River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 10 2012

The Two Stages of Teach For America: Leadership Matters

Over the past two years, I’ve seen an increased fascination (fixation?) with the ever-evolving activities of Teach For America as a non-profit organization. TFA continues to be scrutinized routinely by people with a range of experiences, perspectives and loyalties. Fittingly, the reviews thus far have been mixed. What is most interesting to me is how TFA went from a “noble endeavor” to a threatening enterprise over the course of a global recession. To me, it seems the shift in public opinion is due less to a concern for children and due more to worrying about jobs. I don’t make that statement to invalidate the claims of either side; however, if the welfare of children was truly THE top concern, more critics should have been complaining more vehemently about the impact of TFA years ago! If anything, people are upset with Teach For America because they don’t fully understand its strategy and underestimated Wendy Kopp’s long-term strategy.

As an ambitious college student who wanted to teach, I could have done the Boston Teacher’s Residency or a similar program aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of talent in the classroom. Instead, I chose to pursue TFA because of its broader view on education reform. As a big picture thinker, I was convinced by TFA’s long-term strategy, in which it leverages its alumni to create systemic change through educational policy, law, business, and other forms of related leadership. I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me, but I knew that if I choose to leave the classroom, I could subsequently pair my teaching experience with my other skill sets in order to create the conditions I wanted to see in the classroom. I could still “be the change” albeit in a different context.

Is this strategy a major problem? Well, TFA Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp often says: ending educational inequality is going to require systemic change and a long-term, sustained effort.”  Does anyone truly disagree with that claim? No, they don’t. Where it gets a bit messy is in the details. Kopp elaborated in her Huffington Post opinion piece: “In Defense of Optimism in Education“:

“There are no shortcuts and no silver bullets. At the core of the solution will be leadership — people who will pursue bold change as teachers, principals, and district leaders, and who will work to shape a supportive policy and community environment as political leaders, policy makers, and advocates. More often than not, the most effective leaders have been shaped by teaching successfully in high needs classrooms. Because of their experience, they know that it is possible for low-income children to achieve on an absolute scale and understand what we need to do to allow them to fulfill their potential.”

Now, I’m not wholeheartedly endorsing this position, but as critical thinkers, it is important for people to consider her words. Every day on Twitter I see another educator lamenting yet another politician’s lack of classroom experience. I read things such as “I bet he wouldn’t last in a classroom!” or “they should all take a standardized test!” or “he doesn’t even send his kids to public school!” So, we are saying that we want our elected officials to have classroom experienceor at the very least act in ways that demonstrate a high regard and respect for the teaching profession. That’s perfectly valid- until those same concerns are flipped are used to criticize TFA. Understand that TFA’s long view is a movement where its “alumni assume leadership in every sector and at every level of policy in order to improve schools and to take the pressure off of schools by improving conditions in low-income communities.

This is not a bad thing. However, TFA will remain under attack until it acknowledges a few things. I won’t elaborate too much on these points, but the flagged areas include:

  1. Claiming (at any point) that newly minted college graduates are “better” than traditional teachers.
  2. Cheaper, often “temporary” corps members displacing more expensive veteran teachers.
  3. Alumni such as Michelle Rhee using their own experience to trump the experiences (often more extensive) of other educators or claiming to speak for everyone.
  4. Not being particularly upfront or transparent about the long-term plan of TFA especially in relation to charter schools.
  5. Having numerous corporate or controversial stakeholders and donors.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that TFA is not the same everywhere. TFA has what I call its “Band-Aid” phase and also a second “Brand-Aid” phase. In the first stage, TFA serves as a much-needed supplier of well-educated, highly motivated talent to understaffed, under-resourced public schools in low-income urban and rural areas. In some places, such as the Mississippi Delta, it remains stuck in this cycle of rotating corps members. Ideally, problems with teacher retention would have been solved by now and these schools could maintain some semblance of sustainable continuity. Nonetheless, this has not happened mostly due to those pesky socioeconomic factors few policymakers like to acknowledge. As a former 8th Grade Science teacher in a neighborhood school that was 99% African-American and 99% low-income, I’m offended when critics claim that TFA takes veteran teacher’s jobs. If those educators in New York can’t find a job, please move down to the Delta, where teaching jobs are much more plentiful. [I don't say that to dismiss legit cases of TFA shenanigans]

Likewise, few people wanted to teach poor black kids when the economy was fine, so I lean a bit more towards skeptical than sympathetic when I hear cries that TFA “interns” are taking the teaching jobs of highly qualified people. Like I said, no one was clamoring to teach these low-income children before the economy tanked. Is it really about the children? As a society, we were perfectly fine with letting Wendy Kopp’s cadre of ambitious youth staff high-risk schools when they were viewed as benign. To me, this is a slap in the face. I dare anyone to come teach in Greenville, MS. As we often say down here: “don’t do me like that!” In the Delta, TFAers (the good ones at least) and veterans (again, the good ones) work together because we are ALL trying to help our children survive in the environments they were born into. Heck, some days we are simply trying to survive ourselves. What people should actually take issue with is that our highest need schools have to rely on TFA in the first place. I don’t care how “effective” TFA becomes, it’s not fair as it stands currently. What we, again as a society, are essentially saying is the following: “Teach For America is noble and worthy so long as they don’t teach MY children and don’t take MY job. So long as it’s not in MY backyard, I’m okay with throwing young graduates into tough situations that I don’t want to deal with myself. I’m also fine with their being economically depressed, racially isolated parts of the country, so long as they don’t affect my taxes. Don’t tax me, bro!” How genuinely disgusting, and authentically un-American!

Outside of the Delta and a few regions, TFA has drawn increased ire because it is blossoming into the second stage of its evolution, which I deem the “Brand-Aid” stage. Having built up its brand and clout in education circles, TFA alumni are able to shape policy and the direction of education reform in some regions. We are seeing this in New Orleans, Houston, D.C., Indianapolis, and New York, to name a few. In these cities, TFA alumni have increasing positions of authority in government and school/district leadership roles and can leverage their networks and knowledge to create change for students. For proponents of TFA, this is taken of evidence of the movement coming full circle. On the other hand, for detractors, the prospect of TFA “infiltrating all levels of government is horrifying.

I agree with Gary Rubinstein, who asserts: “thinking schools can overcome all the obstacles of poverty by making teachers fear for their jobs is something that can only be believed by someone who knows very little about schools.”At the same time, would you rather have a politician crafting education policy who has taught or hasn’t taught? Ideally, you would have either a politician with no experience in education deferring out of humility or a teacher-turned-policymaker being informed yet open to discussion. Instead, we have non-educator politicians making bad policy out of self-interest and/or ignorance or, perhaps worse, policymakers with education experience being emboldened and blinded in thinking their perspective is the best thing since the renaissance. Perhaps it is time to think of Michelle Rhee as a renegade rather than the standard-bearer of the TFA Alumni Movement for education reform. Even more significant, it is crucial to remember that TFA is not the only player in the game. There are multiple organizations with stakes in improving educational outcomes for all children from teacher’s unions to universities to the State Department, and it would be unwise to discount their impact.

As for my part in the struggle, I’m currently interning at the Mississippi Department of Education through Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), TFA’s partner organization. In this role, I seek to learn more about the educational landscape while contributing to furthering progress through my skills and experiences. Already, I’ve seen how the varying capacities of leaders strongly affect the quality of education the affected children receive. I do believe it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I’m sure TFA would love for me to work my way up the ranks, but we’ll have to see about that. I’ll elaborate more on that in my next post-teaching post.

14 Responses

  1. Please keep in mind that Teach for America’s original mission was to fill teacher shortage areas with smart people who were literally better than nothing. As Gary Rubinstein aptly points out (http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2011/10/31/why-i-did-tfa-and-why-you-shouldnt/), that mission unfortunately changed and warped over time into creating “better” teachers and to the claim that creating future leaders was their true intention. And not just any leaders, leaders who will push the corporate education reform agenda. This shift in philosophy is why TFA is now getting more pushback from educators like me.

    Why is TFA trying to expand in the middle of an economic downturn when thousands of certified teachers are losing their jobs? There are over 400 current TFA CMs in my city of Chicago despite a massive teacher surplus. I am hearing about hundreds of applicants applying for a single position. I would like to see the numbers about where actual teacher shortages still exist in this country, because outside a few remote regions–like the Mississippi Delta– I do not believe they exist. I know they don’t in places like Seattle, but still TFA fought a vigorous battle to get CMs there. Why?

    Also, just to point out one more observation, I do not necessarily want teachers to become politicians. What I want is for politicians to LISTEN to the experts in education, the teachers. Not to Wendy Kopp or Bill Gates or Arne Duncan. And speaking of Duncan, I do believe that key positions at the Dept of Ed should be filled by experienced educators who have already put in the time to understand what schools need. Even two years in the classroom is not enough. When teachers complain “you couldn’t last a day in my classroom” that speaks to the frustration of educators with ridiculous current top-down policies that not only don’t help schools, they actually harm them.

    And as for LEE, I’ve been trying to learn more about this organization for some time, and this is the sort of very worrisome writings that come up: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/08/1089724/-The-ALEC-Teach-for-America-Connection I would love to know more about the specific types of reform that this organization supports. Is it for equalizing school funding, supporting well-rounded curriculum including the arts, languages, and music in all schools, reducing class size, investing more resources in neighborhood schools, and supporting grassroots organizations? Or does it train leaders to push for more charter schools, privatization, accountability, high-stakes testing, weakening of unions, the dismantling of collective bargaining rights, and loss of democratic voice in our schools?

    In all, there has always been some pushback from educators on TFA (look no farther than Linda Darling-Hammond) but the pushback will get louder as TFA expands its reach outside classrooms and into the vast, powerful, profitable venture of corporate education reform.

    • I agree that ideally EVERY non-profit org that fills a social need should aim to “make itself irrelevant.” However, what I’ve observed is that such organizations can’t do that because there is such an emphasis on fund raising, which TFA does very well. I don’t know if we can fault it for that. We should explore the link between corporate funding and non-profit activities, because I don’t like the dynamic of this ironic tension.

      “Why is TFA trying to expand in the middle of an economic downturn when thousands of certified teachers are losing their jobs?”
      -like any well-run organization, TFA formed its strategy before the recession. Accordingly, it can’t just up and stop its momentum. I mean, it could, but that wouldn’t be in it’s org prerogative. If anything, this is why TFA has moved to charters, so it can sustain the tremendous growth.

      “What I want is for politicians to LISTEN to the experts in education, the teachers.”
      -I agree. How do we get there? I’d say that having politicians who are former educators is a good step in the right direction.

      “Or does it train leaders to push for more charter schools, privatization, accountability, high-stakes testing, weakening of unions, the dismantling of collective bargaining rights, and loss of democratic voice in our schools? ”
      -TFA informs beliefs but it doesn’t create them. CM’s come into the program with their own opinions. The analytical ones are perhaps more skeptical. The TFA corps is much less homogenous in mindsets and ed reform beliefs than you might think. It is true, however, that the most prominent TFA alums are mostly as you described.

      I know of Linda Darling-Hammond’s work. Why was she the lone shark?

      • I appreciate the reply. But I still believe that TFA has lost its way. There was no reason to push TFA into new territory where there are no teacher shortages. If TFA’s strategy is to expand regardless of need, I think they need to rethink that strategy. Why can’t TFA use those great fundraising skills to improve its training or to created an “intern” year for 1st year members who then can learn teaching in a veteran teachers classroom with a co-teaching or assistant-teaching model? There is no need to keep forging ahead thoughtlessly.

        I have no problem with teachers becoming politicians, I just don’t think that is what’s lacking. In DC, it seems like almost every time the organizations I work with try to meet with a Congressperson, they get some TFA alum staffer. And these TFA alum are completely bought into the idea of corporate reform. That is not the voice of teachers, that’s the voice of money and power. It worries me. It was TFA alums working in lobbying groups who snuck in changes to NCLB’s highly-qualified teacher provision that said uncertified teachers count as HQT. (A decision which has since been overturned in the 9th Circuit Court, by the way.)

        And as for Linda Darling-Hammond, TFA basically smeared her name after she started becoming a vocal critic. As Obama’s ’08 Campaign Education Adviser, she was slated to be the next Secretary of Education. It was TFA that blocked that appointment and put the horrible business-loving Arne Duncan in her place. Why does TFA have that type of power? And after what happened to Darling-Hammond, is it any wonder people have been slow to speak out?

        I do hope that TFA CMs are critically thinking about these complex issues. My experience, however, is that I have yet to meet a single TFA alum out at the rallies, the protests, the various actions around my city of Chicago where activists fight for equal funding, libraries in every school, more social workers and counselors, and humane discipline policies. I go to every event. There is so much happening. The few times I have even met a TFA person out there, include a Board meeting where they were some of the ONLY people SUPPORTING closing down neighborhood schools and firing the entire staff of other schools. They all stood squarely with the powerful, monied elites who are trying to privatize and destroy public education. I just don’t get it.

        Here in Chicago, the Chicago Teacher’s Union held a strike authorization vote last week as a pushback on the destructive policies coming down from the Board and Mayor’s Office. 90% of all teachers in Chicago voted YES! It was such a powerful statement of solidarity and of the people taking a stand against corrupt politicians and the 1% takeover of the school system. But I heard from a number of teachers, that the TFA teachers were being pressured NOT to vote (which would be counted as a “No”.) TFA has no right to pressure its members that way and yet it happens.

        Please tell me I’m wrong. Please tell me there are whole cohorts of TFA folks standing in solidarity with their working class teacher colleagues in their schools! Please tell me you all are marching on the streets for fair-funding, for smaller class size, and better facilities. Please tell me you also fight the larger battle against corporate greed for living-wage jobs for all workers, the ending of intense segregation in communities, the fight to end the school-to-prison pipeline. I would love to be wrong about this. Anyone in the Chicago area is welcome to get in touch with me and I will tell you how to get involved with the movement here.

        TFA just seems to be on the wrong side…always.

  2. Tee

    “…people are upset with Teach For America because they don’t fully understand its strategy and underestimated Wendy Kopp’s long-term strategy.”

    I disagree. I am strongly against TFA, even though (and perhaps, because) I understand its strategy.

    • To be fair, I prefaced that with “if anything…” It’s perfectly valid to oppose TFA and understand its strategy. If TFA alums shared your perspective on ed reform, would you be more in favor of it?

      • Tee

        I would be in favor of TFA if it made several changes. I have major problems with the five points you flagged (all of which would absolutely need to be addressed for me to get on board with TFA), but I also have a major problem with the fact that “TFA’s long view is a movement where its alumni assume leadership in every sector and at every level of policy in order to improve schools and to take the pressure off of schools by improving conditions in low-income communities.”

        The bottom line is, two years is not enough to understand the education system – especially when your two years are in one school district, and especially when your training came entirely or to a large extent from an institution in which the head honcho (Wendy Kopp) was never even a teacher.

        TFA thus encourages people who have had limited teaching experience to become involved in creating or advocating for educational policies. Furthermore, many of the policies that I see touted by TFA alumni are just plain harmful for education. For example, I acknowledge that there are definite problems with teacher tenure, that for sure the tenure system needs to be reformed, and that accountability is important, but the propaganda pushed by many of these corporate reformers masks the benefits of a tenure system and the problems with using standardized tests to grade and assess teachers. Additionally, I have major issues with the current implementation of charter schools and with many of the charter schools that TFA supports, such as the KIPP network – but that might be too much to get into in this one comment.

        I’m not against alternate certification, but I am against the arrogance I see in TFA’s approach to education and in many (not nearly all or even a majority…just many) of the corps members I am friends with, who believe that they are smarter than most teachers.

        So I guess, to answer your question, yes: if not only TFA alums, but also TFA as an organization, shared my perspective on ed reform, then I would be in favor of TFA. But for this to happen, TFA would have to become a totally different organization. I don’t believe that my view on ed reform is even slightly in line with what Wendy Kopp believes, so it’s probably safe to say that this is not going to happen.

  3. Gary Rubinstein

    Hey, what does a guy have to do to get a blog link on a direct quote?

    • Good catch! I had that quote in my “blog bank” since March and forgot exactly where it came from! I almost attributed it to Diane Ravitch! (Coming from me, that’s a compliment in this case.) Mea culpa!

  4. Vi

    Tony- I’ve been reading a lot of posts lately from folks criticizing TFA and find your analysis here really smart and fair. I find that there’s a big echo chamber from a consistent community of folks who all agree with each other’s criticisms regardless of whether they’re fact checked (KatieO’s reply here is a good example) but there’s not a lot of objective analysis of those critiques and think this is a really smart one that’s actually fair to all sides.

    • Thanks, Vi. I think people on both sides trend towards polarization. I think the key is finding analytical, open-mind folks who are willing to see the pros/cons of both “sides.” This is probably my most “pro-TFA” post in a while simply because I’m still researching, observing, and evaluating its effectiveness. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Vi–I’d be careful with the echo chamber argument because I find the same problem with most TFA folks I speak with–I suppose both “sides” are guilty. And I get where you all are coming from. I used to believe TFA sounded like a great idea just like I thought charters were the answer and that lazy teachers were a problem. I was basically a naive TFA-like young person in my 20s.

      Unfortunately, it was when I did the fact-checking that I realized there was more to the story that what I’d been sold in the media. And, after educating myself, I feel obligated to share and debate in order to educate others.

      Please let me know what part of my comments you think are not factual, and let’s debate.

  5. Honestly, I think it comes back to humility. Personally, I was raised to view everything I encounter with a discerning eye but at the same time I recognize the limits of my experience, which is why I am presently seeking to close the gaps. Ideally, all alumni would be the lifelong learners we encourage our students to be but we aren’t there yet. The charter school leadership path is an appealing, straightforward path for corps members so that’s a big reason why many seem indoctrinated. I don’t agree with on everything but I’ve learned a lot from interacting with you Gary, Diane Ravitch and others. It is true that most CM’s don’t do that. t might be region-specific. The delta altered my thinking in ways that teaching in Chicago or NYC might not have, so what’s to say that I might have been more bought in to the bandwagon otherwise.

  6. Vi

    Katie I appreciate the offer to debate and may have limited time right now. One suggestion I’d offer (and yes this applies to both sides): I find there’s often an assumption that if somebody agrees with you it must be right (more on a specific place I saw this in your post in a second) and the corollary that those who might be affiliated with anything you don’t like (TFA, any individual charter school, etc.) can’t be trusted and must be lying. On both sides, folks who agree with us might not be in the right and the opposition might not be evil. I can tell we don’t agree on a lot but assume you care about students, equity and the future of our country. i just ask that you do the same and not throw around words like “corporate reformer” just b/c somebody might not agree with you.

    I think this is endemic and not at all limited to your post (it just happened to be here when I was complimenting Tony’s blog) but the reason why I used your post as an example is the way you cited (without questioning or fact checking) the blog post about ALEC. I don’t know a ton about LEE but I do know that if you go to their site it looks like just about any political group can post. It sounds like ALEC might have. When you look at the site now (scroll down to bottom left) you see the upcoming training is Camp Wellstone and the featured job is with the NEA. Rather than just citing a blog that basically infers that there is no explanation but a secret right-wing conspiracy, I think it’s fair to at least go to the site, look through what you can learn and ask them about whether they take political stances (it looks like they have a ‘contact us’ section as well).

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Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

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