Teaching Profession

Most Likely To Succeed

By Jeff Archer — April 25, 2001 17 min read
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Many Teach For America alumni are calling the shots as they assume leadership roles in education.

Anyone fretting that America suffers from a lack of potential leaders in education would do well to take a tour around the nation’s capital. Here you’ll find Lillemor McGoldrick on the top floor of the Department of Education. As a participant in the highly selective White House Fellows program, she serves as a special assistant to Secretary Rod Paige. At 30, she’s already been a teacher, a lawyer, and an adjunct professor.

Atop another building across town is the office of Julie Mikuta. The 32-year- old former college-basketball star and Rhodes Scholar recently trounced her opposition to become the youngest sitting member of the city’s school board.

And then there’s 30-year-old Susan Schaeffler, who’s opening a charter school in a hardscrabble section of Washington few tourists ever visit. Her résumé includes teaching school in Baltimore, training teachers in East Africa, and launching an after-school sports program.

What put these young achievers on the path toward leadership in education? A common thread is Teach For America, the private Peace Corps-style program that recruits recent college graduates to teach for at least two years in an urban or rural school. McGoldrick, Mikuta, Schaeffler, and scores of others in similar positions here all cut their teeth as TFA corps members.

Lillemore McGoldrick, 30; White House Fellow at U.S. Education Department; Taught in Los Angeles; Led program that sends lawyers-in- training to teach law to public high school students.
—Allison Shelley

As the organization enters its second decade, it’s becoming clear that Teach For America is channeling a wealth of talent, energy, and creativity into educational leadership that might otherwise have wound up in such fields as medicine, law, or business. Many corps members do leave the classroom, but a significant portion of them become movers and shakers in education.

Few places illustrate that point as well as Washington, but the penetration is nationwide. Consider former TFA alumnus William Norbert, now the majority whip in the Maine House of Representatives, or former corps member Paula Girouard, an analyst with the Massachusetts education department. At least three school administrators in Compton, Calif., came out of Teach For America. None is yet 30.

For a group with fewer than 5,000 alumni, they seem to be everywhere.

“They’re hitting their professionals strides right now,” McGoldrick says. “They’re old enough to have some experience, but young enough to have some energy. It’s a dangerous age, and I mean that in all the best ways.”

Even more striking is that TFA has no apprenticeship to help its corps members evolve from teachers to leaders. The organization’s formal training consists of little more than its five-week summer institute for new recruits. Instead, its alumni have mapped their own journeys, often entering politics, launching their own organizations, or returning to school for graduate degrees.

Susan Schaeffler, 30; Charter school founder; Taught in Washington and Baltimore schools; Created after-school sports program.
—Allison Shelley

This blossoming comes at a time when education groups are desperately trying to think up new ways to groom the next generation of educational leaders. To be sure, Teach For America is an alternative model that might not offer the solution, its supporters acknowledge. But surely, they say, any effort that’s making such a disproportionately large contribution deserves closer inspection.

“It doesn’t have to solve all our problems to be a pretty powerful force,” says Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, where more than a dozen former TFA members can be found at any one time. “For most people, the experience in Teach For America has convinced them of the importance of public education, but they’re also very strong critics of the current bureaucratic structures of public education, and I think that is very healthy.”

The Formula

TFA’s founding itself underscores a kind of outside-the-box mentality. Wendy Kopp, a Princeton University student with no experience in schools other than her own education, used her senior thesis in 1989 to propose a program to help schools in poor communities that were hard-pressed to find enough teachers. The idea of a service-oriented venture that sought out the best and the brightest among non- education majors struck a chord, and a year later, the program placed its first cohort of recruits.

Seen by some as an affront to more traditional routes into teaching, the organization immediately sparked a heated debate. Some argued it would hurt the very children it sought to help by creating a revolving door of ill-trained teachers. Though its harshest critics haven’t been quieted, policymakers have grown increasingly intrigued by TFA’s model for broadening the pool of potential teachers.

Darin Kenley, 27; Executive director of Kids’ Computer Workshop, a non-profit after-school program; Taught in Trenton and Newark, N.J., schools; Earned a master’s in education from Harvard University.
—Allison Shelley

The organization’s role in creating education leaders is less well-known, but Kopp says it was part of the grand design from the beginning. Even as she researched the history of other organizations for her thesis, she learned that a major aim of the Peace Corps was to cultivate future leaders.

The key, she says, is starting with the right raw material. Teach For America targets people who’ve not only excelled in competitive colleges, but who also have worked with, or better yet started volunteer groups.

“They’re people who have demonstrated by the time we get them that they’re not just top students, but that they’ve also been leaders on campus,” says Kopp, who just released a book about TFA’s first 10 years. “And through Teach For America, they’re taking on a huge responsibility at a point in their lives when they’re easily shaped.”

Curiously, this is the very generation that only a few years ago was being described as one made up of slackers and self-centered “yuppies” who lacked any larger sense of purpose. But Kopp sees another side to today’s today’s 20- and 30-somethings that Teach For America is able to exploit. Many, she contends, are natural problem- solvers, quick to reject what doesn’t work, and willing to accept help where they can get it. “They want to change the world,” she says, “but they’re smart and serious about how they go about doing that, given all the realities and all of the constraints that exist.”

Julie Mikuta, 32; Elected member of city school board in District of Columbia; Taught in New Orleans schools; Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
—Allison Shelley

What Teach For America provides is an eye- opening experience. As corps members come to appreciate the dysfunctions that plague many poor schools, they also see the potential of the students who attend them, confirming TFA’s mantra: All kids can learn.

“As soon as you step in the door, [TFA leaders] start preaching to you about having high expectations, and that’s the reality that you know,” says Darin Kenley, an alumnus who now runs the Kids’ Computer Workshop, a nonprofit after-school program here.

“Once you get into the classroom and you see the inequity in the system, it’s pretty tough to just walk away from that,” adds former corps member Kelly Amis, now the program director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a think tank here that supports school choice, including vouchers.

Doing It Their Way

Susan Schaeffler is one of those problem-solvers. In her third year at the Baltimore elementary school TFA assigned her to in 1992, she won a grant to start a local soccer league. She recruited teachers from around the city—many of them TFA corps members—to work as coaches. “I saw a need,” she says, “and I wanted it filled.”

Each day, some 100 children marched to the neighborhood’s soccer field, passing boarded-up houses and open-air drug markets on the way. The biggest reward, Schaeffler says, was seeing how the games brought out parents who had never before met one another.

Schaeffler describes her growth during that time in a way that many TFA alumni do: “The first year, I was just learning to be a teacher. The second year, I really think I was good. But I realized that if I wanted to have an impact on more children, I’d need to get out into the community.”

Jonathon Travers, 29; Budget director for District of Columbia public schools; Taught in Compton, Calif., Earned master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
—Allison Shelley

After leaving Baltimore, she spent a year training teachers in Ethiopia, and later taught at a District of Columbia elementary school. Now, Schaeffler is taking on her most ambitious challenge by working to open a charter school in Anacostia, a mostly low-income neighborhood separated by a river from the rest of Washington.

The project is part of a larger effort to replicate the charter model known as KIPP—the Knowledge Is Power Program. The approach, which stresses high expectations for students, staff members, and parents, is the brainchild of TFA alumni Michael Feinberg and David Levin. Its success in serving students at risk of academic failure has drawn national attention.

Last summer, Schaeffler became one of three “fellows” in a new program set up to train educators to reproduce the model. The Pisces Foundation, the philanthropic enterprise created by the founders of the Gap Corp., is underwriting the training initiative.

Schaeffler believes KIPP is just what Anacostia needs. Among other features, the model keeps students and staff members until 5 p.m., and brings them back on Saturdays and for part of the summer.

“What I wanted to do is to start new, start fresh,” she says, “and tell teachers from the beginning that, FYI, ‘You’re going to have to stay until 5.’ That’s totally different than telling that to someone who’s used to working until 3.”

Scott Murphy, 27; Student support specialist, Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md.; Taught in St. John Parish, La.; Studied schools in Japan through Fulbright summer program.
—Allison Shelley

The charter application has been approved, and Schaeffler has found temporary space in a church for the school’s first year, but she’s still looking for a permanent site. Much of her time now is spent recruiting teachers. Already, she’s gotten more than 100 résumés—many from other TFA alumni. The extent of her multitasking is evident in the notes on the white eraser board in her tiny office: “VH1 grant due,” “Send IRS documents to lawyer,” “Observe 2 Teachers,” and so on.

Though often sounding winded, she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “There are very few people who have the opportunity to do what I’m doing—to start a school from scratch,” Schaeffler says. “That’s awesome.”

Frustrated by the rule-bound culture of many traditional public schools, corps members often strike out on their own after they leave the classroom, making them a natural fit in the worlds of nonprofit groups and charter schools. Says TFA alumna Natalie Gordon: “When you’re young and a little bit immature, you don’t necessarily want to have to wait around for things to continue to go wrong.”

Gordon is another case in point. Having worked as a teacher in New York City and in Washington and as a Teach For America recruiter, Gordon now heads up DC Scores, a nonprofit after-school program founded by another former corps member. With an annual budget of $650,000, the program combines soccer with creative writing to teach students cooperation and creativity. Under Gordon’s watch, it has expanded beyond Washington to six other cities.

“The thing I really like about being in a nonprofit,” she says, “is that although I’ve worked so hard, I also have a lot of control over what I do.”

Within the Establishment

But plenty of former corps members seek to fix the system from within. Though having entered the field by a nontraditional route, they quickly put themselves on the track toward administrative posts. Teach For America’s alumni directory lists dozens who now are principals.

Soon to join them is Scott Murphy, a student-support specialist at Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington. About to turn 28, he’s one of the youngest educators in the 128,000-student Montgomery County public schools to hold the position, a kind of apprenticeship for future assistant principals. Were it not for his goatee, necktie, and walkie-talkie, he could be taken for a student.

As one of the school’s top disciplinarians, Murphy meets with parents whose children are experiencing drug, emotional, or behavioral problems. Recently, he briefed the rest of the staff on a new crisis plan in the event of anything from a power outage to a Columbine-like incident. “I think a strength of mine is that I can interact with different kinds of people,” he says.

While attending Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., Murphy figured he was headed toward a career in public policy or the Foreign Service. But in his senior year, after he took an internship at the local office of a Pennsylvania congressman, he started noticing the high school he drove by on his way to the job. He began picturing himself at work in such a school.

Too impatient to spend two more years in college getting the additional credentials needed to become a teacher, he instead attended TFA’s summer-training program in Houston. He got placed at a high school in St. John Parish, La., where he and five other corps members were assigned to teach special education students. “Being in TFA,” says Murphy, “really prepared me a lot for some of what I have to face in this job— not just in teaching, but in working as a kind of caseworker for students, managing all that a kid needs.”

Another Teach For America alumnus who’s stuck with the system is Jonathan Travers, the budget director for the District of Columbia public schools. Bespectacled, slim, and soft-spoken, he looks like a number cruncher. But he majored in American studies at Yale University, and once thought he might like to write advertisements for a living. His interests turned toward education when, as a member of an a cappella group at the university, he volunteered to teach a music class at a school that served mostly special education students.

Teach For America assigned Travers to an elementary school in Compton, Calif., where he noticed that his classes always seemed more manageable on rainy days, when attendance fell sharply. His assignment took place just as California was gearing up for an ambitious class- size-reduction initiative.

Though he left Compton after three years to begin a master’s degree program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Travers never forgot the idea that class size made a difference. He decided to investigate the California initiative for his thesis.

His research, he says, showed that poorer districts often had the hardest time taking advantage of the program because of the way it divvied out funds. The initiative did not account for the fact that some schools started out with far larger classes and had to hire many more teachers to get their student-teacher ratios down to the same level.

Travers came to his current job in Washington last summer at a time, he says, of “super-high stakes.” A new superintendent started just days after he did, and the district was soon to be delivered from the control of a federally created panel after five years. Though Travers works 80 to 100 hours a week, he feels a strong sense of purpose. “I want to take D.C. off the table as the poster child for inefficiency,” he says.

Change Agents

The pragmatism of many Teach For America alumni often shows up in the alliances they make. Results usually outweigh politics. Most interviewed for this article agreed that the 2000 presidential election would have gone the other way if TFA alumni had been the only voters. Yet when the Republican Party invited the founders of KIPP to bring a group of their students to its national convention last summer, they saw the opportunity to spread a good idea as more important than any concerns over the appearance of partisanship.

“A lot of KIPP teachers had to think about that decision,” Schaeffler says. “But I think the main reason why it was made was that we didn’t want to deny a group of children a chance to address the nation, and to address who might be the next president and first lady.”

Which is not to say TFA alumni avoid politics. Former corps members Kaya Henderson and Michele Seligman see it as an important lever for change. Last summer, the two formed a group here called EdActionDC. The idea, says Henderson, was to “energize and politicize” the city’s young professionals around issues affecting local schools.

At the time, a new procedure had just been established to choose the District of Columbia school board that would take over as the federal panel relinquished control. Four board members would be appointed by the mayor, and five would be elected. Henderson and Seligman saw an opportunity to get behind some new blood. “It’s going to be the same people running time and time again,” says Henderson, “unless people like us step up and do something.”

Over the summer, attendance at EdActionDC’s weekly meetings grew to include mostly young people who hadn’t joined TFA or even worked in education. After many hours interviewing potential candidates, they settled on Julie Mikuta, the TFA alumna who had been a Rhodes Scholar.

A native of Canton, Ohio, Mikuta attended Georgetown University here on a basketball scholarship. Through Teach For America, she worked two years in a New Orleans high school, and she spent her Rhodes Scholar years studying Britain’s vocational education system. When she returned to Washington, she helped start a charter school. “I just decided I wanted to do something that was bigger than one school,” Mikuta says about running for the school board.

She started with virtually no name recognition, but EdActionDC built a solid volunteer base that included many young Washingtonians with considerable political savvy.

One of eight people running for the same seat, Mikuta got 45 percent of the vote on Election Day. The runner-up got about 11 percent. Having been sworn in to the part-time, $15,000-a-year position four months ago, she, along with the rest of the board, is now wrestling with a 10-year, $2 billion- dollar plan to improve the city’s school buildings. “I’m very confident that we can bring the schools in D.C. to a new level,” she says.

Mikuta, who is finishing up a doctoral dissertation for Oxford University, is also learning to avoid the kinds of conflicts that can arise when members of a tightknit group assume positions of power.

By day, both the founders of EdActionDC play important roles in education locally: Seligman is the mayor’s senior policy adviser for education. Henderson runs the local office of the New Teacher Project, a TFA offshoot that helps school systems—including the District of Columbia’s—to hone their teacher-recruitment efforts. But they maintain they don’t mix their day jobs with their volunteer work. “No lines have been crossed,” declares Seligman. “Is there the potential to be? Yeah.”

What’s Next?

Such stories inevitably raise the question “What’s next?” Natalie Gordon, who runs the DC Scores after- school program, says several of the TFA alumni she knows who are now principals have their sights set on a superintendent’s job. Could the field soon see an alumnus as a state schools chief? A secretary of education?

For its part, Teach For America doesn’t want to leave things so much to chance. Last year, when nearly 1,000 alumni gathered in New York City for the organization’s 10th anniversary, Kopp began thinking about ways to add momentum. She’s looking into forming national networks of alumni in certain leadership roles, such as principals. Mikuta’s story has TFA’s founder thinking about creating a support system for former corps members interested in running for elected office. The hope is to share effective practices and inspire others to pursue positions of greater responsibility.

“You hear these stories, and you think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’ ” Kaya Henderson says.

But expanding the organization’s base may hold the greatest promise of speeding up TFA’s leader-making machine. Teach For America is in the midst of a $29 million fund-raising campaign aimed at doubling the number of corps members it recruits by 2004. The Pisces Foundation has chipped in $8.3 million.

More corps members will mean more alumni. And more alumni will likely mean that more people who came into the field through a nontraditional channel will go on to become principals, policymakers, and education advocates.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Most Likely To Succeed


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