Anyone interested in the future of D.C. public schools should take a look at Amanda Ripley's new piece in The Atlantic, posted Tuesday. Ripley, whose 2008 Time magazine profile of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee featured the now-legendary broom cover, reports on Teach for America's (TFA) painstaking attempts to isolate the attributes of character and mind that make a teacher great.
Ripley explores the data TFA has compiled on its 7,300 graduates, many recruited from top colleges, who are put through a five-week summer boot camp and sent to teach for a minimum of two years in low-income school systems. She writes that some of what TFA has learned about what makes great teachers is surprising and counterintuitive. Those with prior experience working in poor neighborhoods are not necessarily more effective than teachers new to that environment. Constant reflection on performance doesn't seem to matter as much as plain perseverance. Factors such as extracurricular college accomplishments are more predictive of effectiveness than once assumed. Teachers who frequently check for student understanding, who tightly choreograph their classes to leave not a minute of dead time, are more likely to produce higher achieving students.
A central figure in the piece is Kimball Elementary math teacher William Taylor, who raised the proportion of his fifth graders working at or above grade level from 40 percent to 90 percent in the 2008-09 school year. Taylor is not a TFA grad, but he brings to the classroom many of the attributes that TFA values.
The point is that this is also at the core of Michelle Rhee's vision for District schools and its teacher corps. Ripley notes that the handbook for DCPS' new IMPACT evaluation system looks "eerily similar" to the TFA model, no coincidence since Rhee and Jason Kamras, her top IMPACT aide, are both TFA alums.