Friday, March 1, 2019

Teach For America: Now With Less Teaching

Teach for America has always been a work in progress, an evolving enterprise in search of a reason to keep existing. Once upon a time it was all about teaching and plugging holes in the system. Then it was about supplanting traditional teachers (and trying not to say out loud that they needed to be supplanted because they sucked and the Best and the Brightest had better swoop in like a shining white cavalry to rescue the poor children). And then maybe were about building a resume and getting yourself prepped for your real career (their slogan at one point was literally "change and be changed"). And then, sensitive about that shining white cavalry thing, they decided to be a force for diversity in the teaching force.


But I recently was hanging about the TFA website and discovered that more morphing of a sort has occurred, and TFA is now leaning into what has always been one of their missions. It was just never a part of the mission that they expressed so directly.

Here's some copy from their front page:

Teach For America is looking for promising leaders to take on educational inequity.

The Challenge

In America today, the circumstances children are born into predict the opportunities they will have in life. Our education system was not designed to enable all children to realize their potential or achieve their dreams.

The Opportunity

While no single solution is enough to bring about an equitable and excellent education for all children, Teach For America has learned over three decades that dramatic progress is possible. Lasting change takes bold, grounded leaders working together, inside and outside of schools, fighting for the aspirations of children and their families.

Our Approach

Teach For America finds outstanding leaders who commit to expanding educational opportunity, beginning with at least two years teaching in an under-resourced public school. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with students, educators, and community members, corps members go beyond traditional expectations to support the academic and personal growth of their students. The impact corps members have in the classroom fuels a lifelong commitment to their students and shapes the trajectory of their lives and careers.

Impacting Lives & Communities

Since 1990, nearly 60,000 leaders have impacted millions of students as Teach For America corps members, many of them returning to teach in the communities in which they grew up. More than 84% continue to work in education or in fields that impact the communities where our students and their families live.

Teach for America is not creating teachers, but leaders. Bold leaders. Outstanding leaders. Leaders who can claim that they started out as classroom teachers, so that they can have instant credibility as they implement whatever piece of reformy awesomeness they've been hired to drop on people. And TFA subscribes to the "charter schools are public school" dodge, so their two years in "public" schools may actually be some time in a charter.

First, TFA wanted to be teachers' co-workers. Then they wanted to be teachers' replacements. Now they're focusing on their other goal-- they'd like to be teachers' bosses.

The "84% continue to work in education or fields that impact the communities where our students and their families live" is a meaningless stat-- I'm actually really curious what the other 16% are doing that has no impact on education or communities where students and families live. Astronauts? Video-game testers? Brazilian cattle farmers?

I know that the disclaimer has become cliche in TFA pieces, but it does need to be said-- some people who go into TFA do so with the best of intentions and the purest of hearts, and some who emerge from the program go on to become great teachers.

But TFA alums keep turning up in other places, like Lorain Ohio, where the turnaround CEO, two building principals, and the human resources chief are all TFA grads who are now responsible for running an entire troubled district even though they have less actual public school teaching experience than almost every single other person working in the district. You find them running districts, running state agencies, running education flavored businesses, with their biographies always making reference to the lessons they learned from "their time in the classroom."

The original TFA insulting pitch was that with five weeks of training, you were ready to run a classroom. The new insulting pitch (which was always there, but in the background instead of on the front page of the website) was that with two years in a classroom, you are ready to run a school, district or state. 

So when the new gunslinger comes to town, promising transformational change based on their insights from their time in the classroom-- check. They won't always list TFA on, say, their LinkedIn page (though they will likely have a LinkedIn page), but you can still ask three questions:

1) What's your actual college degree?
2) How long did you teach, and in which school?
3) What have you been doing between then and now?

Most importantly, remember that just because someone on a higher level put this person in charge, that doesn't mean this person knows what the hell they're talking about. There are so many TFA grads out there, leading their little hearts out and basing their decisions on favored reform theories of action (because if you have little or no real experience, what else do you have to go on except hat other reformsters have told you are winning policies). The TFA network has spread like kudzu, and where one gets a leadership position, they will tap the TFA network to find other like-minded folks to bring in.

Pay attention. A TFA connection is no reason to automatically assume that the person doesn't know what they're doing, but it is reason to make sure their decisions and choices hold up to scrutiny.


  1. The thing that's crazy to me is that they simultaneously trade in the stature of teachers and work to diminish it at the same time. How long do they think the gambit will last?