A guest post by Tom Toch

I’ve spent the last week reflecting on an extraordinary event I attended Feb 12-13-Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary Summit at the Washington Convention Center. Nearly 11,000 past and present TFA “corps members,” funders, and policymakers from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to DC Mayor Vincent Gray turned the convention center into a high-energy cross between a political rally and rock concert-courtesy of singer John Legend, a TFA board member, who performed with an orchestra of students to the roars of the crowd.

My first impression of the event: Wow, an awful lot of the nation’s best and brightest have followed TFA founder Wendy Kopp out of the Ivy League and other top colleges into public education, a sector that has traditionally struggled to attract such talent (a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the mostly private-college tuition spent on the convention crowd: north of $1 billion, far more than on traditional public school teachers, who overwhelmingly attend second-tier public colleges and universities). The event signaled to me that there’s a critical mass of talent streaming into public education that’s committed to a new, performance-driven brand of public schooling that rejects the long-held belief among many public educators that poor kids can’t achieve at high standards..

Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, Richard Barth, the chief executive of the KIPP network of charter schools (and Kopp’s husband), and Kim Smith, the co-founder of the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, are all TFA alums and part of a new generation of education entrepreneurs who have launched dozens of non-profit organizations dedicated to improving the education of disadvantaged students. Indeed, TFA reports that 60 percent of its 28,000 alums have stayed in education after completing their two-year teaching stints. The conference heard from former TFA corps members who are now school superintendents, state legislators, school board members, and other influencers. The crowd cheered Duncan when he told the story of how impressed he was that IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman was eager to simplify federal financial aid forms to make it easier for needy students to attend college-only to learn the Shulman is a TFA alum.

I’ve followed TFA for a long time (I first wrote about the organization at its founding 20 years ago, when I was the education correspondent for a newsmagazine) and I know the criticisms of the TFA model. But it’s increasingly clear that TFA is helping to push public education off its traditional, bureaucratic base towards a new, results-oriented culture.

That’s a bad sign for the nation’s teachers unions. It wasn’t lost on observers that the TFA event drew more teachers than the annual conference of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and that the conference exhibition hall was filled with national charter school networks and other entrepreneurial school reform organizations recruiting TFA members to work in non-traditional public schools. Together with the thrashing the unions have been taking in the mainstream press in the past year, the turnout at the TFA event suggests that David is gaining against Goliath in a battle between the powerful unions and the rest of the education establishment and centrist Democratic education reformers that has split the Democratic Party since the 2008 presidential campaign. The Obama administration obviously doesn’t want to alienate the unions, a powerful source of support, that it clearly supports the TFA wing of reform. The Department of Education last fall gave TFA and KIPP $50 million each.

It’s hard not to admire what Kopp has accomplished in two decades. After spending a day in conference sessions such as “Turning Around Schools on the Front Line” and ” Changing Education Through Social Entrepreneurship,” hearing John Legend, and soaking up the energy in the vast crowd, a member of the original group of 500 TFA volunteers from 1990 leaned over to me and said, “Who knew TFA would end up making public school teaching so cool.” [Image via]

A former senior education correspondent at U.S. News and World Report, Tom Toch is the executive director of Independent Education in Washington, DC.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!