Teach For America: Closing the K-12 Achievement Gap

In response to the growing achievement gap among K-12 students of high- and low-income backgrounds in the United States, prospective teachers are taking the opportunity to contribute their time to address the issue.
Teach for America, a non-profit organization devoted to closing that gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds, provides such an opportunity through a two-year program in which college graduates are assigned to low-income school districts throughout the country to provide educational assistance to children in those areas.
Kevin Kim, a former corps member of Teach for America, said that his experiences in the program were a positive influence for him, particularly in relation to his pursuits for a career in education.
‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,’ Kim said. ‘It was not only one of the most difficult things I have done, but also the most rewarding.’
After graduating from UCI in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in film studies, Kim joined Teach for America in 2004 and worked there until 2006. During this time, he worked at Edison High School in South Los Angeles, teaching math, science, history and ESL programs to sixth graders.
Emily Del Pino, regional communications director for Teach for America, said that, according to a 2004 Student Impact Study by Mathematica Policy Research, Teach for America corps members make more progress in both reading and math than would typically be expected of teachers, even certified and veteran ones.
‘At the end of two years, I felt very prepared to teach wherever I went,’ Kim said. ‘So many alumni go there and then move on to do amazing things afterward.’
According to Del Pino, many former corps members have moved on to pursue other areas of expertise, with the intentions of improving conditions for students from low-income families within the classroom. While some members remain in the field of education to build the capacity of school systems, other move into areas such as economic development, public health and politics to reduce the effects of poverty and improve education.
‘Our alumni effect long-term change because of the insight, conviction and personal strength they gain through their teaching experience,’ Del Pino said.
Kim is currently teaching at Sycamore High School, where a large portion of the student body comes from low-income backgrounds.
Del Pino said that 4,400 Teach for America corps members are currently working in 25 urban and rural areas that have been profoundly affected by the achievement gap. Each district served has been classified by the federal government as a ‘high-need’ local education facility.
‘[Volunteers] are working extraordinarily hard to ensure their students achieve academic success, despite the inequities they face,’ Del Pino said.
Kim said that volunteers are hoping to get parents and children more involved in school and encourage them to spend more time in an educational environment, instead of exposing themselves to negative outside influences.
‘It’s a difficult issue to tackle as a teacher,’ Kim said. ‘We have no control over the outside influences of these children and we have to find the best ways possible to overcome these issues.’
Del Pino said that socioeconomic challenges put added pressures on classrooms, where children already come to school with a wide range of needs and disadvantages.
‘Schools and districts don’t have the systems, capacity and resources to compensate for these challenges, and national priorities and prevailing theories haven’t led to the necessary policies, practices and investments to close the achievement gap,’ Del Pino said.
Despite this, Del Pino says that Teach for America makes additional efforts to compensate for the added pressures that these children face.
‘I think it’s one of the premium educational movements in the country right now,’ Kim said.