Monday, June 3, 2019

Teach for America: The Other Big Problem

Teach for America's most famously flawed premise is well known-- five weeks of training makes you qualified to teach in a classroom. It's an absurd premise that has been criticized and lampooned widely. It is followed closely in infamy by the notion that two years in a classroom are about providing the TFAer with an "experience," or a resume-builder so they have a better shot at that law or MBA program they're applying to. That premise has also been widely criticized.

There's another TFA premise that is less remarked on but is perhaps, in the long run, far worse. From the TFA website:

To change our country’s education system, we need leaders challenging conventional wisdom and the status quo, working for the long term from both inside and outside the school system. Once you become an alum of TFA, you’ll bring an invaluable perspective to any career field in working to create opportunity for students and communities nationwide.

This is the other TFA premise-- that two years in a classroom makes you qualified to run a school, or a school district, or a state education department. Two years in a classroom makes you qualified to be an education policy leader.

This is nuts.

First of all, two years in a classroom is nothing. For most folks it takes five to seven years to really get on your feet as a classroom teacher, to really have a solid sense of what you're doing (and you will never, ever, reach a point at which you don't have much more to learn about the work). The beginning two years are a challenge for anyone, and in the case of TFA, we're talking about the first two years of a person who only prepped for the job for five weeks! So they are starting out behind the average traditional new teacher. And if they are teaching in, say, a charter where they are surrounded primarily by other newbies, or being coached and led by TFA staff who are alumni who only have two years in the classroom-- well, the problems just compound. This is not the blind leading the blind-- this is the blind being led down a cliffside path into the Grand Canyon by a blind guide who is riding on a disabled Roombah.

Second, I will totally give a large number of TFAers in the classroom credit for good intentions. Yes, some have joined up specifically to beef up their grad school application or give themselves an "experience," but I believe that a significant number of TFAers entered the classroom hoping just what most traditional teachers hope-- that they could do good and make a corner of the world a little better.

But what the heck has to be going on in your head if, after two years of classroom teaching, you're thinking, "Yeah, I could totally run an entire school" or "I bet I could really fix this district if I were in charge" or "The education in this state would be so awesome if they put me in charge." I told almost every student teacher I worked with, every first-year teacher I ever mentored, "It's okay. If you don't cry at some point during this year, that just means you don't fully understand the situation." How bad does your grasp have to be, how deep in the grip of Dunning-Kruger do you have to be, to look at your tiny little sliver of just-getting-your-feet-wet experience and think that you are ready to run the show? This is a level of delusion I find truly scary.

And yet. Part of TFA's goal has always been to create the educational leaders who could turn the educational ship toward the course that their fully-amateur navigators had charted.

They've been successful. As a reminder, look at some of the alumni notables listed on TFA's Wikipedia page:

Mike Feinberg (Houston '92), KIPP Co-founder
Mike Johnston (Mississippi Delta '97), Colorado state senator
Kevin Huffman (Houston '92), Tennessee State Education Commissioner, April 2011 to January 2015
Michelle Rhee (Baltimore '92), Former Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools and founder of The New Teacher Project and StudentsFirst
Alec Ross (Baltimore '94), Senior Adviser for Innovation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
John C. White (2010), Louisiana state superintendent of education since 2012

But there are plenty of lower-profile TFA alums out there. For instance, go to LittleSis and look through just some of the Teach for America alumni connections (while you're at it, look at who funds and runs TFA). There's a director of industry learning at McKinsey, a vice-president at the Boston Foundation, a guy who worked for NYC's ed department and now works in charter school development, the chief academic officer at National Heritage Academies, a partner at Learn Capital. TFA's own alumni page includes folks now working with The Mind Trust, KIPP, and the Walton Family Foundation. Oh yeah-- and Elizabeth Warren's senior education policy advisor.

Or consider the TFA Capitol Hill Fellows Program, one of the TFA initiatives that was designed to make sure that TFA has a voice in federal education policy.

The numbers are-- well, if we look at just, say, TFA in Memphis, we find there are 410 TFA alumni in town. 250 are in a classroom, 24 are school leaders, and 6 lead a school system. With two whole years in a classroom under their belts, they lead an entire system.

TFA's own national alum figures show that 34% are in a classroom and 84% "work in education or in fields that impact low-income communities"  which works out to half the TFAers believing that their two years in a low-income classroom qualifies them to do education or community work.

You can drill down and find the specific pictures anywhere in the country. What started me thinking about this was Lorain, Ohio, a story I've been following that involves a state-appointed all-powerful CEO. This is a guy with two years in a classroom, and yet he has since that time launched a charter school and served as a consultant for a major urban district before coming to Lorain to run the whole system. And he's hired "turnaround principals" who are also TFA products, who are taking over administration of entire buildings based on their two years as a beginning teacher in a classroom. And all of these folks don't need anybody to tell them anything because they are education experts.

This is nuts.

TFA's drive to plant its seeds everywhere is one persistent symptom of the early days of modern reform, back before when Reformsters figured out that badmouthing public school teachers was counterproductive. After all-- if a two-year classroom veteran makes a good principal or superintendent or state commissioner, why haven't more places reached out to recruit ten or fifteen or twenty year veterans of public school classrooms for leadership or policy positions (yes, teachers are allowed to rise to principal or superintendent positions, but the state capitol doesn't call very often). If two years in the classroom make you an education expert, then twenty years ought to make you a genius. Except, of course...

TFA education policy leaders and administrators are an expression of that reform idea that we don't just need a parallel system of education, but we need to reject all educational expertise that already exists. It's not that hard-- any person with an ivy league degree could figure out not only how to teach, but how to run a school, a district, or a state. TFA, the Broad Academy, other alternative systems deliberately reject the educational expertise that exists and attempt to build their alternative system from scratch, trusting that their own amateur-hour wisdom renders all that came before moot.

"You had five weeks of training, so now you're ready to take over a classroom," was silly.

"I put in two years in a classroom, so now I'm ready to take over the whole operation," is a higher level of delusion, and yet these deluded soldiers continue to make inroads like weeds, coming first through concrete cracked open for them by their rich and powerful patrons, and then, once through, bringing more of their crew to join them.


  1. How about my proposal that anyone who admires TFA is required to fly on planes maintained by Airline Mechanics for America and flown by Airline Pilots for America, temps with a 5-week crash course. And have their medical care done by Surgeons for America etc.

  2. 15 years in this crazy business and I'm still learning the ropes.

    I'm a second career guy and have come to realize that no matter the work, it takes most people 1,2, or 3 years to really get up to speed.

    Even with my business supervisory experience I would not feel remotely qualified to take over a school.

  3. You comment on how the TFAers are delusional because they feel they can do so much with so little experience (which I agree isn't enough time to know much) but at least these are people who are doing what they've done their whole life, take on more than they can chew and usually come out alright at the end of it.

    You haven't mentioned at all the people who are putting these inexperience TFAers into leadership positions. You just don't become an administrator because you want to. Someone has to hire you for the position. Why do they feel 2 years of experience is enough?

  4. Here's another TFA alum in a policy position: Mark Johnson, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in North Carolina. Two years as a TFA teacher in Charlotte, a short stint on the Winston-Salem school board, and now he's "running" our state's entire system. So far he's managed to tick off just about everybody and, thank goodness, his prospects for re-election are very dim.

  5. Interestingly, Josh Delaney's (Warren's senior policy advisor)Linkedin account has disappeared. All I can find out about him, besides Steven Singer's post that also says he's a TFA alum, is a bio on him on Harvard's Ed Dept page. It says that after college he became "a high school special education teacher focused on mathematics". It does not mention TFA or how long he taught. It says that he then enrolled in Harvard's Education Policy and Management program. (It actually doesn't say he graduated from it but it does call him an alum.) He makes a statement about "When you are certified in special education..." as if he is, but I don't know when he would have done that. So I really wish I had a screen shot of the deleted Linkedin account.

  6. Very well written. I did Teach For America and deeply regretted the decision. There are serious issues around racism as well, with a largely privileged, young, and very white cohort of Teach For America joiners benefitting hugely from the financial resources alotted to institutions serving largely people of color. In the Boston area, this was particularly pronounced. The leader there, Josh Bieber, displayed a terrifying lack of understanding of the experience that people and children of color have in the education system. I shudder to remember my time there. I recall some of TFAs teacher's doing some I credibly unethical things - from cheating on standardized tests, to taking extra pay to run programs they never actually did. I went on to teach for another 4 years after my TFA commitment was over, but eventually burned out of the education field all together.