An idealistic Princeton graduate had a dream that young, high-achieving American graduates would be public-spirited enough to work in schools in tough areas which had difficulty recruiting teachers. Her name was Wendy Kopp, and she founded Teach for America (TFA) after coming up with the idea for a thesis in 1989.
She believed that if highly-motivated students worked in challenging schools they would inspire underachieving pupils. Now her concept has crossed the Atlantic and is being reinterpreted here to help solve recruitment problems in London schools. The first recruits for Teach First begin work in September.
Wendy Kopp initially had doubts about the transatlantic transplant. Was the enthusiastic altruism which inspired the American recruits still alive in the Old Country? She told The TES last year: "I've recently been contacted by an English management consultancy, doing some work on education in London, which says it is interested in looking at it. But I'm not sure how much young people in Britain want to commit to working in low-income neighbourhoods in their own country, as opposed to going overseas to do it.
I think we have a different cultural model here."
The British team were also sceptical, so much so that they tailored the scheme to British graduates - in London young high-fliers are being lured by the promise that blue chip companies - 35 businesses are sponsoring the scheme - are waiting for them should they decide to abandon teaching for City lucre.
Teach First business development director Rona Kiley said: "We did focus groups as we started this. We had a lot of questions about that (whether the idea of giving something back would appeal). We really didn't know."
Teach First emerged, an organisation which aims to recruit teachers for two years in London schools where at least a third of the pupils receive free meals. So far 200 have been signed up for 50 schools.
But what can the US experience tell us about the problems these graduates are likely to face and how effective they are likely to be? Can many be expected to stay on in teaching?
The evidence is mixed. TFA is unable to supply data on how well the pupils of its recruits do in the 20 school districts in which it operates, but research published in 2001 by Kane, Parsons and Associates shows that school principals who employ them are very positive. Principals found TFA teachers to be highly motivated, enthusiastic and committed.
Virtually all principals thought that the presence of these teachers was advantageous and almost all would hire additional TFA recruits if given the opportunity. Ninety-six per cent said it was an advantage to have a TFA recruit, just 2 per cent said it was a disadvantage, while 97 per cent were happy to hire others.
The report underlined some inherent weaknesses in the scheme, however. "The most often perceived weakness of corps members is that they typically stay only two years. There is also some concern about their lack of experience in the classroom and poor classroom management skills." Forty per cent of TFA recruits have remained in the classroom since the scheme began in 1990.
Research by David C Berliner of Arizona State University and Ildiko Laczko-Kerr of Arizona department of education, on TFA, compared the results of students taught by recruits with a teaching certificate, and those taught by TFA recruits and other uncertified teachers.
It looked at test scores in 1998-9 and found that students taught by uncertified teachers did less well. In reading and languages the scores of students of certified teachers were significantly higher. There was no significant difference on the maths test, although the students of certified teachers had higher scores. The researchers concluded: "On all tests, and in both years, the certified teachers out-performed the under-certified novice teachers from TFA.
"Our results contradict claims made by TFA advocates that enthusiasm and subject-matter knowledge, as well as a general education in a prestigious university, prepared these recruits to teach adequately in America's classrooms.
"TFA may be a meaningful way for young college graduates to make some money and take a few years out of the ordinary path their careers demand, but they are hurting our young, vulnerable, inner-city students."
Some critics also dismiss the training offered in the five-week summer camp as inadequate. Nicole Sherrin, a Boston College graduate who taught for TFA for two years and was named Teacher of the Year in 2001 (see box, above), admitted when she went into her school: "I was prepared in a sense. I was inspired to work hard. Now they are looking to improve the training, to make it more about the curriculum. It would have been nice to have had more training."
Ms Sherrin, who is now recruiting for the London scheme, says Teach First is taking the best parts of TFA and "making it even better".
So what are the prospects? Those who believe academic high-achievers from elite universities are the best candidates for teaching have a way to go to convince those they seek. Few high-achieving graduates choose to teach in state schools.
Teach First chief executive Brett Wigdortz believes that the strength of the scheme, and the fact that recruits will get qualified teacher status, is a key difference between the US and London schemes. He said: "TFA is much more focused on making a difference. We are much more focused on the skills you get by being a teacher."
Meanwhile, its American parent is thriving - this year TFA received 16,000 applications for 2,000 places - and casting a maternal eye across the Atlantic to see how the offspring is doing. Is it possible there could even be some lessons for the parent?
Wendy Kopp said: "I cannot get over how much support they have built from the business and education community. They are starting out with a much stronger foundation."
So the public-spirited TFA has become business-backed Teach First. Time will tell whether the London apprentice will improve the status of teaching - and the lot of the underprivileged - with its bright role models.
USUK - SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
Teach for America: You want to change things.
Teach First: Learning to lead.
TFA: At least a grade point average of 2.5 (equivalent to a second-class degree). Must be citizens, nationals, or lawful permanent residents of the US. Teach First: At least a 2:1 from a top 20 UK university, but other exceptional candidates are considered. This year 151 of the 156 chosen already are predicted 2:1, five were predicted 2:2. Of these, 71 studied at Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial.
TFA: Five-week summer training institute followed by one-to-two-week induction learning about the community they are to be placed in.
Teach First: Six to eight-week summer training institute.
First year: Classroom mentoring and coaching from specialists to get QTS.
Second year: "Cutting-edge tailored business-led mentoring, training and internships with sponsors." A leading business school will provide training for a mini-MBA. STARTING SALARY
TFA: $22,000 (pound;14,000) to $40,000.
Teach First: In the first year slightly less than an NQT's: pound;17,000 to pound;20,000. Year two, NQT's salary plus inner London weighting, pound;21,000 minimum.
TFA: 6040 split between elementary and secondaries.
Teach First: Secondaries.
TFA: In 20 centres.
Teach First: London.
GRADUATE INSPIRES MATHS GROUP TO RAP
NICOLE Sherrin, a psychology graduate from Boston College, taught 12 to 14-year-olds for Teach for America, at Garcia elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. She was named TFA's Teacher of the Year in 2001.
"At first I was surprised by how apathetic the students were. They didn't speak a lot of English. There were 38 kids to a class," said Nicole, 25.
The "very challenging" school had a largely Mexican intake and 99 per cent were receiving free school lunches. "There was a lot of crime, drugs, and many parents were not able to provide the support the kids needed.
"I came from upstate New York, from a fairly well-off upper middle-class area. It was like being in a different country.
"A lot of the students didn't have confidence in themselves, in their abilities, particularly in maths. Many of them didn't like the subject. I tried to make the subject fun by teaching them songs - we did maths raps."
She added: "At first I made the tests very easy so they could all pass, then they could start to gain confidence. My kids went from the lowest in the district to the highest in the maths tests."
When it was time for them to move on to high school she was told: "We have never seen kids who are so motivated."
"I still keep in touch with a lot of them," she adds.