Education: The magic of hard work

The educational establishment of Southern California divides fairly neatly into three groups: those who recognize the need for radical and sustained improvement but fear that it’s impossible; those who actively oppose change because their allegiances require them to defend failure; and that small but growing and inspiring group of advocates who see a way to improve and are actually making it happen.

The Compton Unified School District board, which I discussed in this space last week, belongs in the second group. It has made it a mission to thwart reform and protect the vested interests of its failing schools. Elyse Colgan, by contrast, is part of the third group. She is improving the lives of children and, in the process, challenging long-held assumptions about learning.

Bright, articulate, effervescent, Colgan grew up in a family that emphasized education. She attended Princeton, and there she stumbled on Teach for America, one of the nation’s brightest educational lights. It annually recruits thousands of students from American universities and equips them with the skills to teach. Those students become members of the organization’s “corps” and fan out to troubled areas across the country. They are hired by school districts to work in struggling schools and, for two years, they devote their lives to students.

Colgan came to Southern California in 2008 and went to work at Charles R. Drew Middle School, where she taught eighth-grade math. Her message the first day was unequivocal: She expected her students to achieve, and she would do her part to see that they did. “I will show up every day,” she told them.


They did not immediately believe her. At the end of that first day, several of her students asked if they would see her again. Many had not had consecutive weeks with the same teacher for years.

The next day, at 6:15 a.m., Colgan was there. And the day after that and after that. She tutored students after school and invited them to join her for Saturday sessions. It was physically and emotionally draining, but the moments of accomplishment were thrilling. At one point, she wrestled with her inability to explain exponents, and then tried out an approach that compared exponents to aliens. That Friday, when the papers were handed back in, the students had mastered the concept. Some of them drew aliens on their papers. When Colgan recently told me this story — on a day when she was hoarse with a sore throat — she exclaimed and gestured, nearly spilling her tea.

Colgan is white and blond. Her 180 students — about 30 per class — were neither. About 70% were Latino, the remainder black. “When my kids looked at me, they didn’t see themselves at first,” she concedes. But one girl had lime-green nail polish, Colgan’s favorite color. They laughed over that. Later, she played a trick on them, pretending to read their minds by putting them through a clever math program. They were amazed, and bragged to their parents that their teacher was a mind-reader. Gradually, she settled in.

There are neither shortcuts nor secrets to successful teaching. Colgan made promises to her students, and she kept them. At the beginning of her first year, most of Colgan’s eighth-graders tested at between a fourth- and fifth-grade math level. By the end of the year, two-thirds were proficient at their grade level. Her second-year results were even more dramatic.

Teach for America gave Colgan the opportunity to improve the lives of some Los Angeles children, and she took it, one of thousands who have. In state after state, the organization’s teachers are producing results beyond those of many of their peers. Just as important, it is creating a wellspring of engaged young people, devoted to eradicating educational inequity. Veterans of the 20-year-old program are school board members and charter school operators. They work as teachers and principals; some hold elected office. They are a movement.

When I asked Colgan whether it was possible to ameliorate educational inequity, she did not flinch. “Absolutely,” she insisted. “It’s not easy, but we’re doing it.”

Not far from where Colgan made her mark upon her students, the school board in Compton fights the most basic of reform efforts — a push by parents at McKinley Elementary School to transform their school into a charter. Those dichotomous experiences — Colgan’s success and Compton’s obstinacy — serve as poignant reminders of the promise and difficulty of this great challenge. Schools can fight as Compton has, and fail. Or they can welcome innovation and energy, and stand at least a chance of succeeding.