Thursday, March 6, 2014

TFA One Step Closer To ... Something

On March 4, TFA Co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva delivered a huge one-two punch of speeches to a huge audience of TFA faithful that signaled the possibility of some significant changes for the 24-year-old organization. Those changes to the TFA program appeared in a context that was somewhat less encouraging, so I turned to the printed text of the speeches for a closer look.

Historical Framework

Kramer's speech opened with everything there is to loathe about the hubris and arrogance of the organization. Kramer frames his own personal journey from Junior Master of the Universe to Education Guy as nothing less than a cosmic mission assigned to him by the universe itself. The universe! And he's still here to fight--FIGHT!-- "for our children and our communities, and for our integrity." Kramer is doing Really Important Work.

Next it's time for a look back. TFA is in 48 regions, 35 states. 11,000 corps members. 32,000 alumni are out there, and they surveyed them. 10,000 are teaching, 750 are "school leaders," 1,000 are assistant principals or deans, 600 are instructional specialists, 185 are school system leaders, 70 are elected officials and 100 are union leaders. By my count that comes in a little under 13,000. The rest? Social services, law, medicine and other fields. "Nearly 90% of the 32,000 alumni of Teach For America are working full time for our kids." Once again, TFA conflation of teaching and non-teaching jobs reveals a bias that the Real Work of education really doesn't take place in a classroom.

The speech opened with all the things that TFA-haters hate. The arrogance. The self-importance. The odd elisions-- even as TFA leaders talk about how challenging teaching is, they rarely-if-ever talk about joining in with the hard-working teachers who are already out there, but address teaching as if it is a field they invented, a foreign land that nobody else has ever set foot upon. Nor is there any word in this speech about the original mission-- to fill empty teaching jobs for which there were no teachers.

So it would be easy to check out at this point. But wait-- there's more.

New Stuff for Headlines

Kramer and his Co-CEO went on a listening tour. They heard some things, and they formulated some commitments to areas for improvement. Better listening. Approaches based on local needs instead of national strategy. Temper data-driven nature with greater appreciation for human stories. More support for corps members. Organizationally more limber with more local decision-making. And this is where we turn to the two new programs that have been making modest headlines.

First, the longer training.

Without ever saying, "Yeah, that five week training thing is ridiculous," TFA is poised to launch a senior-year-long program to rain in learning theory, pedagogy, cultural stuff, and some actual in-class practice.

This is exactly what some teacher training programs provide. My teacher training (Allegheny College, Meadville, PA) was non-traditional. I majored in English, took ed courses senior year, student taught in an urban setting with huge training support while in the field. It was very similar to what TFA is describing, so that could be good. Of course, TFA's rather broad description could also describe a couple of loose meetings of a non-credit no-grade study group. So this will be one of those proof is in the pudding things.

The other new program is not really a program at all. It's a suggestion? thought? promise to back you up? that TFAers might want to stick around for more than two years. Kramer says that nowadays most corps members teach beyond two years, an assertion which is supported by a Harvard study, though only 15% stuck it out for five years. Interestingly, non-white TFAers were more likely to stick around. The study also reports "the top reasons TFA corps members said they left teaching were to pursue a position other than K–12 teacher (34.93 percent), to take courses to improve their career opportunities within education (11.79 percent), to take courses to improve their career opportunities outside of education (10.26 percent), and poor administrative leadership at their school (9.83 percent)."

So, TFA is prepared to provide more support up front and past the second year, which means that TFA is edging closer to the traditional teacher prep programs that it circumvents.

Red Meat 

After Kramer, Villanueva delivered a pep talk that was more in keeping with the TFA tradition of unvarnished baloney. "We are a force for good," she  repeatedly asserted. She talked about dedication to kids and how they are not numbers or statistics and a few other things that every working teacher in the country would agree with. It's the standard TFA template that always leaves me wondering two things.

1) With whom do they think they're arguing? Villanueva laid out some pretty controversial assertions, like "children are important," as if she is taking a radical hard-core challenge to The Man. One of the reasons TFA raises traditional teacher hackles is that they so often combine telling us things we already know with chastising us for things we never said.

2) I cannot decide if TFA is deluded or disingenuous. I agree that students are not a number or statistic, but I'm not the one supplying ground troops for the people who treat students like data-generation units. Either TFA's leaders don't know who their supporters are, or they know and they're committed to lying about it.

This is why it's hard to trust announcements of Big Changes-- because I can never decide whether TFA is just deluded or if TFA is wildly dishonest. Are they guileless tools or manipulative collaborators?


If TFA is really going to move closer to providing real teacher training, that's not a bad thing. One of the most inexcusable acts committed by TFA over the years is the wasting of strong, committed young people who could have made great teachers, but were thrown into tough classrooms without adequate preparation or support. Fixing that is the very very least that TFA could redeem itself. Now if they used their money and clout to provide support, promotion, and recruitment for already-existing teacher programs, we'd really have something useful.

The changes proposed, if they are really done and really done right, could make TFA bodies somewhat more functional in classrooms (they could also render TFA redundant to actual teacher programs). But if they really want to convince me they #dontbackdown, they'll need to commit to an actual lifetime of teaching. Schools need stability and the teaching profession needs people who want to be there. Lord knows that some teacher training programs are terrible. But the solution is not half-baked training for short-term temps.


  1. I think it is a very bad thing for TFA to move closer to traditional teacher education programs, Peter: It begs the question, why do you exist, TFA, if what you are offering as preparation is so similar to what established programs of teacher education provide? And the only answer is that they are aiming to replace those programs with some half-baked version of teacher education, taught by people with no expertise in the field. If not, why duplicate programs that exist and demonstrably produce a well-informed and professionally prepared teaching corps? This is even more insidious than setting themselves up as an alternative to teacher education programs-"See. It's so easy: Any smart person can do it with next to no training." They are moving toward their ultimate goal of invading colleges and universities with their venomous and duplicitous schemes.

    1. That may be. But the more they come to resemble actual teacher training, the harder it will be to argue that they are offering something special. It's hard to make a case for replacing a program with an identical program.

  2. The redundancy of TFA raises the red flag for me.If TFA does not provide better teachers or teachers that stick around longer, why are funders giving them $300 million per year? (Answer: 1) provide cheap temp labor to charters; 2) groom future corporate reformers; 3) promote corporate reform across the 850 schools TFA recruits applicants.)