A former Teach For America manager speaks out

Wendy Heller Chovnick is a lawyer who spent years at Teach For America, both as a corps member in the classroom and as a manager in Phoenix. In the following Q&A, she tells her story about Teach For America, explaining why she joined as an enthusiastic corps member in Washington D.C. in 2001, and why she later became disillusioned enough to leave the organization. She offers an inside view of how TFA operates both on the regional and national level and details why she believes TFA “is not living up to its mission of proving excellent educational experiences for students in low-income communities.”

Hers is the latest voice of a former TFAer speaking up about the organization. TFA has in recent months been the target of increasing criticism from former members, leading to an anti-TFA gathering last weekend in Chicago billed as an opportunity to start coordinating resistance to the organization.

She currently lives in Phoenix with her husband and two sons and works at a small securities law firm. Prior to joining Teach For America, Wendy studied business and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on public policy and urban education. After working at her TFA placement school, Paul Public Charter School, in Washington, D.C. for four years, she obtained a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. She spent a year working at a federal courthouse in Virginia on pro se prisoner matters and then moved back home to Phoenix, where she grew up. She worked as the chief of staff to the executive director in the Phoenix office of Teach For America  from June 2009 through August 2012.

The Q&A is long but revealing, providing details that help fill out our understanding of TFA.  She argues (among other things) that:

*The five-week summer institute that all corps members receive before being placed in classrooms as teachers is nowhere near enough training.
*There are too many management layers at TFA, that these layers don’t help the organization fulfill its mission and that they divert the organization’s resources away from students and corps members.
*TFA doesn’t listen to credible outside criticism and operates a big public relations campaign to deflect it.
*The one constant is change, and it doesn’t help the organization.

Here are some basic questions I asked her, with her answers.

Q) Tell me about when you joined TFA.
A) I was first admitted into Teach For America as part of the 1998 corps.  I had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and had spent my four years in Philadelphia working in the public schools and researching issues of urban education.  I thought that I wanted to pursue a career in education policy and wanted to make sure that I spent some time teaching so that any policy work I ended up doing would be grounded in some real experience and knowledge of what happens in schools and what matters in providing a high-quality education to low-income students.

I went to the Houston Summer Institute in the summer of 1998. I was originally assigned to teach special education in New Orleans but I told them I was not qualified and got that changed to be a general education elementary school teacher. During the summer, I was then assigned to teach bilingual kindergarten as part of the institute training.  During the third week of the five-week institute, I came down with mononucleosis and had to leave institute.  I got an emergency release from Teach For America so I could return at a later time….

In 2000, I got in touch with Teach For America about rejoining the corps.  The organization allowed me to become a part of the 2001 corps and I ended up being placed as a middle school math teacher at Paul Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.  This time, the summer institute was held in the Bronx in New York.  Even though I was going to be teaching middle school math for my assignment, I again ended up teaching bilingual kindergarten in the summer institute.

I believe there were about 50 of us assigned to teach in Washington, D.C., as part of the 2001 D.C. corps.  Only 38 of us completed our two-year commitment.  I worked at my placement school as a middle school math teacher for two years.  Then I stayed an additional two years to direct a program called GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs).  As the GEAR-UP director, my focus was working with my students to educate them about the many different high school options Washington, D.C. had to offer and to assist them in choosing a school that would help them graduate from high school and ultimately go to college.

While I was a corps member, I had what was called a Program Director at that time (now called Manager, Teacher Leadership Development) who would observe me teaching once or twice a year and would give me feedback to help me improve my effectiveness.  We had monthly meetings with individuals who would help us improve.

However, the reality is that we went through five weeks of training over the summer to provide us with very basic information about writing lesson plans and managing a classroom.  Then, we were thrown into classrooms and needed to work diligently to figure out how to provide a high-quality education to our students.  I distinctly remember the first homework assignment I gave to my students.  I asked my students to do ‘problems 1-31 odd.’ I was shocked the next day when less than 50% of my students came to school with their homework complete.  When I asked many of them why they had not completed their homework, the most common answer I received was, ‘Ms. Heller, what does ‘odd’ mean?’.  So, I quickly learned that in order to provide many of my students with even a very basic education, there was an enormous amount of remediation that needed to occur.

Besides the nuts and bolts of teaching math for two years, I remember countless conversations with my fellow corps members about the complex and multi-faceted challenges facing our students and their families.  For those of us who completed our teaching commitment, I would say that we all gained a huge amount of respect for the students, families and communities with whom we had the privilege of working for those few years.  A number of my fellow corps members remained in the classroom well beyond two years and a few are still teaching today.

I thoroughly enjoyed the two years I spent teaching and the four years I spent at my placement school.  Paul was a great place for teachers and a great place for students.  There was a supportive administration and a supportive teaching staff.  There was a great sense of community at the school and I was lucky to get such a great placement.  I stayed in touch with many of my students while they were in high school, and I am still in touch with a handful of students who are now in their mid-twenties.  One of my former students just graduated from Howard University about a week ago and is going to be a part of the 2013 Teach For America Corps in Washington, D.C.  Another student, who was the first in his family to graduate from high school, recently got a full-time job (his first full-time job with benefits) at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., where he helps people apply for Medicaid.

Q)  How long did you work as a staff member for TFA and what did you do?
A) I worked at Teach For America in the Phoenix office from June 2009 through August 2012.  I was hired to be the Managing Director, Strategy, Talent and Operations.  In this role, I worked as the Chief of Staff to the Executive Director of the Teach For America, Phoenix Office.  The Executive Director was very external and spent most of her time building relationships in the community and raising money.  In many ways, I served as the internal executive director and managed the various office and staff functions.  I oversaw the budget-making process in our office as well as all of the hiring, staff development, yearly goal setting, and other internal management functions.  Having an undergraduate degree in business and a law degree, my education and skill set was well suited to this role.  Whenever we were concerned about not hitting certain goals or identified weaknesses or challenges in specific teams or work areas, I was often tasked with working with individuals and teams to strategize and problem solve to remedy problems or challenges that arose.

Also, since the Phoenix office had grown significantly in its staff right before I joined the staff, I was also tasked with creating a plan to improve the cross-functional collaboration between the teams in our office.  During the time I was on the Phoenix regional staff, we had about 30 staff members.  One of my biggest priorities was staff retention.  While I was on staff, we were able to have a staff retention of about 90% each year, which allowed us to improve the quality and level of work we did.

Also while I was on staff, our Executive Director had a baby and went on maternity leave.  In her absence, I took on many of the Executive Director roles and responsibilities.

In my role as the Chief of Staff to the Executive Director, I did a little bit of everything.  I worked with all of our regional teams (Development, Alumni, Program – now Teacher Leadership Development, and Public Partnerships).  Also, I managed the operations, strategy, and human assets functions of the office.  In my role, I also served as the liaison to many of our national teams, including the marketing team, the communications team, the finance team, etc.

Lastly, one thing I learned very quickly at Teach For America is that the only constant at the organization is change.  In Teach For America’s effort to “get things right,” to constantly learn and improve, and to make an impact, the organization implemented a number of HUGE changes in the three years I was there.  These significant changes made it very difficult for our staff members and teams to do their jobs well because the jobs and goals were always changing.

Two significant changes that took many hours of staff time and effort but did not translate into any improved outcomes for our teachers or their students were changing the organization’s core values and changing both the name of the team that supports teachers and the goals that team worked towards.  For many years, the academic goal teachers (corps members) worked towards was called “significant gains.”  “Significant gains” was defined as a student making 1.5 years or more of academic growth in a given year.  “Solid gains” was defined as a student making one year of academic growth in a given year.  In 2011, the organization decided to change the goals from these concrete, academic goals to something called “transformational change.”  As part of this shift in focus, the organization changed the name of the Program Team, the one responsible for corps member effectiveness and retention, into the Teacher Leadership Development Team.  There were many hundreds of hours of conversations in the organization about what transformational change is and what we were charging our corps members with.

During my three years on the Teach For America-Phoenix team, I gained a great deal of insight into the inner workings of Teach For America, both regionally and nationally.  I saw how our regional team functioned, but I also saw how national teams functioned and interfaced with the regional team.  Also, I worked very closely with and supported all of our regional teams.  Thus, I was part of the team meetings for our Development Team (that did the fundraising and events), the Public Partnerships Team (that built relationships and placed our corps members), our Alumni Team (that focused on alumni engagement and alumni leadership development) and our Program Team (that helped our corps members become effective teachers and helped to ensure that corps members completed their two year commitment).  I served as an active member of all of our regional teams and it was my job to know everything that was going on in our region at all times.  In addition, in many ways, I served as an advocate for the various members of our staff.

Q) When did you start to get disillusioned and why?
A) It is difficult to identify exactly when I started to get disillusioned with Teach For America.  I would say that it was a three-year long process that occurred while I was on staff.  When I applied to work at Teach For America back in 2009, I did so with a very real knowledge that the organization had changed a great deal from when I was a corps member in 2001.  When I accepted the position as the Chief of Staff to the Executive Director in Phoenix, I knew that there were many very valid criticisms of Teach For America.  However, I accepted the position because at the time, I believed that the benefits of Teach For America, to students, schools, corps members, and communities, outweighed the costs.  During the three years I worked on staff, as I started to see how the organization spends its time and money, I became increasingly disillusioned.

There were three main things that concerned me the most and ultimately led me to conclude that Teach For America may be doing more harm than good.  First, I was very upset with how Teach For America addressed critique and criticism.  Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything.  During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media.  This inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made me start to see that Teach For America had turned into more of a public relations campaign than an organization truly committed to closing the achievement gap.  Unfortunately, the organization seemed to care more about public perception of what the organization was doing than about what the organization was actually doing to improve education for low-income students throughout the United States.

Second, I became very uncomfortable with how the organization’s vast philanthropic and government resources were spent.  Each year, our Development team was charged with setting a fundraising goal and creating a plan for how to reach that goal.  Our Public Partnerships team would set a goal about how many corps members we could place.  An ongoing conversation on our Development Team, the one charged with raising the money for the region to function, was why we were being asked to raise more money each year to bring in the same number of corps members.  During my final year on staff, in order to bring in an incoming corps of about 150 corps members and a total corps of just over 300, our region had to raise $7 million.  Because I managed the team that created our regional budget each year, I quickly saw that our regional operating budget was well under $1 million each year.  Although I did not know the salary of each person in our office, I was privy to many salaries.  I would estimate that the cost of salaries each year was slightly over $1.5 million for 30 staff members and was probably closer to $1.8 million when benefits were taken into consideration.

For a non-profit organization, Teach For America pays very good salaries and has exceptional benefits for its employees.  As I got to know our budget and compared it to how much money we were asked to raise each year, I, of course, started asking myself and others where the other $4 million or so was going.  Some of it needs to pay for our incoming corps members to attend summer institute for their 5 week training.  However, the rest was going to support the national Teach For America infrastructure, which includes many, many unnecessary management layers.  When I saw how much money our region needed to raise that was not directly benefiting our corps members and their students, I became increasingly disillusioned with the organization.

Just like businesses and governments often show what they value by where they spend their money, so does Teach For America.  When I saw where the money was really going, which was to a lot of national teams, national staff members, and national infrastructure, that was not providing much support to our region and was definitely not translating into improved educational outcomes for students, my opinion of the organization fell drastically.

Lastly, I became extremely disillusioned with the organization and its values when our Executive Director left and I saw how the organization searched for and hired a new Executive Director.  During my tenure on staff, we had extremely high staff retention and staff satisfaction.  I saw how the high staff retention helped us work more effectively and more efficiently.  Also, our region had one of the most veteran leadership teams in the country.  Instead of working with our region’s leadership team to choose an executive director who we would want to work with and get behind, the national staff member, called a Regional Operations Senior Vice President, conducted his own search for what he thought our region, and more importantly, the organization, needed.  Ultimately, the change in leadership in the region, with no buy-in whatsoever from the region’s leadership team, led to a staff turnover of well over 50% in a matter of months and a turnover on our leadership team of 60%.  One of my co-workers said it best.  She said, “Becoming an executive director should be the culmination of someone’s career.”

Unfortunately, at Teach For America, Executive Directors can be hired with minimal management experience, no fundraising experience, and not much life experience either.  That is what happened in Phoenix.  My concern is that the new leadership team at the Teach For America Phoenix office will stay for three or so years, leave, and the entire cycle will start again.  This type of significant turnover at the leadership level in any organization makes it nearly impossible to accomplish much of anything.  The change of executive directors in Phoenix, along with my growing discomfort with how the organization spends its time and money, ultimately led me to leave my employment with Teach For America in August 2012.

Even though I was earning a much higher salary at Teach For America than I am earning now and even though the organization was willing to accommodate my desire to work a 60% schedule, I could not continue working for an organization that I did not believe was being a good steward of the hundreds of millions of philanthropic and government dollars it was raising each year.

Specifically, only a small fraction of the dollars are devoted to the real work happening in regions to improve educational outcomes for low-income students and too many of the dollars are spent on unnecessary management layers and national teams that do a lot of thinking and changing but not a lot of concrete work to close the achievement gap in classrooms across the United States.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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