“WHAT ARE YOUR three biggest problems?”
This innocent question from Tomás Recart forever changed the course of his life—and the lives of the many children he would go on to serve. The engineering major was working for a public policy unit at a major university in Santiago, Chile, when he met the mayor of Puente Alto, one of the area’s largest and poorest towns, and asked this basic question. The mayor looked at Recart and responded simply, “education, education, education.” Then he took out his car keys and gave them to Recart so he could drive around the town and learn for himself. “Visit all the schools and tell me what can we do,” he told Recart.
Recart has devoted his life since then to doing just that. Enseña Chile, which was inspired by Teach For America and is part of Teach For All’s 58-country network, now reaches 35,000 students each year through its teachers and tens of thousands of students through its alumni network. Since its founding in 2008, it has sent almost 600 teachers across the country to collaborate with students, schools, teachers, families, and communities to improve education. And Recart has never stopped visiting the classrooms and trying to understand the communities and the children they serve.
It was not the future Recart had imagined. He had studied engineering, completing his senior thesis on public transport in cities. His grandfather was a renowned civil engineer and his father was a banker who expected him to use his degree in a typical engineering job. But Recart was drawn to social challenges, so when he told his father that he was taking a public policy job, it was with the caveat that it would be for just one year, and then he would return to engineering. Then that visit to Puente Alto’s troubled schools, where he observed chaos and an environment of low expectations, gave him a stomachache—and an idea.
“I went back to the mayor and told him it was all about common sense,” Recart recounts. “I said, ‘You don’t have a clue how many students are going to the schools, and if you don’t have a clue, you don’t know how much revenue you should receive from the state. And you don’t know how often the students are attending, let alone how much they’re learning.’”
Recart was so disturbed that children were missing out on a quality education that he ditched his job and began working with the municipality. They began by providing teachers with attendance-tracking software. “I didn’t know anything about education, but I knew you needed information to make the system better,” he says. Once the software was installed, teachers were told that if attendance reached 95 percent or more, they could keep a portion of the funds that came in from increased attendance to support their classrooms. “I saw with my own eyes how 600 kids started going to school. They’d been on the streets, but teachers were calling them and giving them hot dogs on Fridays if they ended the week there,” Recart says. “And those who attended five days were allowed to wear their streetwear—no uniform—on Fridays. We had an incremental increase in attendance. And if I could do this without knowing anything, how much more could be done?”
He ended up working with the district’s schools for four years—and his sense of urgency never diminished. “These kids cannot wait,” he says. “It’s not fair—they’re losing so many opportunities just because they were born and raised in this community.” Wanting to gain more skills to have an even bigger impact, Recart applied and was accepted to Harvard Kennedy School.
“I knew I wanted to work in education, but I didn’t know in what capacity,” he says. In his second week on campus, he received an invitation to hear Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America (TFA), speak at Harvard Business School. TFA, started in 1990, assigns recent college graduates to teach in some of most underserved communities in the United States. “At that point, I was not very interested in TFA,” says Recart. “Sending teachers in for two years does not solve the systemic problems—but I told myself, ‘Let’s go, they’ll have food!’ You know how students are food-driven at Harvard!” he jokes.
He was late for the talk—“I prioritized my quant methods class,” he remembers—but he arrived in time to ask the last question. “The only thing I’d heard at the talk was about her theory of change”—Kopp believes that if future leaders (the TFA corps members) experienced first-hand the problems with education, they would innovate and create change. Kopp insisted that everyone in education was asking the wrong question. “For me this was a slap in the face,” says Recart. “We are thinking of what to do. She was saying: first who, then what.”
He was floored by this realization and asked why TFA didn’t serve children outside the United States. Recart recalls, “Her answer was, you’re not the first one to have asked that. As a matter of fact, we just hired a consultancy to answer the same question.” After the talk, Recart went back to his Peabody Terrace apartment, bought a used copy of Kopp’s book online, read about 10 pages, and said, “This is it!”
At HKS, he eagerly picked the brains of classmates and faculty. “My time at HKS was very special to me. For two years I was able to test ideas with people who were in favor of and against Teach For America. When I was with people who hated TFA, I asked them why and whether we could have coffee. And when I got back to Chile after graduation, I never had any doubt that Enseña Chile was my personal purpose,” he says.“I was convinced of Wendy’s theory of change—first who, then what.”
The journey to success was not easy. “Founding, launching, and maintaining an educational initiative with a collective approach is a lot of work. It’s easy to get caught in the operational details and lose the vision and the dream,” says Recart. “For the first seven years, we were never sure of ending the year without a deficit.” In addition, teachers, who were selected in a rigorous process, sometimes resigned after a couple of months in the classroom.
Enseña Chile, which has dispersed teachers across 10 of the country’s 16 regions, rigorously evaluates everything from student outcomes to the impact of its teachers on the educational system. In 2012, for instance, Enseña Chile’s instructors took the same national test as teachers coming out of formal educational programs. “We got better results than the ‘elite’ teachers who were in teaching programs,” says Recart. “The reaction of the government was, ‘Please don’t do this test again because the teaching programs could get offended.’ This shows how much resistance and tribalism are working against innovation.”
Recart realizes that teachers must, by necessity, play many roles. “It’s not just teaching math, it’s being the father, the mother, the scout leader, the soccer coach—being a teacher in these low-income communities is very hard,” he says. He knows these things because he spends time in the classroom. “One of my biggest takeaways after 12 years is that you have your head and your heart where your feet are. You can be ridiculously intelligent and empathetic, but if you aren’t in the field, you will be asking the wrong questions,” he says. “I’m firmly convinced that if I’m not in the classrooms and communities, I will be a bad CEO.”
Since his experience at Harvard Kennedy School, Recart has strived to answer the right question—in this case, who can best create systemic change in education? He believes that Enseña Chile’s teachers are part of the solution.
“Twelve years into this theory of change, we can say that we are seeing our initial promise fulfilled,” says Recart. “In addition, 77 percent of our teacher alumni work full-time in education, including in the teaching profession and in administrative roles at the Ministry of Education. But what strikes me the most is how this highly diverse group has a common purpose and mindset.” Before they began to teach with Enseña Chile, he says, only 37 percent believed that every child could attain a high standard of education. After teaching with Enseña Chile for two years, 97 percent of alumni believed this was possible—and they said they were willing to take personal responsibility to ensure that students succeeded.
“All the major problems in human history—wars, earthquakes, food shortages, etc., have been solved when we come together as a community and work collectively. Education won’t be the exception. There is no other way to make this happen!” says Recart. “We can see that the biggest impact is yet to come. As our alumni network grows, we see them starting their own schools, their own nonprofits, working in government departments and innovating collectively to make the dream of every Chilean child receiving an excellent education a reality.”
Photos courtesy of Tomás Recart