The Evolution of Teach for America

Teach for America alumni could bring a new approach to education reform.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., heads for a meeting with Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., heads for a meeting with Mayor Adrian Fenty.

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If you want to quickly become the most unpopular person in a city, close down a school. No, make that 23 schools. Then, fire 34 principals, offer buyouts to 700 teachers (while pressuring hundreds more to leave), and fire 98 employees from the school district's central office. That's what Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., has done since she took control of the district in the summer of 2007.

Of course, she's not trying to make friends; she's trying to turn around one of the nation's most troubled school districts. Rhee got her first experience with challenged schools when she taught second grade in Baltimore as a Teach for America corps member, and this particular element of her background has brought additional attention to her efforts as D.C. schools chancellor.

For nearly 20 years, Teach for America has persuaded thousands of the nation's brightest college graduates to spend two years teaching in the neediest schools. But TFA's advocates and alumni cite an even bigger goal: That, armed with frontline teaching experience, former TFA corps members will attain education leadership roles where they ultimately can enact meaningful change. As the first TFA alum to gain control of a major urban school district, Rhee could determine the future not only for D.C. schools but also for Teach for America's role in education reform.

When Mayor Adrian Fenty asked her to be his chancellor, Rhee originally rebuffed the offer. "I'd never wanted to be an urban superintendent," Rhee says, explaining that she didn't think it was possible to be successful with all the bureaucracy. She accepted Fenty's offer only when promised wide-ranging authority—authority that may be possible only in places like D.C. with mayoral control of the 123 schools and 50,000 students.

Rhee, 38, was an unlikely pick for the chancellorship. She's a Korean-American from Toledo, Ohio, taking charge of a school system where 83 percent of students are black and where every previous superintendent for the last 40 years has been, too. (Rhee, who has two daughters in D.C. public schools, told one audience, "I know you're probably thinking, 'What's this little Korean woman going to do for me?' That is exactly what I was just thinking!") She might be a visionary—she founded the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to teacher recruitment—but she had no experience as a superintendent.

Baltimore lessons. Much of what drives her today, Rhee says, is what she learned in TFA 15 years ago, teaching second graders at Harlem Park Elementary School in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore. Rhee says the first year was extremely difficult. She cites one girl's story in particular: "One day, [the student] came into the classroom and her head was soaking wet, and I was like, 'What did you do? Why is your head all wet?' And she's like, 'I tried to drown myself in the water fountain.'" Instead of backing away from the challenges, Rhee opted to stay with the program for an additional third year. "I wasn't going to let 8-year-olds drive me out of town," she says.

Her students went from the 13th percentile on standardized national tests to the 90th percentile within two years' time. "People say that kids are disadvantaged because they come from poor homes or whatever," says Rhee. "But the bottom line is that, if kids have teachers with extraordinarily high expectations of them, if they work hard and do the right things, they can absolutely achieve at the highest levels."

Now, Rhee applies that intensity to her job as chancellor, which pays $275,000 per year. As someone who believes that TFA teachers are tops, she's bringing them into the District in unprecedented numbers. Furthermore, she's negotiating with the teachers' union to do away with seniority and tenure in exchange for annual raises and other benefits, a policy that might lure young, high-achieving teachers, like those who come out of Teach for America.

But it's not so much that Teach for America teachers are coming to D.C. as that the TFA alumni are moving to town. They represent 1 in 10 of the District's principals, and several, like Kaya Henderson, Rhee's new deputy chancellor, and Abigail Smith, assistant to the deputy mayor for education, hold influential positions in the city schools. There's Sekou Biddle, who currently sits on the D.C. State Board of Education, and Julie Mikuta, who served as an elected member of the D.C. Board of Education from 2001 until 2004. There's the Knowledge Is Power Program, founded by two of Rhee's friends from corps days and considered to be the most successful charter school movement in the country. The KIPP D.C. chapter is headed by Susan Schaeffler, who was a corps member with Rhee in Baltimore. Other alumni head educational think tanks, craft legislation and policy, or run nonprofits.