Monday, November 3, 2014

Can TFA Be Reinvented

I am a fan of blogger and education professor Jack Schneider. He occupies what I think of as the Very Reasonable Wing of the Resistance with other writers like Peter DeWitt and John Thompson. In the great ongoing debate about the fate of US public education, it's a Good Thing to have some smart folks who are always looking for ways to open lines of communication and dialogue.

In his latest post, Schneider wonders aloud (well, in print-- well, in words rendered on computer screens) if TFA could be reinvented as something less awful.

So to all the TFA critics out there, here's my pitch: TFA isn't going away. Not in our lifetime. Why not, then, pressure them to do something like this—a reinvention that would convert their power and influence more productive?

That's the conclusion. His ideas are multi-layered.

Plan A is for TFA to retool their rhetoric to match the things they say internally to each other, which Schneider believes are far more realistic and reasonable than the blustering TFA public persona.

But Schneider doesn't think he can get Plan A, so he has another plan ready for consideration.

To put it as simply as possible: I'd like to see TFA set a goal of recruiting all of its teachers from the alumni rolls of the elementary and high schools where it places teachers.

He argues that this would A) really cement their commitment to recruiting teachers of color and B) would make them confront what it took to get students from high-poverty schools ready to enter and succeed in college.

It is a really interesting idea, but I think it's a non-starter. I think the problem is that Schneider mis-reads the purpose of TFA. At this point, I don't think TFA's missoin is providing teachers for high needs schools. I don't think that's their vision. I don't think that's their brand.

Like many people, I'll give TFA credit for starting out with the best of intentions. But as I argue here, their stated purpose shifts don't resemble the mission creep of a service organization, but the product marketing shifts of a corporation.

And TFA's product is not education for high-poverty students. TFA now deal in money, power, training and networking. They can't forsake the ivy leaguers who use their service, because those folks are their customers. Check out this Business Insider article about how TFA is a great way to angle for a job at Google (where, insiders say, only products of select universities need apply). Look at the massive network of well-placed Masters of the Universe TFA has produced.

At this point, high needs schools are being used as training facilities for TFA's true customers-- the resume boosters who are just passing through. TFA's customers are also the charter operators who depend on TFA for front line shock troops (but troops with a limited life span, because short-term employees are far better for ROI). And to best serve these customers, TFA must maintain its connections and profile, which means power and prestige are part of its business plan, and not something it can easily turn its back on.

I have no doubt that the TFA ranks include some people with a sincere interest in teaching and social judgment. TFA needs these people top maintain an appearance of legitimacy, a way for donors and backers to feel good about the fresh-scrubbed young folks who Really Want To Make a Difference. But as Schneider notes, TFA already knows the things they ought to be doing to better support those fresh-faced recruits and better insure their success. TFA knows what it needs to do for those folks-- and so far, it simply isn't doing them. Because as long as TFA can generate the numbers that make the enterprise look good, they've done enough. Because creating pockets of educational success in high needs schools isn't really their primary mission.

If it were, Schneider's idea would make sense. But his ideas will not help TFA improve its profile, maintain its political clout, or generate more contributions. And his ideas especially won't serve TFA's customer base of resume builders, charter operators, and power players who want to look good doing good.

TFA has already reinvented itself several times, and each time the reinvention was about maintaining TFA's standing as a Major Player in the Ed Reform Biz as well as an extension of the high status school networking network. It will continue to reinvent itself to meet those goals. I would love to believe that at some point it might decide to turn back to its roots and the people in power would really, sincerely redirect their resources and attention to achieving the goals of helping to improve education in the poor corners of the country. But their original attempts to do so were misguided, and they've only wandered further away from that place.

Jack Schneider thinks they could still do good work. It's pretty to think so, but I don't see it happening any time soon.


  1. i am for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly helpful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to present something back and help others such as you helped me.
    dmit test

  2. "TFA's product is not education for high-poverty students." And it never really was. The core of TFA was creating a corps of mobilized ivy leaguers to do something. If there had been a farming crisis in the late 80's, Wendy Kopp would have started Farm for America. It was always about mobilizing a generation before it was about meaningful education reform.