Nathan Carlberg, 27, is exactly the type of teacher Barack Obama, US president, wants to keep in the system. Fresh-faced and passionate, he troops around room 207 at Commodore John Rogers Elementary School in Baltimore dispensing superlatives to students who get the answers right to his spelling quiz.
“Bingo,” yelps one of the second-graders and jumps up with his paper. Mr Carlberg ambles over. “Let me check,” he says and the class is silent. “He got it right,” shouts Mr Carlberg. The kids erupt, eager to win the next round.
Even a year ago this scene would have been unthinkable at CJR. It ranked as one of the worst five elementary schools in Maryland in 2010 but has since managed to pull itself around. Last year it became a “turnaround school”, which meant every teacher had to reapply for his or her job. Only three were retained.
The turnaround process is one of the signature strategies of Mr Obama’s new school agenda and its flagship Race to the Top programme. It revolves around a simple but controversial notion: giving incentives for innovation. Race to the Top awards money to school districts that can prove they have new strategies for improving teaching and results.