Teach For America – Rhode Island
At MIT Sloan, analytics is all the rage and numbers are king.
Meanwhile, fifty miles away in Providence, R.I., there are high school students who can’t do basic math.
The failing schools of this nation, including in Rhode Island, are attended primarily by poor black and Latino students, said Heather Tow-Yick, a Providence native and the founding executive director of Teach for America in Rhode Island. The proficiency gap between low-income and middle-income students is widening, leaving behind a generation of minority students.
That’s “an injustice,” Tow-Yick said.
“Without access to the same educational opportunities as their more affluent peers, their future life opportunities are severely limed,” she said. “That’s a civil rights issue, and it’s also an issue of economics. We are losing whole swaths of students who cannot reach their full potential.”
At MIT Sloan, Tow-Yick said, she learned, “that at core, stable economies have very strong infrastructure systems, including very good public education.” Innovation economies, she said, require quality math, science, and engineering education.
“We know there is a solution,” she said. “And having an effective teacher in every classroom is a key part of that solution.”
In Rhode Island, Tow-Yick’s job is to reverse the spiraling trend of failing students by placing young, driven, and intelligent teachers in the classrooms where they are needed most. The lifeblood of Teach For America nationwide, recent college graduates from all sorts of backgrounds commit to two years teaching in some of the nation’s worst-performing school districts. Tow-Yick, a Brown University graduate, taught in the South Bronx from 1998 to 2000.
Teach for America this year dispatched 30 teachers into Providence public schools and charter schools around the state. Another 30 will begin in the next academic year. And 60 Teach for America alumni live in Rhode Island, so Tow-Yick reckons she has a force of 120 who deeply believe in and can articulate the importance of a quality teacher in every classroom in ensuring rigorous academic student outcomes.
Tow-Yick believes improvement in public education requires a quantitative analysis approach not historically seen in K-12 education, or in any public works sector. After her own classroom experience, she worked in administration at Teach For America and as special assistant to the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Immersed in some of the major public education problems in the country, she knew she needed training to think about systems-level change in education.
“We are now applying more rigorous analytics to the many aspects of running public education systems and schools, including using student achievement data to drive instruction and allocating limited financial and human resources to ensure optimal efficacy,” she said. “We have not, until recently, been able to look across the country and be able to understand how we are doing from an outcome perspective, and the trends by subgroups of students.”
At MIT Sloan, Tow-Yick took to Senior Lecturer Peter Senge’s organizational behavior and systems dynamics courses and was involved with the Student Senate and the Entertainment, Media and Sports Club. She was on the founding teams of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and the MIT Sloan Sales Club.
Tow-Yick said the entrepreneurship emphasis at MIT Sloan has served her well in starting Teach for America – Rhode Island. After graduating, she worked briefly at consulting firm The Bridgespan Group before returning to Teach For America as a New York City-based managing director in 2008. When she heard a Rhode Island-based program was in the works, she applied.
“For me, this was a no-brainer to apply, because I’m from the community and I understood the challenges,” she said. “The need here is huge. Our kids have enormous potential but are far behind where they need to be.”
“I said to myself ‘There’s no way I’m not going back to my home state,’” she said. “I need to be a part of that.”