Teaching As If It Matters

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Jun 09, 2010 12:01 AM
Teaching As If It Matters

WASHINGTON -- Not long ago, during an hour and a half period, the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington, D.C., had four shootings and a stabbing that together claimed eight victims. Among them was a 13-year-old boy killed by stray gunfire.

Trinidad's local elementary school reflected the chaos around it. "Students ran the school," says Scott Cartland, the new principal of the Wheatley Education Campus. "The kids were running down the halls, roaming."

But on the morning I visited Wheatley, Cartland greeted each student at the front door by name, making sure no one lingered. Upstairs in Amber Smith's fifth grade classroom, disruption is confronted immediately, with a note of the infraction put up on the white board. This morning the children sit on the carpet at the front of the room for a "read aloud" of "Bridge to Terabithia" -- a book teaching that even kingdoms of the imagination are not immune from tragedy.

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Smith is a Teach for America corps member, meaning that fresh out of college, with five weeks of training, she was thrown into the deep end of the teaching profession in a low-income school. Smith is impossibly young and impossibly committed. She lives in the Trinidad neighborhood, walks to school with her students and attends their dance shows and basketball games. Her two-year Teach for America commitment is up, but she is staying on at Wheatley anyway. "I can't leave until it has changed," she explains.

Principal Cartland is a Teach for America alumnus. Two years ago he was asked by D.C.'s public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to direct the turnaround at Wheatley. Cartland replaced 80 percent of the staff and hired seven Teach for America corps members.

Rhee is also a veteran of Teach for America -- indicating something more than a pattern and something less than a conspiracy. Teach for America has managed to funnel some of the brightest college graduates into some of the country's toughest teaching jobs, creating a human capital pipeline from elite institutions to poor neighborhoods. For many, Teach for America is more than a rite of passage. At the start of their service, 17.5 percent of corps members intend to pursue a career in education. About 65 percent eventually do.

Teach for America has become a revolutionary force in education reform because it has taken a rigorous, scientific approach to teaching. Contrary to the mythology of the profession, successful teaching is not a matter of inspiration or credentials. In the exhaustive study of its own outcomes, Teach for America has isolated some common characteristics of good teachers: perseverance, high expectations, and the constant adjustment of methods to achieve ambitious outcomes. When I expressed to one Teach for America official that I lacked the patience to teach fidgety fifth-graders, she responded, impatiently, that "our best teachers are highly impatient. They keep themselves up at night if they aren't making progress fast enough." In other words, they teach as if it really matters.

The epicenter of the education reform movement is now in the District of Columbia where the need is greatest, but where success also will come the hardest. Public school students here perform two grade levels behind their peers in New York City. Last year, Smith taught some children who were "nonreaders" -- meaning they had somehow reached the fifth grade with the reading skills of kindergartners.

It is still too early in Wheatley's turnaround to see dramatically rising test scores. But there is other evidence of success. Smith teaches a boy named I'Kareem, who sits in the front row, raising his hand at every question and sometimes in the lulls between questions, just to get a head start. He is a handful. No thought goes unexpressed. He has some social challenges. But he reads at the 8th grade level, and he told me that in chess club, "I'm always winning." In Smith's classroom, I'Kareem gets extra time and attention. In a chaotic classroom, he would be lost.

"Now it occurred to him," says the book the class is reading, "that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn't Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world -- huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile?"

Yes, beautiful. And for some, so very fragile.