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Alumni Achievements

Meet the Alumni Leading Education in Their States

Six alumni are currently serving as state education commissioners and superintendents, pursuing positive outcomes for students at the school-system level.

By The TFA Editorial Team

February 12, 2019

School-system leaders have the potential to make a broad impact across an entire network of schools. And an increasing number of Teach For America alumni have stepped up to lead in these roles, as state education commissioners and state superintendents—the highest school-system leadership positions in state government. With the recent appointment of a new state education chief in Tennessee, an unprecedented six alumni are currently serving in these highly influential roles. A total of eight alumni have served to date, including former Tennessee State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman (Houston ‘92) and Chris Ruszkowski (New Mexico ‘03), the former New Mexico Education Secretary.

The education commissioner is accountable for the state’s entire K-12 public school system (district and charter). They help implement the governor’s vision for education and are responsible for overseeing big projects like state testing and school report cards—the rating system for individual public schools within a state. They also develop plans for how state school systems will meet requirements for federal programs, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

State education commissioners have the power to make system-wide changes that impact millions of students across the state, changes that can result in more students gaining access to an equitable and excellent education. Learn more about the alums who currently hold this role and the paths they followed—from the classroom to leading education in their state.

Penny Schwinn (Baltimore ‘04)
Tennessee State Education Commissioner

Penny Schwinn hit the ground running this year as the newly appointed Tennessee State Education Commissioner. She plans to spend her first few months traveling to every school district in Tennessee to meet with staff and understand what schools need. 

Penny brings a wealth of experience to her role, having spent the past five years working in state education leadership positions in Texas and Delaware. Among her accomplishments, she developed local and state systems to hold schools accountable for strong student achievement. She also supported the development of open-source instructional materials and managed a team that provided professional development to over 20,000 educators per year.

Originally from Sacramento, California. Penny built her early career investing in education in her hometown. Three years after she served as a corps member in Baltimore, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy in 2009, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students. She ran a successful campaign and served on the Sacramento Board of Education in 2012 and went on to lead as assistant superintendent at Sacramento Unified School District. 

Penny is the second TFA alum to serve as state education commissioner in Tennessee, following Kevin Huffman (Houston ‘92), who served from 2011 to 2015.

Jeff Riley (Baltimore ‘93)
Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary & Secondary Education

Since stepping into Massachusetts’ commissioner role in 2018, Jeff Riley is bringing together polarized groups within the Massachusetts education community in order to better serve students. He recently helped forge an unprecedented partnership between a school district and local charter school, testing out new ways that the two systems can work together to offer more equitable school options for families. “In a time of great polarization, it’s heartening to see folks come together and work on behalf of who matters most, I hope, to all of us, which is our students,” Jeff said recently.

Jeff’s other priorities include supporting and retaining teachers and increasing teacher diversity. Only 8 percent of Massachusetts teachers identify as people of color, compared to roughly 40 percent of the student population. 

Jeff has followed a leadership path in Massachusetts schools for nearly two decades, starting as principal of Tyngsborough Middle School in 2001, and Edwards Middle School in 2007. He then served as superintendent and receiver of Lawrence Public Schools. While there, he led major improvements, including extending the school day and giving schools more autonomy. He also developed a strong partnership with the teachers’ unions, all of which resulted in students making dramatic increases in test scores and graduation rates.

Jeff began his education career as a Baltimore corps member in 1993.

Mark Johnson (Charlotte ‘06)
North Carolina State Superintendent of Education

Mark Johnson was elected North Carolina state superintendent of education in 2016. Over the past three years, Mark has worked to improve the way the state handles testing by proposing fewer and shorter tests and advocating for other ways that students can show progress. In the wake of Hurricane Florence last fall, Mark, along with other state education officials, launched a bipartisan initiative, Florence Aid for Students and Teachers (FAST NC), which raised nearly $1 million to help schools recover from the storm damage.

Before leading as state superintendent, Mark served on the Forsyth County School Board in North Carolina for two years. He also worked as an attorney for North Carolina-based law firms.

Mark taught at West Charlotte High School for two years as a 2006 Charlotte corps member—an experience that set the course for his future career. In a local news story, he said, “I realized that I was ready—if given the opportunity—to devote my life to making sure in my lifetime that all students have the opportunity to succeed.” 

Hanseul Kang (New Mexico ‘04)
DC State Superintendent of Education

Hanseul Kang has been a leader in education for more than a decade and is entering her fifth year leading the District of Columbia’s state education agency.
 
Among her accomplishments, Hanseul led the agency to develop a new D.C. School Report Card. The report card helps families understand how schools are performing in terms of test scores, graduation rates, and attendance. Hanseul has also led work to improve quality and access to early childhood programs and launched a Start of School Campaign to help schools prepare for a strong start to the school year.
 
Prior to stepping into her current role, Hanseul served as chief of staff for the Tennessee Department of Education from 2011 to 2015, working on state policies and programs to improve student achievement under the Obama-era Race to the Top program.
 
Hanseul’s experience working with D.C. schools dates back to her time after the corps. After teaching in rural New Mexico and earning her J.D. from Harvard, she went on to join Teach For America’s D.C. regional staff, where she managed a team of program directors supporting local corps members.

Ryan Wise (Mississippi Delta ‘98)
Iowa Department of Education Director

Ryan has worked at the Iowa Department of Education since 2012 and has spent almost four years serving as the department’s director. In this time, he has led the department to launch a new system to track school performance and provide state support for those that are underperforming.  

Ryan was named Policy Leader of the Year by the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2017 for his work on developing teacher leadership and mentoring program and an early literacy initiative to ensure Iowa students are proficient readers by the end of third grade. He also co-chairs the Children's Mental Health System State Board, which is charged with developing and implementing a comprehensive Children’s Mental Health System in Iowa.

Prior to joining the Iowa Department of Education, Ryan was one of the founding staff members of Teach for All, a global network of education leaders co-founded by former TFA Founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp.

Ryan started his education career as a 1998 Mississippi Delta corps member, and taught social studies for five years in Mississippi and Nebraska. He later moved back to his home state of South Dakota to launch and lead Teach For America’s South Dakota region.

John White (New Jersey ‘99)
Louisiana State Superintendent of Education

John White is entering his eighth year as state superintendent of education in Louisiana. He took on this role after serving as superintendent of the state’s recovery school district following Hurricane Katrina. As superintendent, John launched Louisiana Believes, a statewide plan to ensure all students are on track to graduate high school and are prepared for college or career opportunities. The program has increased early childhood education options for families, provided more support for teachers, and expanded career education for high school students.

John previously worked for the New York City Department of Education as deputy chancellor, where he helped to turn around low-performing schools and open new schools.

John began his education career through Teach For America as a 1999 Newark corps member, and then served as executive director of TFA’s Newark and Chicago regions. John also serves as chairman of Chiefs for Change, a nonpartisan group of state education leaders. His articles on education have been published in national news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.