Later, I talk with Kosmicki about his impressions. He liked Abigail’s sample teach—but not Michael’s. Kosmicki is not very interested in the things I noticed most: charisma, ambitious lesson objectives, extroversion. What matters more, at least according to Teach for America’s research, is less flashy: Were you prepared? Did you achieve your objective in five minutes?
“Abigail’s sample teach was exceptional,” says Kosmicki, who taught for Teach for America in the South Bronx before starting a charter school in Newark, New Jersey. “It was abundantly clear to me that she had practiced.” The students successfully learned the days of the week “somewhere between the third and fourth minute,” Kosmicki says. He was interested in what Abigail was doing, but he had been more focused on the other applicants, acting as her class.
This summer, those who have been accepted will go to a Teach for America training institute. That’s when Steven Farr, the in-house professor, and his colleagues take over. For them, the challenge is not to pick the perfect teacher but to diagnose strengths and weaknesses early and provide intense, customized training to correct them. Farr is more hopeful each year. “When I see not a handful, not dozens, but hundreds of people being successful in a world where most people think success is not possible, I know it can be done,” he told me.
Of course, thanks to its mission and brand, Teach for America has been able to draw from a strong recruiting pool. (During the 2008–09 school year, 11 percent of Ivy League seniors applied.) Large, low-income school districts do not get nearly as many candidates per open position, and most of the candidates they do get aren’t nearly as high-caliber. Plus, the extreme hours that Teach for America teachers put in—for two years—are not sustainable for most people over the long term.
But if school systems hired, trained, and rewarded teachers according to the principles Teach for America has identified, then teachers would not need to work so hard. They would be operating in a system designed in a radically different way—designed, that is, for success.
This year, D.C. public schools have begun using a new evaluation system for all faculty and staff, from teachers to custodians. Each will receive a score, just like the students, at the end of the year. For teachers whose students take standardized tests, like Mr. Taylor, half their score will be based on how much their students improved. The rest will be based largely on five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year’s end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.
The handbook for the new system looks eerily similar to the Teach for America model, which is not a coincidence. The man who designed it, Jason Kamras, is a former Teach for America teacher who taught in a low-income D.C. school for eight years before being chosen by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to help fix the schools. Rhee is herself a Teach for America alumna, who went on to run the New Teacher Project.