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Teaching in the trenches
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There is much to criticize and little to applaud in today’s public education system, especially if you are unfortunate enough to attend school in one of America’s inner cities.

As the competition from India and Russia for white collar, middle class jobs grows and the manufacturing jobs that used to require no more than a high school education to perform are outsourced to China and Vietnam, it has never been more crucial for America’s youth receive a quality education.

Sadly, there are millions of young Americans who are not even receiving a decent education.

In "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America" author Donna Foote, a former reporter for Newsweek, explores what it’s like for the students, teachers and administrators at Locke High School in south Los Angeles, arguably one of the worst public schools in the nation. Foote followed four young TFA recruits in their first year of their two-year commitment to teach at an underperforming public school.

Foote devotes considerable space to chronicling the rise of TFA and its highs and lows throughout the years since its founding in 1990 by Wendy Kopp. Today the program is one of the most sought after and prestigious post-graduate programs in the country. Much attention is also given to the way the nonprofit is run and the cultural ethos surrounding membership in TFA.

Teachers are constantly assessed on their classroom progress. In addition to the grueling pace set by TFA, the teacher recruits must also deal with the considerable challenges of the classroom. Many of the students they are supposed to be teaching are years behind in their math and reading, not to mention unwilling or unable to behave properly in a classroom setting. The threat of gang and racial violence looms as a constant possibility over the heads of the students and teachers at Locke High School.

The four teachers profiled in the book all came from some of the nation’s top universities. Like most TFA recruits, they joined for altruistic reasons. Foote delves deep into the heads of each of these teachers, chronicling their hopes and high expectations at the beginning of the year as well as their low-points when some consider quitting the program midway through their commitment.

While Teach For America is supposed to be the star of the book, one can’t help but be captivated by Locke High School and the inept bureaucracy that has run it into the ground.

One of the recurring themes in the book is the ongoing battle in Locke between a minority group of reformist-minded teachers and administrators, who want to consider things like longer class periods and longer school days in order to bring their students up to the state average, and the union-backed teachers who refuse to consider it.

"Relentless Pursuit" poses no solutions, but it does raise some questions. Like why are teachers’ unions given so much control over the running of our schools and why does the richest country in the world have one of the least efficient public school systems of any developed nation?

The book also offers a glimpse into what one nonprofit is doing to improve our schools by inspiring a cadre of this country’s best and brightest to think of ways to reinvigorate our public education system so it can continue to compete on a global scale.

This book is highly recommended for all teachers, school administrators and parents who are frustrated with the pace of reform in America’s public schools. - Rachel Oswald

Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America is written by Donna Foote and published by Alfred A. Knopf.