Maverick Teachers' Key D.C. Moment

Michelle Rhee and other Teach for America veterans believe in training great teachers themselves rather than leaving the job to education schools.
Michelle Rhee and other Teach for America veterans believe in training great teachers themselves rather than leaving the job to education schools. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

To many D.C. parents and educators accustomed to failed promises, the incoming schools chancellor is just another, albeit the youngest, in a long line of leaders for the troubled school system.

But to thousands of teachers and school leaders in their 20s and 30s on a mission to remake U.S. public schools, 37-year-old Michelle Rhee 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. Rhee, whom Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) named as chancellor last week and who awaits confirmation by the D.C. Council, and some other veterans of Teach for America are pushing into education leadership and policymaking roles.

"Sometimes I kid them about their apparent plans for world domination," said Kevin Carey, 36, research and policy manager with the Washington think tank Education Sector. He has many friends who, like Rhee, were in the program.

It's clear, Carey said, that Teach for America is "directing the energies of a generation of future leaders toward achieving social justice through improved public education."

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.

Some critics note that, on average, teachers in the program do not raise achievement levels much higher than do other young teachers. They also say that despite some successes, the innovators, who seek new ways of training teachers and running schools, have not found a way to improve learning for the vast majority of low-income urban students.

Still, the insurgency has much momentum. On college campuses, inner-city teaching has become the most popular public-service job for new graduates. When Rhee joined TFA in Baltimore 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.

One in 10 principals in the D.C. public school system is a former TFA member, said Blasing, 26. Several program veterans, including Kaya Henderson, 36, who would be Rhee's new deputy, have important positions in the city schools. The Knowledge Is Power Program, considered the nation's most successful charter school group, was founded by two Rhee friends who joined TFA when she did. The KIPP system in the District, which has city's highest-scoring public middle school, was established by another TFA veteran, Susan Schaeffler, 37.

Several new organizations full of TFA alumni are united by a belief in recruiting and training great teachers themselves -- as Rhee's New Teacher Project was doing -- rather than leaving the job to education schools that critics say give little practical information about how to reach inner-city children. The innovators tend to support smaller schools, closer contact with students' parents, and longer school days and years. They also focus on character education and how much teachers raise student achievement. They want well-trained principals to have the power to hire or fire teachers with less interference.

Some even suggest that school systems should focus on recruiting waves of energetic young teachers, who would spend five or six years in the classroom before moving on, rather than career teachers, who might tire as they grow older.

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