Not waiting for Superman

Can Teach For America come to the rescue of Rhode Island's struggling schools?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 15, 2010

CALM, ANALYTICAL, DRIVEN Brian Swanson, the Teach for America prototype.

Just off the main drag in Federal Hill, in a brightly painted office, a series of hand-written notes hang on the wall. This is headquarters for Teach for America Rhode Island, the local branch of a booming nonprofit that recruits top-tier college graduates to teach in some of the nation's toughest public schools.

The state's first class of TFA instructors, required to make two-year commitments to the profession, is small — just 30 teachers spread over a handful of traditional and charter schools in Providence, Newport, Central Falls, and Cumberland.

And most of the notes hanging on the wall — the corps' self-proclaimed short- and long-term goals — reflect the modest, if majestic, hopes of a handful of teachers trying to boost achievement for a few hundred kids. But there, in a longer-term category, is at least one missive pointing to a far larger aim: the transformation of the state's struggling public school system.

Call it the Teach for America paradox: an organization that is, at once, too small to have an impact on more than a small sliver of the nation's disadvantaged students and so potent as to play a central role in the most ambitious school reform effort in memory.

The big education story of the last 20 years is the rise of a sprawling network of self-styled reformers convinced that a market-driven approach to reform — charter schools, data, accountability — can obliterate the yawning achievement gap that has long separated the white and well-to-do from the black, brown, and poor.

It is a movement with plenty of stars — Bill Gates and Barack Obama among them. But somewhere near the center of this network is TFA, which has developed into a bona fide phenomenon on the nation's elite college campuses — a sort of Peace Corps for our time; last year, fully 13 percent of Brown University seniors applied for a job with the organization and the numbers were similar at Harvard and Yale.

The group's pole position owes something to its embodiment of the reform movement's signature ideas: that high-performing teachers — more than smaller class sizes or smaller schools or neatly pressed uniforms — are the single best hope for low-performing students; and that traditional methods of recruiting, training, and evaluating instructors are deeply flawed.

But TFA's influence is also rooted in a determined effort to look beyond the classroom — to shape its network of 20,000 alumni into a potent political force; a mighty collection of elected officials and policy wonks and superintendents deeply affected by their two years in the classroom.

TFA wants to reform education from the bottom-up and from the top-down. And that ambitious effort has landed in Rhode Island — a shot in the arm for the state's own burgeoning reform movement; and a source of no small concern for those who consider the market-driven approach to change an unproven, destructive, and fundamentally arrogant endeavor.


For Patrick Crowley, the bright and bluntspoken assistant executive director for the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers union, it is Teach for America's central premise that offends.

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