Andersen United Community School in Minneapolis is the kind of inner-city school Matt Kramer worked hard to improve during nearly two decades with Teach for America, the national organization that each year sends thousands of new teachers into some of the country's most troubled schools.
On a recent visit to Andersen, Kramer watched and chatted with groups of fifth-graders hard at work on research papers. The encounter left him hopeful, but no less aware of the reality confronting those students, their teachers and the city. Andersen is a "focus school," which means it has some of the worst educational outcomes for students of color in the state of Minnesota.
Leaving the classroom, Kramer acknowledged the stark reality of that achievement gap.
"It could be better," Kramer said. "But it isn't."
Kramer, a Twin Cities native, recently stepped down from the helm of Teach for America. A former partner with the business consulting firm McKinsey, he played a key role in transforming Teach for America into the country's largest teacher corps program.
It's also one of the country's most controversial. Teachers say it leaves its young recruits ill prepared for the realities of urban schools. Others see it as a front for a broader education reform movement that wants to dismantle much of the current public education system.
"Teach for America has its Mafioso tentacles all across the education policy environment," said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a frequent critic who is professor of educational leadership and policy at California State University, Sacramento.
Kramer doesn't pay much heed to the critics. Teach for America has more than 40,000 alumni, including 600 in Minnesota. Once-fresh college grads who were placed in classrooms decades ago for two-year stints are now grown up, and are leaders in education reform throughout the state and country.
"The purpose is about bringing extraordinary people into education," said Kramer.
Kramer has walked through hundreds of hallways across the country in schools like Andersen. He's been involved with Teach for America since 1998, when his wife was a corps member, and has been on staff full-time since 2005. He's been based in Minneapolis, though the group's headquarters is in New York.
Teach for America puts thousands of recent college graduates — many who have never had experience teaching — into two-year positions in classrooms made up of mostly low-income students. In the Twin Cities region, they are trained for six weeks during the summer and then sent into classrooms.
The limited training is itself controversial. Critics argue the program displaces qualified teachers with four-year education degrees. Despite having a local chapter in place since 2009, only charter schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul and Minneapolis Public Schools are permitted to hire its 60 teachers this year.
"For me, personally, it was an excellent pathway," said Amanda Lodermeier, a fifth-grade teacher at Andersen who was a Teach for America corps member in Camden, N.J.
Teach for America encourages leadership after the two years in the classroom, and has created programs for its alumni, including one that puts them in congressional staff positions for a year.
The point of Teach for America is to fuel an interest in education by people who have seen the issues from inside classrooms, Kramer said. Some choose to keep teaching; some choose to start their own schools; some run for office. "Our core objective isn't the way they choose to activate themselves," Kramer said. "Our core objective is that they fully activate."
Alumni in Minnesota are active: Josh Reimnitz serves on the Minneapolis school board and runs a youth leadership nonprofit; Daniel Sellers heads up education reform group MinnCAN; Kramer's brother Eli is executive director of Hiawatha Academies, a network of four charter schools serving 1,000 students in south Minneapolis.
When Kramer talks about Teach for America's purpose, he references large-scale changes and big ideas to fix a broken education system. Some of the program's most notable alumni are heavy-hitters in education reform — former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, who founded the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national network of charter schools.
For Deborah Appleman, an educational studies professor at Carleton College and a vocal opponent of Teach for America, the emphasis on post-teaching careers is a big part of the problem. The program should be focused on recruiting people who want to be teachers, she said.
"For that child, that is his or her only shot at fourth grade," she said.
T. Jameson Brewer, a program alum who just published a book critical of the program, found he and others struggled with Teach for America's short training, which left some ill-prepared to teach, and the difficulties dealing with race in the classroom.
"I'm as critical of that organization as much as any sane person would be critical of Doctors for America or Pilots for America," Brewer said.
Time for change
Kramer has been at the forefront of the education reform tide in Minnesota. He was a Teach for America leader during the founding of the Twin Cities regional chapter. He helped launch the group Students for Education Reform in the state, and served as board chair for the education reform organization 50CAN.
In his time at Teach for America, Kramer championed connections with students and families and encouraged discussions about race and capitalizing on social change — all while managing an organization that saw giant growth periods through the 2000s.
"When you look at the growth of our ecosystem, Matt's fingerprints are just all over it in a really positive way," said Sellers, who has worked closely with Kramer since he joined the corps as a sixth-grade math teacher in rural North Carolina in 2006.
Kramer doesn't know what he'll do next. He spent some of his final Teach for America moments in schools like Andersen, sitting in classrooms chatting with corps members. He wants to unwind but is hungry for another problem to tackle. He said he'll miss the change agents the most, like the ones he's seen grow throughout the state. "If you want to make a change, you can't just have the same people doing it," he said.