A corps of change agents

Teach for America‘s former teachers have formed a powerful corps of education change agents, according to  an Education Next study.

While much of the debate around Teach For America (TFA) in recent years has focused on the effectiveness of its nontraditional recruits in the classroom, the real story is the degree to which TFA has succeeded in producing dynamic, impassioned, and entrepreneurial education leaders.

” TFA is one among a small cadre of organizations that currently includes New Leaders for New Schools, Education Pioneers, and Teach Plus” that are developing education leaders.  It’s an explicit part of TFA’s mission.

Recently, TFA started a new program, the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, which explicitly promotes innovation and entrepreneurship in the education sector. The program facilitates connections between alumni interested in starting education ventures with established social entrepreneurs. The initiative supports TFA alumni who are applying for fellowships such as Echoing Green and the Mind Trust, provides tools for developing fundraising plans and grant proposals, and publishes a newsletter that includes information about funding opportunities and management strategies.

The KIPP network,  YES Prep Public Schools, New Schools for New Orleans and The New Teacher Project were founed by TFA alumni.

The study looked at founders of entrepreneurial education organizations. Where did they start?  TFA was the most common answer with fewer leaders coming from San Francisco Public Schools, Newark Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, AmeriCorps, the White House Fellows program, McKinsey & Company, and the United States Department of Education.  Top managers also came from KIPP, founded by TFA alumni, and from consulting firms and large urban school districts.

It seems clear that explanatory factors include the criteria by which TFA recruits, the organization’s strong and purposive culture, the skills that corps members develop, and the opportunities provided to alumni. Just to take one example, by providing talented young college grads with classroom experience, TFA confers upon them a degree of credibility that opens doors that might open less readily for others.

TFA looks for leadership ability in recruiting new corps members, the study notes. TFA alumni who become education entrepreneurs are more likely to have worked in New York City or the San Francisco area, which have strong entrepreneurial cultures. As education entrepreneurs, they tend to focus on instruction and staffing rather than finance or management.

TFA should be judged not only on whether its recruits continue as teachers but also on the impact of those who leave the classroom, the authors conclude.

Evaluating the principal

At the head of every successful school is a strong, savvy principal who hires, supports and retains good teachers. But the system for evaluating principals’ effectiveness is weak, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time.

Principal-evaluation methods vary widely — from observations to more formal assessments involving input from teachers — but are frequently not meaningful in terms of consequences. In fact, although less attention is focused on principals’ unions than on teachers’ unions, in many places labor agreements make it as difficult to fire low-performing principals as it is to remove teachers.

. . . And if that’s not disheartening enough, consider the report released last month by New Leaders for New Schools, a national non-profit that trains principals to work in challenging schools, which concluded that “most principal evaluation systems tend to focus too much on the wrong things, lack clear performance standards, and lack rigor in both their design and attention to implementation.”

Principals’ powers are limited. Often, seniority rights prevent the principal from hiring the teachers he thinks will be most effective. Despite multi-million-dollar school budgets, the principal may control as little as $60,000, earmarked for supplies, field trips and such, concludes Paul Hill, who leads the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

(Good principals) skirt or subvert personnel rules, figure out how to circumvent budget rules or raise additional funds and look the other way while teachers do things that are technically against various policies but in the best interest of students. Hill argues, however, that these kinds of deft, evasive maneuvers make it all the more difficult to assess their productivity — in terms of dollars spent compared to gains in student performance — relative to others.

The New Leaders report recommends basing principal evaluations primarily on student outcomes and holding central-office administrators accountable for principals’ effectiveness.

If accountability is good for teachers, it’s good for principals. But it’s not easy to figure out how to measure effectiveness and how to attract principals who are leaders, not just paper-pushers.

Charter schools that make a difference

Twenty-one charter schools have made a dramatic difference for high-need students, reports The Effective Practice Incentive Community (EPIC), an initiative of New Leaders for New Schools. EPIC analyzed gains in student achievement at 150 charter schools serving disadvantaged students.

Among this year’s recognized schools are:

MATCH Charter Public School, Boston, MA – By developing powerful partnerships with area colleges and universities, MATCH has developed student support and enrichment programs that are critical to the school’s mission. The school is lauded as one of the best in the country, with 99 percent of graduates moving on to a four-year college or university.

Mastery Charter Schools: Lenfest and Shoemaker Campuses, Philadelphia, PA – As a small charter management organization in Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools are tackling the issue of educational inequity head-on. By placing an emphasis on effective management and proven practices, Mastery is growing into a leader in urban education.

E. L. Haynes Public Charter School, Washington, DC – E.L. Haynes has made improving literacy one of the central foundations of their school community. Teachers use and analyze data from interim assessments to see what content their students are struggling with. During a full-day of professional development following each marking period, teachers then develop action plans for addressing curricular challenges and problem areas.

EPIC will provide monetary awards worth $3,000 to $12,000 each to administrators and instructional staff at each of the 21 schools.

Also, Center for Education Reform is releasing its charter school accountability report today.