A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 10 2012

Wendy Kopp Visits HGSE: Has TFA’s Philosophy Shifted?


Wendy Kopp was on campus Thursday as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum series. She gave brief remarks about TFA before several current ed school students who are TFA alumni joined her. I wandered over from an amazing conference at the law school on “Closing the School to Prison Pipeline” (more on that in another post) to see the event.

As always, I enjoyed hearing Wendy speak. It is always good to see what those at the top are thinking. She didn’t relay anything new or earth-shattering. But I guess I’m already pretty clued into the statistics and what TFA is thinking about.

Yet, I came away from the talk with a sense that the framing of TFA’s philosophy (i.e. its “theory of change“) has subtly shifted from an emphasis on near-term goals to one on long-term goals. I’ll explain what I mean.


One major misconception about TFA is that its primary goal is to develop career classroom teachers. Critics who understand TFA’s mission in this way point to the 2-year commitment and the fact that many CMs do eventually leave the classroom as evidence that TFA fails to achieve the primary goal it set out to achieve.

But this is, and always has been, an oversimplification of what TFA seeks to do. TFA is ultimately focused on creating an alumni network that is better grounded in the problem of public education and that will pursue education reform from all angles. The 2-year classroom commitment is the common bond that all alumni share, but from which each is expected to pursue his or her own unique career path that contributes, in some way, to closing the achievement gap. For some, this will mean staying a classroom teacher. For others, however, this will mean going into school leadership, district leadership, politics, law, medicine–you name it.

Seen this way, TFA appears to be quite successful. TFA alumni from the early years are now breaking into leadership positions in all sectors of society. Kaya Henderson (New York ’92) runs DC Public Schools. Kevin Huffman (Houston ’92) is Tennessee’s education commissioner. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg (Houston ’92) founded and run the KIPP network of charter schools. Mike Johnston (Mississippi Delta ’97) is a Colorado state senator. I even discovered that the Washington Examiner’s (former) education reporter, Leah Fabel–whose articles I read every day while I lived in DC–is a TFA alum.


But up until now, the “rhetoric” around TFA, at least as I’ve seen it, has been focused on the short-term–on what CMs are doing in the classroom during the 2-year commitment. Sure, TFA mentions its alumni leaders here and there. But, largely, the emphasis has been on the power of the individual teacher–the effective, indomitable leader–to transform students’ lives within the classroom. TFA has collected and disseminated statistics about its “all-star” teachers to justify this idea of classroom success. Implicit in the language is the idea that a strong teacher can lead his or her students to achieve, even in a chaotic, support-less environment and even with students who are many years behind and face tremendous obstacles. The focus has been primarily on the individual, the current CM.

Several things that Wendy mentioned indicate that the “rhetoric” is shifting beyond the individual and beyond the CM. A large part of the discussion was about TFA as preparation for subsequent leadership (unsurprising, given that the alumni on the panel were all pursuing careers in education leadership of some sort). During this discussion, Wendy expressed her belief that “the school is the unit of change, not the individual teacher.” One also sees this idea reflected in Wendy’s most recent WSJ op-ed, which opposes the New York City schools’ public release of teachers’ performance assessment data, on the grounds that the focus on the individual teacher “distract[s] attention from the long, hard work required to ensure that our schools are high-performing, mission-driven organizations with strong teams, strong cultures and strong results.”  I found this at odds with the individual-focused TFA rhetoric I’d heard for so long. But I can understand the shift.

TFA, having “justified” itself as an organization capable of producing successful CMs within the classroom, is using its gained legitimacy to focus on the real problem–the systemic one. Wendy emphasized that a consensus had developed within reform circles that “we have to change schools [and districts]” Strong leadership at the systemic level is now, more than ever before, needed. Wendy said that TFA views its “mission as to grow the source of those leaders” and is doing a lot more to “galvanize leadership among alumni” to achieve “change at scale.” TFA, Wendy reiterated, is really about changing the “values in America” so that those who might otherwise have headed to Wall Street and other positions of mainstream leadership would see, and be energized by, the challenges that so many low-income communities face. The fight for change, in other words, is ongoing–”this is not about 2 years.”


Just to be clear, the point I’m making is not that TFA’s goals have changed; the goal of producing leaders in society–who are exposed to, and driven to change, the injustices of our current education system–has always been a part of TFA’s mission. What has changed is how much emphasis TFA places on this goal (at the expense of the shorter-term goal of developing successful classroom teachers). What is happening beyond the 2-year commitment seems to be much more important now than ever before.

Even in the realm of law, Tracy-Elizabeth Clay, TFA’s General Counsel, recently visited Harvard Law School and spoke to the TFA alumni here about several initiatives TFA is starting to better harness its alumni in law. The long-term vision is to create a “talent pool” from which school districts, CMOs and legal advocacy groups can draw from. I saw in this meeting a clear focus on doing more to leverage the thousands of alumni who are already out pursuing careers of all sorts. TFA has done little to support alumni; it now is trying harder, it seems.

I welcome this shift. 20 years since TFA’s founding, the state of education still has a long way to go. I’m hopeful that by harnessing the TFA alumni movement, we will move ever closer to a world in which all our students will receive excellent educations and thus have the increased life opportunities they deserve.

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10 Responses

  1. I’m not sure what recruiting was like for your corps, but there was definitely already a lot more emphasis on alumni leadership when TFA was courting my classmates and me in the fall of 2010. To be honest, it was a little disconcerting until I read the studies showing that CMs are at least as effective as other new teachers. Having been through the experience, do you believe that two years is enough to give you an informed personal understanding of the problems in education?

    • I think that the two year commitment may not be, for a lot of people, enough time to come away with an informed personal understanding of the problems in education, nor can it be expected to be. I think instead that this commitment begins the life-long (or career-long) interest and steps of inquiry that allows people to have an informed opinion over time. No two CMs have the same experience, even if they teach in the same school at the same time, which means that there is no complete picture that is developed. However, between the experiences in the classroom and what we learn as students of education (in New York we are all required to pursue Master’s in Teaching or in Education) can build a foundation for the development of an informed and realistic opinion.
      Those who are moved by what they see in the classrooms will be convinced of the need to continue to be involved in education reform beyond their two years, whether that means they stay in the classroom, become school leaders, or leave the field entirely. Being a part of the school system(s) is not the only way to have an impact.

      • parus

        The phrase “learning on other people’s kids” comes to mind.

        • Emma

          There is a book about TFA with that phrase as it’s title and its by Barbara Torre Veltri, who was an teacher educator who served for years as a TFA CM mentor in Arizona. It’s an interesting read and well evidenced argument but limited in its critique by the nature of its sample under critique (only AZ CMs/TFA program set up) and mainly fuels only the traditional debate about teacher effectiveness.

      • T

        Exactly. Amen.

  2. I’m thinking the same thing as parus. As an outsider to TFA, I’ve always understood that its goal was to create leaders, not teachers. Which begs the question, why does TFA insist on putting poorly trained CMs in the toughest classrooms in the country in order to achieve this goal? Why can’t those young people be in the schools in some other capacity, say assistants or tutors?

    And the “research” people always bring up is seriously flawed or compares the CMs to other equally untrained beginning teachers. (See this and other posts by Philip Kovacs: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2011/12/philip_kovacs_teach_for_americ.html or this review of the literature: http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Heilig_TeachForAmerica.pdf )

    Regardless, as you mention we all know the problem is systemic, not a problem with individual teachers. But it seems like most TFA alums who go on to leadership roles in education unquestioningly join in the corporate reform movement. The corporate reform emphasis on accountability, testing, hiring flexibility (read: destroying tenure and seniority protections), charters, and ultimately the privatization of our public institution of education is creating a far worse, more unequal system than was there before. Charter schools are skimming resources and the strongest students away from neighborhood schools. Test prep companies and private consulting firms are making a bundle. Districts like my home Chicago, use the “failing” test scores in these underfunded and starving neighborhood schools as an excuse to close schools, open more charters, or hire private turnaround companies. Communities are destroyed, teachers are fleeing the profession: (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/07/teachers-survey-job-satisfaction-metlife_n_1325268.html ), and more kids are being left behind than ever. And TFA is complicit in this all. The systemic change TFA is currently pushing is damaging communities and schools. This hurts kids.

    Just this past week, the Walton Foundation, contributed $49 million dollars to Teach for America. This should give every CM pause. Why would such an ultra-conservative group support an organization which claims it wants educational equality? Of course, Walmart is notoriously against unions in order to be able to continue to hire low-paid workers in terrible working conditions. The Walton’s objectives in supporting TFA so heavily are not hard to guess. TFA is being used as good old-fashioned union-busting, and the TFA leadership has no problem complying. And as TFA expands, it is going into more and more areas with NO teacher shortages. Again, why would TFA do this? Think!

    Either way, whether it’s the short-term goal of placing untrained, unsupported CMs in the classrooms in need of our best, most experienced teachers or the long-term goal of creating education leaders who side with the damaging corporate reform movement, I don’t see TFA helping at all in the fight for educational equality.

  3. parus

    “Which begs the question, why does TFA insist on putting poorly trained CMs in the toughest classrooms in the country in order to achieve this goal? Why can’t those young people be in the schools in some other capacity, say assistants or tutors? ”

    At the very least, if TFA were serious about the stated missions this would be happening already in all the TFA districts and subject areas that are NOT seriously understaffed. While I’m not even crazy about TFA being used in genuinely understaffed districts, as I think it removes the pressure from the district to improve conditions and fix hiring/training procedures in order to recruit and retain teachers long-term, at least there you can argue that CMs are filling a genuine need. This is not the case in many of the districts where TFA operates. But there IS a huge need pretty much everywhere for tutors and other people who can give kids who might otherwise slip through the cracks more individual attention.

    • You should check out City Year (cityyear.org). This organization is doing great things in schools.

      • You know, we had City Year at the elementary where I taught. Overall, I liked the organization a lot, especially all the after-school activities and homework help they gave. They also do tutoring during regular school hours. My only critique was that they ran their own tutoring program completely separate from classroom teachers. It would’ve been more helpful if they were part of the classroom activities and supporting the work already happening. But in this case something was better than nothing!

        Unfortunately, here in Chicago, the year after I worked with them, City Year signed an exclusive contract with a private turnaround management company (AUSL, whose former board of directors is now the APPOINTED President of Chicago’s Board of Ed. And it gets sketchier, AUSL just took over 6 more starved neighborhood schools and fired all their staff down to the lunch ladies despite massive parent, teacher, and community opposition. There was even a parent occupation of one “turnaround” school. So, more money for the head of the BOE’s old buddies. Talk about a conflict of interests….). Now, City Year only helps kids in the schools already getting extra resources and which chronically push-out under-performing or behaviorally-challenging students. More kids losing out thanks to Mayor Rahm’s corporate reform lovefest happening in Chicago. (Sorry, just had to vent! Was SO mad City Year pulled out of my old school. I did like them!)

  4. Dr Barbara Torre Veltri

    Thanks for noting my book in your comments. But while Phx was the main focus of my initial research, Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher, included three other sites (book was five years in development) and the messages and exemplars are very generalizeable across all TFA regions.

    I agree completely that the focus is clearly on leadership post-TFA and CM’s entering now are naive if not considering options post TFA teaching.

    So, they are really learning how to teach on their “kids” b/c too much up front time is spent on leadership and data collection & record keeping at the expense of developing any semblance of teaching technique.

    Hopefully some of the corps members actually had good teaching modeled when they were in school, and some revert back to those images.
    I call that ” flashback teaching” when CM’s pull up an activity or their own experiences when they were in second, fourth or eighth grade. Often the ideas are great but they are employed out-of-context because CM’s grasp for a lesson that will work for them as it did when employed by their former teacher.
    All of the TFA alum lawyers, Politicians, corporate
    entrepreneurs, and those in leadership positions in education ensure that their own children are taught by experienced teachers from day one.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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