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.