The Teach for America Revolution


I have a tendency to ignore the Monday papers, which are often filled with evergreen stories that can't get into print when there are more pressing news stories. But sometimes a truly important story appears on Monday. A prime example is Jay Mathew's story on the upper left side of Monday's Washington Post, headlined "Maverick Teachers' Key D.C. Moment." The news peg was the appointment last week by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty of 37-year-old Michelle Rhee as school superintendent.

"But to thousands of teachers and school leaders in their 20s and 30s on a mission to remake public schools, the 37-year-old has become an instant celebrity. She is the first of their generation of educational innovators named to head a major school system and a symbol of their efforts to help inner-city children and challenge the power of education schools, teachers unions, and the many layers of central offices that often smother creativity.

"It might be called the Teach for America insurgency. The program, begun in 1990, recruits graduates from top colleges to teach in some of the nation's lowest-performing schools.

"Teach for America places recruits after six or seven weeks of summer courses and practice teaching. Some crash and burn when they face real classes. But their survival rate is improving, and those who succeed often resolve to spend their lives fixing all that is wrong with urban education.

"When Rhee joined TFA in 1992, there were 560 corps members. In the fall, a projected 5,000 members will be teaching more than 400,000 students—about the equivalent of the Chicago school system, said TFA spokeswoman Sara Grace Blasing.

"Its alumni number about 12,000, and their influence has become hard to ignore."

Teach for America represents an alternative business model to the education school/teacher union business model, which has long dominated American public schools—and which has produced mediocre results for generation after generation. TFA recruits, as Mathews notes, "express a distaste for education schools," which require them to "memorize vague educational theories." And they tend not to be interested in the things that teacher unions have been interested in—avoiding accountability, limiting workloads, enforcing tenure and the seniority system, opposing merit pay.

Mathews also notes that it was TFA alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin who started KIPP--the Knowledge Is Power Program schools that have achieved brilliant results with pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in a couple of dozen large cities. I have visited KIPP schools and have written about them in this blog before.

Two of the great public policy successes of the 1990s—welfare reform and crime control—sprang not from the federal government or our great centralized institutions but from the initiatives of thinkers and politicians operating on the periphery. Education reform has lagged behind; accountability measures pioneered by the states and nationalized to some extent in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 and signed in 2002, have had some positive results. The TFA model and KIPP and other offshoots appear to have produced more gains for the kids in greatest need. Mayor Fenty seems to have recognized this success when he appointed Michelle Rhee. Good for him.


Here's a column on me and Our First Revolution by Tim Follos of the Washington Post's Express.