Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The New Teach for America-- Now With Less "Teach"

Teach For America likes to reinvent itself from time to time, searching for whatever is currently the sweet spot in the market. And as Emma Brown explains in yesterday's Washington Post, TFA has stepped into the transmogrifier once again, and has emerged with a bit of mission creep.

The latest shift is prompted by a notable drop in TFA's recruiting juice. As Brown reports, applications are down 35% over the last three years, plummeting from 57,000 in 2013 to 37,000 this year. There are a variety of explanations for this including the general drop of everyone going into teaching through traditional paths or made-up paths like TFA; there's an irony in that TFA has itself been part of the movement denigrating and deprofessionalizing the teaching profession. TFA itself is no longer as shiny as it once was, partly because of bad press, but also, I'd bet, because after twenty-five years, TFA is part of the status quo and not some Hot New Thing.

But TFA, always looking to keep itself a viable business, has a plan for combating the lag in applicants and selling the program to a new generation. Part of it is a tactical tweak-- recruit students while they are underclassmen and no longer wait until they are seniors and know better and have a different focus. But that's just procedure and not the heart of the new sales pitch.

The secret? Emphasize how Teach for America really isn't about teaching at all.

Here's a TFA rep talking at a recruitment event:

“We believe that this is far bigger than teaching,” Kimberly Diaz, of the organization’s D.C. regional office, told a group of prospective applicants from Georgetown and George Washington universities in April. They had just visited an elementary school in suburban Maryland and heard from alumni working outside of classrooms. “This is about dismantling systems of oppression.”

Far bigger than teaching. Your two years struggling in a sixth grade classroom will actually be part of dismantling systems of oppression ("No, Pat, I can't help you with your algebra right now. I'm busy dismantling a system of oppression")

Of course, if dismantling isn't your thing, a day-long recruitment event offered college students other incentives.

Then they were treated to lunch and a panel of TFA alumni speaking about how their classroom experiences had translated into marketable skills in fields including law, politics, education advocacy and nonprofit entre­pre­neur­ship.

TFA still pitches itself as the group that is going to close the achievement gap (despite the utter absence of any evidence at all that they can do it, or that they even know how to do it). But they have amped up what was always one of their avenues of appeal-- those two years in a classroom make a super resume builder. They are, of course, not lying. The ed reform industry (as well as the test manufacturing business and the textbook company sales force) is just packed with people calling themselves "former teachers" based on two years of TFAing it up in a charter somewhere.

As Brown summarizes it, it's a one-two punch:

First, by signing up for TFA, they can help solve some of the most in­trac­table social problems in America, including institutional racism and educational inequity.
And second, by signing up for TFA, they aren’t consigning themselves to working in a public school, but to opening doors to a set of opportunities and a professional network that can help achieve career goals, whatever they might be.

You can change the whole world. But you don't have to be "consigned" to a classroom in a public school.

What a great introductory speech that must make on a first day of school. "Hello, boys and girls. My name is Miss Deauxgud, and thank God I'm not actually going to stay at the job long. In fact, since this is my second year at Troubled Elementary School, as soon as I finish up with you guys, I am out of here. Thank goodness. I mean, nothing personal, but I have real work to do, work that's way more important than teaching you guys. I hope we have a good year together, but hey, if we don't, no biggy, because by next year this is all just going to be a bad memory for me anyway."

You know, in a way, the five weeks of training makes sense. If you are trying to lay the foundation for a lifelong teaching career, then five weeks isn't remotely enough. But if you are just trying to learn a couple of techniques so you can get through two years of being in a classroom and then just scoot-- well, you don't need a whole four year degree for that. You don't need to learn to swim if your plan is just to float around for a little bit until the yacht comes to pick you up.

Remember how Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their brand name to KFC because the word "fried" just had bad connotations in the marketplace? If this initiative works, and Teach For America can get recruitment for the business back up with the "Change society and get a good start on your real career" sale pitch, I look for them to rebrand themselves as TFA. After all, the whole "teach" thing seems to be weighing them down-- it makes perfect sense to identify themselves less with the job that is no longer what they're even pretending to be about.


  1. LOVE this. I teach in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, and TFA has done more damage than good with its constant "teacher churn."

  2. The "T" in TFA can stand for "Treading water" for America.

    1. Temping for America, Lisa. T stands for Temping. I rarely capitalize the "T" in teach for America anymore because the don't deserve my respect as a taxpaying citizen for the destruction they have wreaked across America for 25 years and the bank account that I have afforded Ms. Kopp and her husband's Kipp school network. I have no love for any of them.

  3. Spot on! Love the blogs. Keep 'em coming.

  4. Tools For America, you know the oligarch's need them and if you have know character its the path for you.