Marian Wright Edelman, founder and chief executive officer of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), while speaking at the Teach For America summit last year in Washington D.C., argued that the fight for educational equality will become the civil rights battle of this generation. As an educator who chose the Teach For America path, I can say with first-hand knowledge that they are right: We as a generation can no longer afford to remain silent about the disparities in academic achievement that exist between low-income, mostly minority students and their middle- and upper-class counterparts.

We have failed to live up to the expectations set forth by Brown v. Board of Education. Fifty-three years later, our urban and rural schools are in disarray – failing to live up to the expectations of No Child Left Behind, failing to attract and retain qualified teachers and failing our students in the quality public education mandated by the Constitution.

In my southwest Michigan high school, by 1998 all of our teachers had an e-mail account and used the Internet to submit attendance. My science classrooms were equipped with snazzy lab equipment, and we were centrifuging DNA and doing electrophoresis in biology. Our disadvantage was limited to sharing a football field with our cross town rival high school.

In the Baltimore classroom where I taught – in a building condemned by the Health Department – it took six months to receive a computer for my classroom. My students weren’t allowed to do science experiments because of a lack of supplies, inadequate teacher training and administration reservations about allowing students near Bunsen burners. And while we had our own dirt football field, the Baltimore police were always present to prevent neighborhood violence.

The stark difference between my own education and what my students received wasn’t limited to resources. The quality of teachers, difficulty of courses and general school and home expectations also contrasted. My senior students read at a sixth-grade level, and I had several students who were essentially illiterate. When doing SAT practice problems, my students needed calculators to perform basic arithmetic. Only those enrolled in the administrative assistant trade program knew how to type and save documents on floppy disks. While the majority of my students had post-secondary education aspirations, few were prepared for college-level work. Somewhere along the way, their teachers, schools and community had failed them.

But things don’t have to be this way.

While the Ivy League schools have increasing percentages of graduates joining Teach For America, the University is the largest supplier of Teach for America members. I encourage you to go to www.teachforamerica.org and learn more about the organization and the fight for educational justice.

Most graduate and professional schools and major corporations like JPMorgan allow accepted corps members to defer their schooling or career for the two-year commitment because they believe in the Teach For America mission and its impact on both our students and corps members. Leading graduate and professional programs in law, medicine, business and public policy, as well as leading companies like Goldman Sachs, Google and Wachovia, specifically recruit Teach For America alumni for the same reasons. Whatever your long-term career interest may be, Teach For America is an asset because you gain real world experience and learn first-hand about the challenges of our country.

Teach For America afforded me the opportunity to see and live the real difference between suburban and urban education. Before joining it, I wasn’t sure about my future career interests. I had majored in English here at the University and only knew that I wanted to make a difference and that not everyone had grown up as I did. My students have dramatically impacted my life and further deepened my passion to make changes in education. My experience in Baltimore has fueled the urgency of my current studies in public policy and passion for larger changes. I felt and fought the injustice in the classroom for two years and am now gaining a new toolset to fight the inequality at the district, state and federal levels. I now ask you to consider doing the same.

Maggie Weston is an LSA and Teach For America alum currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy.

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