Excerpt from Jack Schneider’s “Excellence For All:”
Getting the right teachers in the classroom has been a major part of the school reform agenda for as long as policy makers have sought systemic change in education. As school quality depends in large part on teacher quality, school reformers across the twentieth century worked to establish criteria to identify suitable teachers for the nation’s schools. And yet, despite this continuity of purpose, the teacher question has been answered quite differently in different eras. Thus, while school reformers during the Cold War era, for instance, hastened to draw content experts into top high schools in order to more rigorously prepare future leaders, social justice advocates in the following decades sought to bring culturally sensitive teachers from diverse backgrounds into low-income urban schools. In short, the evolving nature of teacher recruitment efforts, rather than reflecting a closer approximation of the ideal teacher, instead indicated ever-changing priorities shaped by shifting perceptions of social problems.
In the era of excellence for all, school reformers began to promote a new vision of teacher quality. All students, they contended, regardless of background, needed access to the kind of teachers traditionally found in top private schools and sometimes found in cutting-edge charter schools. Social justice and social efficiency aims both demanded that underserved students begin attending college at the same rates as their more privileged peers. In light of this, it made sense to look at the college-preparatory experiences of those privileged students, particularly at the kind of teachers they had. Consequently, many reformers sought to identify and recruit college students who were both service oriented and highly skilled. Marked by their high grade-point averages and prestigious alma maters, whether or not they had received professional training, these were the future teachers who reformers believed would make a difference in the nation’s poorest schools.
Nowhere has this approach to the teacher question manifested itself more clearly than in the work of Teach For America (TFA). Founded in 1989 as a two-year service commitment modeled on the Peace Corps, TFA currently has more than eight thousand participants placed in more than one thousand low-income urban and rural schools across the country. Those teachers, the organization points out, come from the nation’s most elite schools–roughly 10 percent of the graduating classes of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as well as top liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst–where they collectively maintained an A-minus average.3 By enlisting them in temporary teaching assignments, the organization aims to end the educational inequity that separates low-income students from their more privileged peers.
Although TFA produces only a fraction of the nation’s teachers, it receives a disproportionate share of public attention, and its roughly $200 million annual budget dwarfs that of other teacher recruitment efforts. Commentators like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks of the New York Times have praised the program as a force for school reform, foundation heads and corporate donors extol its entrepreneurialism and efficiency, and presidents from both parties have been strong backers. Thus, while TFA is not representative of teacher preparation and recruitment efforts as a whole, it is an exemplary case of the excellence for all approach to school reform, and particularly to the teacher question. Well suited for the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the organization has been successful in a number of ways, especially in terms of growth and recognition. Yet, despite a much-lauded core philosophy, the success of TFA in bridging the achievement gap–even on a small scale–remains unclear, raising questions about the organization as well as about the excellence for all movement as a whole…
One Day, All Children
Teach For America was neither alone nor even first in answering the call to recruit teachers in the excellence for all era. With time, however, it would become the most visible, as well as the only truly national response.
In 1983, eight states reported having an alternative to traditional teacher licensing. By 2010, forty-eight states and the District of Columbia had some type of alternative route to teacher education and certification, resulting in the certification of roughly sixty thousand new teachers a year. But while programs like the New York Teaching Fellows adopted an approach similar to TFA, TFA is an exemplar of a new approach to reform for a new era. And though TFA produces only a fraction of the nation’s teachers each year, it has continued to expand, reaching seven hundred thousand students per year by 2010.
In 1983, eight states reported having an alternative to traditional teacher licensing. By 2010, forty-eight states and the District of Columbia had some type of alternative route to teacher education and certification, resulting in the certification of roughly sixty thousand new teachers a year. But while programs like the New York Teaching Fellows adopted an approach similar to TFA, TFA is an exemplar of a new approach to reform for a new era. And though TFA produces only a fraction of the nation’s teachers each year, it has continued to expand, reaching seven hundred thousand students per year by 2010
In 1988, Wendy Kopp wrote her Princeton University senior thesis outlining a program for introducing elite college graduates into underserved urban and rural public schools for a two-year period of service. As Kopp told the New York Times in 1989, “the idea just popped into my mind. . . .I realized that top students might go into teaching if we could find a way to recruit them. It seemed so simple. One problem with the education reform movement is that people don’t talk to college students.” The new teacher corps would help underserved student realize their “potential to learn,” while also preparing them to “contribute to [the] country.”
By the late 1990s, the conditions were perfect for an organization like Teach For America to launch. By addressing concerns about social efficiency and national strength, as well as about equity and access, Kopp was able to frame TFA, from its inception, as a big-tent reform movement.The organization would promote excellence for all, and in so doing serve both the nation and the less privileged. Equally important, TFA promised a rising tide sort of equity that would not come at the expense of more privileged groups. Thus, as the first director of the organization’s New York office put it, TFA was able to pitch itself as “a big solution for the national problem.” TFA’s message quickly attracted corporate funders working in the world of education reform, and Kopp secured grants from Union Carbide, Morgan Stanley, and Mobil Corporation. In the fall of 1989, TFA launched recruiting efforts at dozens of campuses, asking disciplinary majors at elite colleges and universities to commit two years to teaching in traditionally underserved urban and rural schools.
In terms of equity and social justice, the organization’s public message was clear. “One day,” the TFA “vision statement” reads, “all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” The message had strong resonance–as Wendy Kopp explained in 2001, securing “educational opportunity for all Americans” is her generation’s “civil rights issue”–and TFA leveraged it intentionally. Mark McClinchie, a 1996 Houston corps member, recalled that he and others like him “joined to pursue social justice opportunities rather than contribute to social injustice.” Another corps member described the impact that a TFA recruiting poster made on her: “It was a black-and-white photograph of an African American man in a loose tie standing in front of a chalkboard facing excited students of color. There was no explanation, just a phone number. I wanted in. I wanted to be standing in front of a chalkboard, dazzling the students before me with new information. . . . I wanted to . . . give them something they would not have had without me.” By making the case that the organization would prove the “feasibility” of “educational equality,” Kopp and her staff tapped into powerful wells of sentiment.
TFA’s message about promoting national political and economic aims was equally clear. The organization’s early recruiting letters, for instance, noted that “our nation faces a number of internal threats that call for the help of our brightest young minds.” Implicitly referencing the decline of American manufacturing and the increasing importance of a college education for maintaining economic competitiveness, they asserted that “one thing on which business and government leaders from different industries and political parties agree is that the state of the educational system is threatening America’s future.” As the organization’s first recruiter at Harvard University noted, TFA’s effort to “make America stronger” was “clearly patriotic.”
Thus, at a time when it was becoming clear that social justice and social efficiency aims could not be pursued in exclusion of each other, TFA carefully worked to include both. Sometimes particular aspects of its mission were emphasized over others, but from the very beginning the TFA message was squarely in line with the emerging vision of excellence for all. In one of the clearest examples of this, an early recruiting letter distributed at Yale simultaneously addressed two separate audiences: “People of color, recall that perhaps the single greatest key to achieving full equality lies in achieving high levels of education. Liberal arts majors, remember that America is headed towards dangerously low levels of literacy, at precisely the time that they need to be high.” Whatever the artfulness of its wording, the letter reflected a clear understanding of broader reform currents.
The TFA message was designed to appeal to potential participants, without whom there could be no program. But Wendy Kopp also carefully crafted the organization’s image with major donors and grant makers in mind. Alden Dunham, former senior program officer for educational programs at the Carnegie Corporation, recalled being struck in his 1989 meeting with Kopp by how well she had responded to “the national conversation” about education reform. As he saw it: “Kopp had come forward with a powerful idea at the right time.” This perception was not a matter of chance. Kopp noted in her original plan for TFA that the concerns of business leaders about the decline of the American workforce presented an opportunity to secure corporate financial backing, and grants from companies like Union Carbide and Morgan Stanley bore out her claim. She was also well aware of philanthropic support for projects focused on the promotion of equity, and by emphasizing that aspect of TFA’s mission she found a number of friends with deep pockets. As Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian explained: “insofar as organizations like Teach For America help to expand and open doors to educational opportunities for many of our citizens who still do not enjoy the socioeconomic and cultural benefits of American society, we are deeply grateful for their efforts.”
Finally, TFA’s approach was attractive to the federal government, which over two decades poured tens of millions of dollars into the program through the Corporation for National Service, as well as through other grants. Yet federal support has not been limited to a budgetary line item. Rather, support for TFA has been highly visible, perhaps most clearly through congressional recognition of “National Teach For America Week.” In justifying the resolution, the U.S. Senate highlighted TFA as an organization buffering America’s position in the world, as well as–noting that “6,000 corps members have aided 1,000,000 low-income students at urban and rural sites”–an organization working toward the aims of equity and social justice.
….Kopp sought from the organization’s inception to make TFA exclusive, even if it meant limiting its scale. “I’d like people to someday talk about TFA,” she commented in 1996, “the way they talk about the Rhodes scholarship.” Advancing this aim, the organization, from its origins, has promoted its corps members’ prestigious alma maters, their high grade-point averages, and their SAT scores.…
…. TFA’s antibureaucratic, promarket approach was attractive to a new generation of entrepreneurially oriented funders. In an early evaluation of TFA, University of Illinois professor Cameron McCarthy noted that the organization “seemed to rise out of . . . demonstration against the establishment, against the bureaucratic codes of traditional teacher training.” When TFA began operations in 1989, remarked Kevin Hall, “there really hadn’t been much entrepreneurial work” in K-12 education. “There weren’t really lots of . . . organizations that had been started by what we would view as younger, entrepreneurial types,” he noted; “that was an interesting thing about Teach For America.” Insofar as TFA was “willing to look outside of the conventional public school system, it was pretty early in its time,” and that, Hall concluded, was “resonant” with funders….
….It would be simplistic to say that TFA’s organizational model was based on that of elite private schools. And yet, TFA has succeeded in attracting funders and recruiting corps members because of the parallels it established between its work and the work of such schools. At a time when antibureaucratic and promarket backlash was peaking, TFA promised to transform underserved schools by engaging in practices similar to those of high-status college-preparatory academies. And, at a time when all students ostensibly required top-notch academic training, TFA promised to replicate successful practices in order to get the right people into the classroom. Thus, both funders and participants–in both cases, frequently graduates of elite schools–were drawn to the program, as well as to the idea of taking elite education to scale.
A Two-Year Mission
….Whereas private-school teachers work in comfortable environments, TFA corps members would be asked to work in the most troubled schools. Consequently, in order to get the “best and brightest” into low-income urban public schools, the organization made a key tradeoff: time. As Kopp put it in her thesis, “rather than fighting a losing battle” against higher paying and higher-status opportunities, TFA would opt “not to compete.” Instead, it would request “that individuals take a break from their fast-paced lives to serve the nation.” …. TFA, according to its leadership, has seen it infeasible to ask for more than a two-year commitment to placement sites. “People were opting not to go to law school or medical school . . . and instead pursue teaching,” a former site director noted. If Wendy Kopp had “tried to pitch Teach For America for the rest of your life it wouldn’t have worked.” While some TFA corps members stay in the profession after their terms of service, 60 to 70 percent of corps members leave teaching after two years, and many do not complete their stints.
TFA has always encouraged corps members to stay in teaching, yet the organization’s recruiting message places little emphasis on that goal. A TFA recruiting brochure, for instance, publicizes that corps members gain from their two-year placements “the skills, perspective, and experience” that will help them pursue “personal and professional goals, regardless of your career path.…”
School districts and principals over the years have continued to seek out TFA corps members, indicating something unquestionably positive about the organization and its recruits. From the outset in New York City, according to its first site director, superintendents agreed to take on corps members because they “knew that they would otherwise be hiring substitutes or have class sizes that were too big.” Had corps members not staffed classrooms, one writer noted in 1993, “Other teachers would have stood in their places. But they would not have been as well educated.” Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Sylvia Rousseau brought TFA in because “the district was desperate for math and science teachers,” and she reckoned that a TFA recruit would be better than a long-term substitute or what she called a “dying-on-the-vine” teacher. Although those are low standards of comparison, principals report that corps members work hard, they are intelligent, and they are well organized. And they are filling a desperate need. According to one L.A. principal, “if you took all the TFA teachers out of Locke, we would have forty percent roving subs and mass chaos. We would not be able to survive.”
In a 2008 interview, Kopp argued that “we have the potential to end educational inequity.” TFA has operationalized this broad goal by using the concept of “significant gains” in academic performance. In elementary school, a significant gain is defined as a 1.5-grade-level jump each year; in high school, it means each teacher producing a class average of 80 percent mastery. Yet ambitious as those targets are, they fall short of Kopp’s rhetoric about ensuring “that children in the poorest communities in America have the same average achievement rates as more privileged children.” That would require great teaching, and great teaching, it seems, requires time to learn, even if that learning takes place on the job.
Because corps members commit for such a short period of time, TFA cannot afford to spend a significant period training them. Additionally, as Richard Ingersoll suggests, schools with the highest turnover are the least well equipped to support new teachers. Consequently, many of TFA’s academically talented corps members realize their potential as teachers much later than they might otherwise have. As Larry Cuban has written, because of TFA’s truncated schedule, “specifying how novices should teach is of less importance than individual teachers getting a grip on classroom discipline and their students doing well on state and district tests.” As Gary Rubinstein, a 1991 Houston corps member, remembered, “That’s how I made it through my first year. Scream. Teach for two minutes. Repeat as needed.” Consequently, according to Cuban, “traditional practices of controlling classroom behavior and habitual teacher-directed patterns of classroom instruction [continue to] trump other pedagogies.” Ironically, such reliance on traditional practices runs distinctly counter to TFA’s entrepreneurial rhetoric of institutional transformation and radical change.
TFA teachers are a consensus favorite over long-term substitutes or unqualified teachers. Yet the results produced by corps members, while frequently positive, are mixed. Some studies have found students of TFA teachers to outperform other students, particularly in math. Others,however, have found that the students of TFA teachers score lower than those of traditionally certified teachers, particularly in measures of reading.
Regardless of the results, however, most studies compare TFA teachers only against other novices, though some have compared them with more experienced teachers. However, if excellence for all is the aim, the true standard of comparison is not novices or even experienced teachers. Rather, it is master teachers in top schools. As former TFA corps member Jonathan Schorr writes, “A tough class requires a teacher with skills that come with experience and practice.” Underserved students at low-performing schools, he adds, “need more than an enthusiastic college graduate’s good intentions and good ideas. . . . [They need] a top-notch veteran, a master of the craft of teaching.” Of course, many scholars would consider it completely unfair to make such a comparison between novices and masters of their craft. TFA representatives, however, argue that they “believe that low-income kids deserve to have the same opportunities as kids in high-income schools.” Consequently, whether TFA is moving achievement toward that of students in high-income schools is exactly the sort of analysis it invites.
TFA’s mission of seeking educational equity is compromised not only by its two-year commitment but also by factors inherent to TFA’s particular excellence for all approach. One manifestation of this is the fact that while TFA teachers have academic and leadership backgrounds similar to those of suburban and private school teachers, they are often placed in schools that do not have much need for content experts. TFA teachers, one author notes, are often put “in the most difficult placements–in special education classes, bilingual classes, and limited-English classes.” Outside of their areas of expertise, their content mastery becomes nearly irrelevant. “I was a literature major at Yale,” one corps member recalled. “I knew how to deconstruct texts. I had no idea how to help someone learn to read.” Sherry Wagner, a 1998 Washington, D.C., corps member, noted that “Teach For America doesn’t want corps members to think that the realities and the circumstances matter, but they do. It does matter that I taught nine students who were in foster care.” Another corps member recalled her experience teaching in Los Angeles: “Sometimes my inexperience was relatively harmless, resulting in botched lessons or an inability to get everything done that I needed to do. Other times my newness had more dangerous consequences–I bungled home visits, didn’t contact Child Protective Services when I should have, and sometimes even failed to keep my students safe….”
A Mission Transformed
By the dawn of the twenty-first century, TFA’s mission began to change in response to, and in anticipation of, criticism. Such shifts were not new to TFA. In her original plan for the organization, Wendy Kopp had argued that her new teacher corps would “not be telling the nation that its inexperienced members were preferable to, or as qualified as, experienced teachers.” Yet as the organization grew and as it justified its growth, it did begin to heavily promote supportive findings, like those of a study by Mathematica Policy Research that found TFA teachers more effective than traditionally certified teachers.
But opponents of the TFA model began to mount new criticisms of the organization, focused primarily on TFA’s brief service commitment. Placing recent college graduates for two-year terms into the neediest classrooms, critics argued, was a patch at best and a public disservice at worst, and it fell well short of excellence for all….
In the case of Los Angeles’s Locke High School, TFA quickly became the primary source for new teachers because of the principal’s faith in the quality of TFA corps members. In 2005, TFA supplied 20 percent of the teachers on staff. However, by the end of that year, nearly a dozen TFA teachers had resigned and eight others left before finishing their two-year commitments. This disappointment caused the principal to lament: “you invest in them, get them to a level of skill, and then they leave. I have to look for stability at the school. Last year I hired all TFAers for my vacancies. This year, I’m going to be looking for a significant number of non-TFA teachers.” Other principals in the city have had comparable experiences. “All in all, it has been a very positive relationship and the teachers are readily selected by principals,” said Deborah Ignagni, assistant chief human resources officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District. But, she noted, “If the principals could change one thing, it would be to retain the teachers longer so that the students would continue to benefit and the school community would have continuity”….
TFA has tried to combat criticism of this sort by publicizing high degrees of persistence in the field of education among corps members. According to TFA, 60 percent of corps alumni are still working full time in education, though not necessarily in the classroom. However, according to an independent study, 69 percent of TFA teachers had left the classroom by the end of their second year of teaching, and 88 percent had left the profession by the end of their third year. According to another set of researchers, 73 percent of corps members in one sample had left by year three and 85 percent had left by year four, compared to 50 percent of other nontraditional entrants and 37 percent of those receiving traditional training who had left by the fourth year. Many corps members stay in education–going to graduate schools of education, entering into policy work, opening charter schools–but generally not in the teaching profession. Consequently, the degree to which TFA directly improves education in underserved communities remains in question.
A decade into its work, TFA’s message began to change subtly. Acknowledging retention issues, the organization began to promote itself as being equally committed to leadership development as it was to recruiting top college students into teaching. “The program was never intended to solve the teacher shortage problem or even to fix public education simply by preparing bright college students to teach for two years,” argued TFA advocate Julie Mikuta in 2008. “Instead,” she contended, “TFA intends to transform public education by exposing these talented people to the challenges of public education and engaging them in figuring out solutions.” Thus, she concluded, TFA’s impact will only be seen in the future, once “alumni take on more visible and influential roles.”
Despite this belief in the organization’s ability to develop future leaders in education, that was not the original intent. Kopp’s original plan mentioned nothing about leaders….Why did this shift take place? From its earliest stages, TFA has framed itself for funders, taking care to promote the legitimacy of its model even if volunteers did not stay in the teaching profession. Consequently, in the mid-1990s Wendy Kopp developed an additional goal for the program: to help those “expected to become leaders in their chosen occupations . . . become knowledgeable about education and experienced in teaching, whether or not they remain in education after their two years of service.” Only in the coming years, however, would that goal gain the same prominence as the organization’s goal of improving teacher quality. “Since the beginning,” one author noted, “TFA had been on the defensive about the short-term nature of the teaching commitment, particularly when talking to school districts and funders. By emphasizing the longer-term goal of the mission, TFA was able to neutralize some of the well-founded concerns around the issue of teacher churning in underperforming schools.” According to former TFA New York director Timothy Knowles, such a shift is “a very logical response to that criticism.”
Still, according to Marion Hodges-Biglan, the first executive director of TFA’s Chicago office, as late as 2000 the organization was making its case by emphasizing that it had great people who wanted to go to the west and south sides of the city to teach. At that time, Hodges-Biglan noted, “we weren’t pitching the long-term impact” of TFA corps members becoming future leaders, “though,” she added, “we do that now.” In TFA’s first few years in Chicago, Hodges-Biglan recalled, the message was that “we’re doing this because we believe that low-income kids deserve to have the same opportunities as kids in high-income schools.”
TFA’s strategic shift, as author Donna Foote details it, took place in 2001 with the introduction of Melissa Golden as the organization’s “brand czar.” According to Foote, Golden helped to reposition the brand by making sure that potential recruits and supporters understood that there were two parts to the TFA mission, and that both were equally important. In the short term, TFA teachers would make an immediate, catalytic impact in lower-income classrooms; longer term, they would join a burgeoning army of teacher leaders who, transformed by their teaching experience, would force systemic change to ensure educational equity, whether or not they stayed in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment. Once the organization had clearly articulated its new theory of change, “it moved quickly to bring uniformity to the look and feel of the brand.”
By the time TFA began a $60 million expansion effort in 2005, it was articulating its purpose in a new way. The mission of the organization, according to a press release announcing $30 million in grants, was billed as building “the movement to eliminate educational inequality by enlisting the country’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” According to supporter Don Fisher, founder of Gap, Inc., and a major funder of TFA and KIPP charter schools, “Teach For America’s growth and success is critical to the growth of other education reform efforts including the charter school and small schools effort.” Its success is vital not because of the teachers it would produce, but because it would “create reform leaders for the coming decades.”
Despite this shift in branding, TFA has remained a favorite of reformers in pursuit of excellence for all, and particularly those seeking an answer to the teacher question. A 2002 U.S. Department of Education press release explained a $1 million grant to TFA by making the case that students in the nation’s “poorest schools” would be taught, just as their more privileged peers, by “outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors.” As backer Eli Broad reasoned in 2005, TFA’s “infusion of high-quality teachers” into underserved schools would “improve the education of all children and narrow achievement gaps.” Thus, it seems, the vision of Ivy League-educated teachers working in low-performing urban schools has been so powerful that reformers have willingly suspended disbelief about its challenges.
The Next Big Thing
Born during the excellence for all era, TFA quickly gained the backing of a new wave of entrepreneurial reformers whose support thrust it onto the national stage. The constituent parts of TFA’s model were not, contrary to some popular belief, new. However, unlike its predecessors, the organization sought to advance both social efficiency and social justice aims, promoting academic rigor in the classrooms of the least privileged without affecting the work of schools serving the more advantaged. To the pleasure of school reformers, TFA operated independently of bureaucratic school systems and recruited into teaching the same sort of people who could be found teaching at the nation’s best schools.
TFA rapidly became the “next big thing” in education because it offered an appropriate prescription in an era dominated by market-oriented reformers and the aim of excellence for all. Consequently, a look at the organization’s challenges and various adaptations reveals as much about the notion of excellence for all and the entrepreneurial approach to education reform as it does about TFA. Despite its many successes, TFA has made a number of necessary compromises, none more important than time. The organization recruits subject-matter specialists from top colleges–the same kind of talent often found teaching in the nation’s best schools–and places them in underserved schools. But keeping those young teachers in the neediest schools is, for a variety of reasons, too challenging to mandate service of more than two years. In short, while the premise of TFA makes sense to a wide cross section of school reformers, it has had major difficulties in realizing its lofty aim and raises questions about the broader goal of excellence for all. As former corps member David Wakelyn observed: “cycling bodies in and out of the same positions every two years is not a solution.”
Still, low rates of teacher retention and their consequences did not erode support for TFA or undermine the vision of ensuring educational equity. It did not empty TFA’s coffers, usher in a new next big thing, or bring the excellence for all era to a close. Instead, the organization and its supporters began to publicize TFA in a new way. While improving teacher quality was a part of the mission, they argued, the real impact of TFA would come from giving tomorrow’s leaders firsthand experience in low-income schools. Consequently, it has continued to receive outsized attention and funding relative to other teacher recruitment efforts. Thus, while TFA may be so visible because it is the answer to the nation’s teacher problems, it seems likelier that it simply drew together the right ideas for the context of a particular time period. Its success may better reflect the sociopolitical climate of the past two decades than the program’s ability to improve the teaching profession.
Excerpted from EXCELLENCE FOR ALL: How a New Breed of Reformers Is
Transforming America’s Public Schools by Jack Schneider, published
2011 by Vanderbilt University Press. For more information: