% – than had passed it outright a year before.  It is a testament to the kind of impact that corps members are having here on the lives of students and why it proposes to double the size of its incoming corps this year.

“Growing to 100 incoming corps members allows us to impact more than 15,000 students by 2011,” said Leon, who exudes the commitment that characterizes the 7,200 corps members teaching in 35 school districts across the U.S.  “There is a sense of urgency because the Tennessee Diploma Project will raise standards and more accurately measure proficiency on standardized tests.  We may see a reality where nearly all schools in our district are deemed failing.”

It is a reality that inspires Teach for America to step up its plans for Memphis, where only 6% of students who take the ACT are deemed college ready. “We feel morally obligated to close the achievement gap in Memphis,” he said, predicting that the charter school network that is already expanding will “explode” after the new standards are enforced and that Teach For American is a pipeline for high-performing teachers.

To speed up its impact, in addition to doubling the size of the incoming corps, Teach For America is also applying to state government to become a certifying agent for its teachers.  Based on its track record, it’s hard to argue that the innovative program does not deserve the chance.
“It is difficult to make the argument that we’re not having an impact on student achievement,” said Leon, adding that five alumni have already become school leaders for charter schools in Memphis.  “We’ve proven that we can make a difference.”

It’s clear that it is a belief shared by a number of Memphians.  The program in Memphis is fully funded.  “We’ve been welcomed with open arms and we have 50 unique donors giving $5,000 or more,” he said.

“The question of what makes teachers effective is largely ignored by research.  We believe ‘teaching is leadership’ and we strive to prove it every day.  Most of all, if we are to meet the new state standards, it is imperative that we increase the quality of human capital in our schools and quickly.”