Not waiting for Superman

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 15, 2010

TFA itself is fully aware of that reality. Heather Tow-Yick, the Providence native who heads up the Rhode Island effort, insists the organization is "just one part" of a larger reform movement in the state.

But TFA clearly believes it has something to teach the broader public education firmament. And there are some attempting to learn.

Middle school principals in San Francisco and Baton Rouge, Louisiana have asked their teachers to read Teaching as Leadership. North Carolina is creating a teacher corps that will mimic TFA's selection process. And the New Teachers Project, founded by TFA alumna Michelle Rhee, who went on to a bruising tenure atop the Washington, DC, schools, works with districts in Rhode Island and across the country to place high-achieving college graduates and mid-career professionals in classrooms.

But the lessons of TFA are only so transferable. The typical TFAer — a high-achieving college graduate, single and able to work long hours for a two-year burst — is simply not replicable on a large scale.

And that raises questions about whether the high-achieving teacher — held out by TFA and the broader reform movement as the salvation of public education — is really much of an answer at all.

Proponents of the new reform insist that three or four consecutive years of top-notch teaching could eliminate the achievement gap. And they may be right.

But Ravitch, the NYU professor and critic of the reform movement, argues in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System that this wish for a superstar teaching corps is "akin to saying that baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least twenty games every season."

It is a potent argument. But Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist and leading voice for reform, says that's not reason to abandon the quest. "I think we can do a lot better than we do," he says. "The Yankees are better than their AAA farm team."


TFA's effort to reform education from outside the classroom is already a sprawling affair.

The organization's alumni network claims five superintendents, 45 elected officials, and more than 500 principals. Graduates serve in governor's offices and foundations and at the head of charter school organizations. And the sphere of influence is growing by the year.

In Rhode Island, the structure is just taking shape. But some 60 alumni have made their way to the state already.

Paula Shannon, the Providence schools' executive director of teaching and learning, is a Teach for America alumna. Adam Greenman, executive director of the Rhode Island Afterschool Plus Alliance, taught in Camden, New Jersey. Two alumni work as lawyers at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, an international firm with offices in Providence.

"When you think about what those folks are doing, they are truly representative of the kind of systemic and macro change that we think individuals who join and finish Teach for America go on to do," says Tow-Yick, the TFA Rhode Island chief and an alumna herself.

The arrival of the first class of Rhode Island teachers should position the local alumni network for a significant boost in the coming years. And Brady, the Providence superintendent, says this is where the organization's influence will move from the tactical — helping a few students, hopefully improving the culture of a few schools — to the strategic.

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