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.
Turnover debate. Like Rhee, they all were once talented college seniors groping for a future, attracted by the allure of a new community service program. "I think what Teach for America has done quite brilliantly is to create something that's compelling and inspiring to people but also is going to be attractive to high-achieving people because it's very selective," says Rhee. Indeed. Last year, TFA had 25,000 top graduates apply for 3,700 spots. For the 2008 corps, the average college GPA was 3.6.
But for all its popularity with college grads, the program has collected a string of criticisms over the years, most notably that few of its corps members have had experience or training in classroom teaching. Arlen Carey, a social work coordinator at Winona State University-Rochester who dropped out of the TFA corps disenchanted after his first year, says many of the program's applicants just want to pad a résumé. Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, points out the Band-Aid problem: "If schools rely on this steady supply of teachers, then they're less likely to make the kinds of changes they need in order to improve." But Teach for America cites recent studies from the Urban Institute showing its teachers are more effective than those with traditional training, along with independent reports demonstrating principals are highly satisfied with their corps members.
And, according to another study, TFA teachers are staying longer than many people believe: 43.6 percent chose to remain in their low-income placement schools for more than two years, and 35.5 percent remained in teaching for more than four years. Thomas Kane, also a professor at Harvard's GSE, found that while TFA teachers have a slightly higher turnover rate than do traditionally certified teachers, the slightly higher test scores of their students are enough to offset the costs of destabilization.
Setting the turnover debate aside, TFA says there's a "second prong" to its program: It's not training future teachers so much as future leaders. "I do believe that Teach for America alumni have had a gigantic impact on the education policy today," says Kane. "If I'm in a meeting where there's a really smart, perceptive young person who is making an important point that I haven't thought of before, almost inevitably these days, I find out that that person is a Teach for America alumna or alumnus."
The evidence is more than anecdotal. TFA is a data-oriented organization and is very effective at tracking the career trajectories of its alumni. The organization surveys graduates regularly. Some of the results are posted on TFA's website, but most are kept within the organization and used for analytical purposes. A breakdown of survey respondents' career fields suggests that TFA alumni ascend the education hierarchy. For instance, although only 1 percent of alumni from the most recent group (2002-2005) are principals, that number rises to 13 percent for the group that preceded it (1996-2001), and to 20 percent for the group before that (1990-1995). The numbers for assistant principals are similar: from 3 percent, to 7 percent, to 12 percent. And as for superintendents and district-level administrators: from 0 percent, to 1 percent, to 4 percent.
The most recent data show that roughly two thirds of TFA alumni are working in the field of education, almost a third stay in teaching, and the odds that any given Teach for America veteran will be serving as a principal, vice principal, or other administrator are a little better than 1 in 20. TFA has produced 335 principals, 48 percent of whom lead public charter schools, while 47 percent lead traditional public schools.
Although the numbers support the notion that TFA alumni take on leadership roles, Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University, says that, in the national scheme of things, those numbers are tiny. There are more than 90,000 schools in the country; those 300 or so principals are less than 1 percent. "It's a very, very tiny fraction of American public schools, and certainly even in urban education," says Cuban.
"If Teach for America is a drop in the bucket, then I'm seeing a big ripple," Heather Peske, a TFA alum and former director for teacher quality at the Education Trust. At the TFA alumni summit in D.C. this past spring, founder Wendy Kopp said that one of TFA's roles is to make clear paths to the principalship and to encourage alumni to run for elected office. "We're trying to take good ideas to scale," says David Wakelyn, another TFA alum and a senior policy analyst for the National Governors Association. "And that's one of the things that's so exciting about Michelle: Here is someone who's going to be working to scale."
Though nationally prominent, the District is small enough that education reformers could build momentum to create change. Susan Schaeffler says the opportunity has been a long time in coming: "Way back when we were corps members, we used to say, 'If we ran this place, if we were in charge...' And now, 10 or 12 years later, we are in charge, we are the principals, sitting on school boards, working for D.C. public schools. We can no longer turn around...we need to do it."