The fallout from the financial crisis is hitting New York City schools hard: With the city's budget strained beyond capacity, CNN is reporting that New York City may have to lay off up to 15,000 teachers from city schools. With the school system in firing mode, Teach For America--the national nonprofit that places top college graduates in low-income classrooms--announced yesterday that it would drastically cut the number of teachers it places in New York in 2009. In previous years, around 500 Teach For America corps members (including yours truly) have been placed in public school classrooms in NYC; next year that number will be about 350 or fewer, with a larger proportion being placed in charter schools than in years past.
Teach For America's mantra is that fixing the achivement gap must be "our generation's civil rights issue." The organization aims to build a movement of people in all professions who have taught in low-income schools and thus have the experience and dedication needed to help fix American education. But that model presupposes that there will always be low-income schools with teacher shortages that can be readily filled by recent college graduates. If budgetary shortfalls force schools to institute hiring freezes, what happens to the vision of a broad-based movement aimed at eliminating educational disparities in America?
If fixing American education really is to become a broad-based civil rights movement, we need to give people ways to get invested in schools beyond a 2-year teaching stint. Not everybody can--or even should--teach, and this was true even in better economic times, when schools could afford to hire thousands of new Teach For America teachers a year. To that end, part of what we are trying to do with The Generation Project is give people who aren't necessarily former teachers a meaningful and personal connection to students in low-income schools. By designing a gift based on your own passions and priorities, and by seeing how something that came from you can so drastically change a child's life, we hope that you, the donor, will become personally invested and involved in low-income schools for the long haul.
Teaching is a powerful experience because it provides real and personal connection to American education. I'll never forget teaching students like Ivan in the South Bronx, and I'll never stop working to ensure that kids like him can have a better future. Because I taught, the plight of American schools is personal to me, and it's something that I will stay invested in for the rest of my life. But standing in front of a classroom isn't the only way you can make an impact on a child's life, or the only way you can get invested in education. My fervant hope for The Generation Project is that thousands of donors will have a meaningful experience through their gifts that parallels my experience teaching through Teach For America. You might not be delivering lessons about how a bill becomes a law, but you can sponsor a class trip to Washington, so that the history and splendor of American democracy can come alive for students. You might not be teaching about plants' cellular structures, but you can donate a microscope to a school so that students can see it for themselves. You may not want to stand in front of a high school and lecture about classical economics, but you can sponsor an essay contest on Adam Smith that can ensure that students will actively engage with ideas that have shaped your life.
Education must indeed be our generation's civil rights issue. But we cannot restrict the movement to those who can teach. At The Generation Project, we believe that everyone has something that they can give to students in low-income schools, and we hope to facilitate your vision for the future in high-need classrooms across America.