Monday, June 18

Teach for America grad new DC schools chief

Last week, when Washington, D.C., named Michelle Rhee, a Teach for America alum who was running the New Teacher Project, its new schools superintendent, some pointed to a TFA "insurgency" in public education. Teach for America began placing graduates of top universities in hard-to-fill teaching positions in 1990, and the oldest of its 12,000 alums are now nearing age 40. The ones who have stuck in education have almost two decades of experience and are poised to make the leap from classrooms to leadership positions.

Critics of Teach for America say the program's structure — requiring its participants to teach in a high-need classroom for two years — does little to address the national problem of teacher retention, and they complain that the young teachers are ill prepared for the most challenging classrooms. These are legitimate critiques. Still, I've visited schools in the city where the infusion of youthful energy and enthusiasm have benefited the entire school. I've also met several young principals of new schools who launched their careers in education through Teach for America; according to the organization, more than 80 administrators in New York got their start in TFA.

Rhee's position as a superintendent marks a watershed moment for Teach for America, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. As much as it has been positioned as outside the mainstream, TFA actually promotes only what we all know works to improve schools: dedication, teacher quality, and a healthy dose of innovation. The ascendancy of TFA grads in educational leadership — whether in traditional bureaucracies or in non-profit reform organizations like KIPP, which one could argue are more influential right now — reflects less an "insurgency" than the trickle-up effect of getting smart young people hooked on teaching and reforming schools. There's little for critics to fault in that.

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