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.
Officials at the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two major teachers unions, would not comment on the rise of TFA or the Rhee appointment, although some D.C. teachers union officials have said they had positive experiences with her.
TFA veterans often express a distaste for education schools, recalling evening and summer courses for teaching certificates that required them to memorize vague educational theories.
Mike Feinberg, 38, a co-founder of the KIPP network, said that when he discovered that a required education school course, offered in a one-week summer session in Houston, could be mastered by reading the textbook, he signed in each morning but then headed for the golf course, sneaking back in each afternoon to sign out.
Robert C. Pianta, 50, incoming dean at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said that the innovators had a point in that teachers do not have to be trained the same way. Pianta said he is interested in a partnership with Teach for America. "Whether we are going to improve teaching and learning for kids and for teachers will depend on our figuring out what teachers need to know and how to support them in doing well," he said.
The most active innovators often see each other at conferences of the New School Venture Fund, which backs charter schools, and through charter-school or school-management organizations, including Edison, Achievement First, YES Prep, Green Dot and KIPP. Relationships are often close.
Jessica Levin, 42, a leading researcher for the New Teacher Project, where Rhee was president, is the sister of Dave Levin, 37, who co-founded KIPP with Feinberg. The chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, Richard Barth, 40, is married to Wendy Kopp, 39, founder of Teach For America. Chris Barbic, 37, head of the YES Prep charter schools in Texas, roomed with Feinberg and Levin when they were in TFA. But he spent most of his evenings with Natasha Kamrani, 38, who was then executive director of the TFA office in Houston and is now a lawyer, a Houston school board member and Barbic's wife.
"There is a core group of education reformers," Rhee said, "who are driving a disproportionate amount of the great things going on right now."
Andy Smarick, 31, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the appointment of Rhee to become D.C. schools chancellor "is the first case that I know of where one of us has taken leadership of a system instead of trying to change things from the outside."
It will be difficult, he said, to overcome the inertia in many school systems and the widespread belief that "nothing can be done to educate disadvantaged kids until their parents shape up."
Smarick said that notion is flat wrong. "But for as long as people say things like that and believe it, our reform efforts aren't going to get the support they need, and the establishment will have a shield against us."