Teach for America, which arrived in Rhode Island this week, will be offering a relatively small crop of fresh-out-of-college instructors for the state's public school system: 90 teachers over the next three years.
But the non-profit group, which places participants in urban and rural schools for two-year stints, will serve up more than a modest teacher corps: it will present some compelling ideas about transforming education.
Reformers are increasingly coming to the conclusion that teacher quality is among the most important factors in determining the fate of an urban classroom. And TFA has been studying the elusive question — what makes a great teacher? — for some 20 years now.
The organization's formula got its first public airing in a piece in the January/February edition of The Atlantic magazine. And Steven Farr, chief knowledge officer at Teach for America, has just published a book, Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, outlining six strategies for successful teaching.
The best teachers set ambitious goals for their students, according to the organization. They push to get students' families involved in the process. They plan exhaustively. They make informed adjustments in class. They are constantly pushing to be more effective. And they work relentlessly to best the bureaucratic and social hurdles that litter underperforming school districts. These traits, TFA argues, are more important than experience.
The group's emphasis on teacher quality matches up with a move away from the Bush-era focus on holding schools accountable and toward an Obama-era focus on holding teachers accountable.
It also dovetails with new Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist's high-profile effort to improve the recruitment and quality of the state's teachers and evaluate their performance in rigorous fashion.
Heather Tow-Yick, a Providence native who will serve as executive director of Teach for America — Rhode Island, says Gist's push, combined with support from the Board of Regents and philanthropic community has left her optimistic. "There just seems to be a lot of political will around improving education and trying new things," she says.
There is, for certain, reason to be skeptical about the impact of TFA and the larger prospects for reform. A widely cited Mathematica Policy Research study found, in 2004, that the organization's teachers produced higher math scores among students than other instructors. That study, in fact, is part of the larger argument for TFA. But some researchers have suggested the gap on math scores is not all that wide. And reading scores were about the same for both cohorts.
Moreover, recruiting the sort of highly educated folk drawn to TFA — 11 percent of seniors at Ivy League schools applied to the program last year — will be difficult to replicate on a large scale.
Meanwhile, unions across the country have raised concerns about teachers getting pink slips even as TFA expands. And Rhode Island's broader reform efforts seem sure to be hampered by persistent budget woes.
Change will be hard. But for all the obstacles, there is, at least, an intriguing model in place.