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‘Good Intentions Gone Bad’ — excerpt from new book about Teach For America

Teach for American founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)

A new book about  the 25-year-old Teach For America tells the story of the controversial organization through the eyes of alumni who share their experiences and insight about working in TFA.

TFA was founded by Wendy Kopp based on her 1989 Princeton University experience — and it has become a powerful force in the corporate school reform movement, winning tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. Education Department and millions more from private philanthropists to continue its work.

It became famous for its program of recruiting thousands of new college graduates and giving them five weeks of training in the summer before sending them into high-poverty schools to work as teachers (not interns), leading to criticism that their corps members were not properly prepared for teaching high-needs students and that they were being recruited by school districts at the expense of veteran teachers. As growing criticism and a polarized education reform debate has harmed TFA recruiting, the organization has been experimenting with new training programs.

The editors of the book say they view it as a counter-narrative to that given by the organization, and it reveals some of the problems within the structure of TFA that they believe hurt teachers and students. Following is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of the book by Wendy Chovnick, a former corps member in Washington, D.C. schools,  who also served as chief of staff to the executive director in the Phoenix TFA office. You can read more about her experiences here, in this interview I did with her in 2013.

And here’s the book excerpt by Chovnick:

Teach For America (TFA) has a compelling mission and thousands of well-intentioned, hardworking, and intelligent corps members and staff members working towards its ambitious goals. Yet, how the organization functions and the questionable impact it is having, given its vast resources, are disturbing on many levels.
I was a 2001 Washington, D.C. corps member, served as the chief of staff to the executive director in the Phoenix TFA office from 2009 to 2012, and have been dedicated to ensuring that “all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education” for nearly 2 decades. However, I no longer have much confidence in TFA as an organization capable of fulfilling its mission.
The perspective I offer is further informed by my experience as a Jane Addams Fellow studying philanthropy and nonprofit management with the most transformative teacher I have ever had, Mr. Robert Payton. Specifically, this chapter discusses: (1) how TFA has changed over time, not always for the better; and (2) how TFA suppresses and ignores nearly all criticism levied against it, whether from inside the organization or from outside.
TFA: Then and Now
Having studied nonprofit management and philanthropic studies from 1999 through 2001 with Mr. Robert Payton at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, I have high expectations for nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations fill an important need in our society and in our democracy. To the extent that nonprofits accept state and federal tax dollars, I think they should be held to an even higher standard for outcomes and accountability. According to the 990 form TFA filed with the IRS in 2012 and the organization’s 2012–2013 annual letter, TFA collected nearly $320 million from a variety of philanthropic and government sources in 2012. Notably, TFA changed its fiscal year in 2012.
Thus, the 2012 numbers reflect an 8-month instead of a full 12-month year, and significantly underestimate the actual money TFA raises in a typical year. In addition, the organization reported endowment funds of nearly $200 million. With this much financial strength should come a great deal of responsibility. Unfortunately, based on what I saw during my time as an employee of the organization, TFA is not fulfilling its responsibility to use these extraordinary resources wisely. In addition, the existence of an endowment is troubling. The endowment suggests that TFA wants to exist in perpetuity; the strong implication is that the organization does not truly believe it can ever close the achievement gap.
There is no doubt in my mind that when Wendy Kopp started TFA in 1990, the organization began to fill a huge, unmet need in urban public education, notably by relieving teacher shortages and highlighting the need for great teachers. For me, and for many other college graduates, the organization also filled another very important need. There were a number of people graduating from elite colleges and universities who wanted to positively contribute to society. As Mr. Payton would tell his postgraduate students, “The only excuse for an elite education is a lifetime of service.”
There are many college graduates, both when Kopp started TFA and now, who have been privileged to receive an exceptional education and want to devote their lives to creating opportunity for others. TFA gave us a way to start on the path of understanding the many complex challenges facing low-income communities and what might be done to improve the education available to children growing up in those communities. However, TFA was a very different nonprofit organization in 2001, when I became a corps member, than it is now.
TFA has improved in some important respects over time. Specifically, TFA changed its recruitment strategy significantly and, to its credit, focuses enormous attention on encouraging people of color and people from low-income backgrounds to apply. A recent article by Perry (2014) highlights the success TFA has had increasing the number of staff members and corps members who identify as people of color and/or come from a low-income background. While this increased focus on the diversity of the organization is significant, I am not aware of current data that links this increased diversity to better student outcomes.
Despite improvements like this, I believe TFA was in many ways a better, and more genuine, organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s than it is today.
As a 2001 Washington, D.C. corps member, I was surrounded with corps members, a very small TFA staff (4 staff members for 80 to 100 corps members), and fellow teachers who all felt a common passion to provide the best education possible for our students. Nobody thought that he or she had the right answer, and we were all striving to do our best for the students while seeking to understand the complexities and challenges facing the schools and communities in which we worked. Everything was about collaboration and working as hard as we could for our students and schools. There were few, if any, management layers, and all resources, both financial and human, went directly to the students and schools we were serving.
In 2001, TFA felt like a grassroots nonprofit where everyone had a voice and each of us felt like we could have a positive impact. Everyone was accepted and valued simply for working as hard as we possibly could towards a common mission of providing an excellent education to low-income students. Admittedly, we were naïve. We started teaching with no formal education training, and hoped we could make a significant impact on most, or even all, of our students. Our students’ academic results were mixed and difficult to measure. As a corps member, you never truly know the impact you have on most of your students. You see them for only a year or two. Yet, I have had the privilege of keeping in touch with a handful of my students since 2002. They are now in their early twenties. The most significant impact I have had on these students comes from keeping in touch with them for so many years, editing college essays, assisting with job applications, encouraging them, and being there to help them talk through and think through various challenges they face or life decisions they are making. Despite the uncertainty around the specific impact we were having on our students, when I was a corps member, there seemed to be a widespread sense of integrity, humility, authenticity, and a shared commitment to go above and beyond whatever we thought was possible.
Since 2001, management expanded exponentially within TFA. From 2009 until 2012, we had about 30 staff members in the Phoenix office and about 300 corps members working in schools throughout Phoenix. Thus, there were many more staff members supporting far fewer corps members than there had been in 2001. The number of management layers, both within the region and outside the region on the national team, was immense. In order to place 300 corps members (about 150 each year), we needed an entire team of people dedicated to building relationships with schools and districts. We needed an entire team of people to fundraise for the region, and only about half of our staff members, mostly the Managers of Teacher Leadership Development (MTLDs), worked directly with corps members on a regular basis. For many staff members, especially those of us not working directly with corps members, it was difficult, or even impossible, to see how—or if—our work was having a positive impact on corps members or low-income students in Phoenix.
Even those staff members on the Teacher Leadership Development Team, whose main job it was to support corps members, spent countless hours each week in meetings and entering huge amounts of data. These time-consuming requirements, driven by management layers and management requirements, gave the MTLDs less time to work directly with corps members to help them improve their teaching. Another very real challenge is that most MTLDs stay in their roles for only 2 or 3 years. So it is common to have a brand new MTLD, with only 2 or 3 years of teaching experience and little or no experience of providing professional development to new teachers, in charge of helping a new teacher learn.
Further, it is common for MTLDs to be supporting corps members in content areas about which they have limited knowledge or expertise. The idea of corps members who are inexperienced teachers being supported by these MTLDs, who themselves often have limited teaching experience, is troubling.
As a result of the many management layers and many meetings that pervade the structure and culture of TFA, the vast majority of staff members and corps members, even high performing or highly effective ones, received an enormous amount of feedback on a weekly or even daily basis. This feedback, while intended to drive better outcomes, was often extremely harsh. Ongoing critical feedback was, and is, a large part of TFA’s culture. Yet, I did not see this feedback translating into better results or outcomes for staff members, corps members or students. Notably, the support corps members and staff members receive is very inconsistent across regions. Neither management layers nor meetings were effective in ensuring that corps members or staff members received consistent, high quality support.
I witnessed a compelling example of TFA’s failure to support its corps members, as a direct result of its expansion and excessive focus on management, during the 2013–2014 school year. A former student of mine who is now a TFA corps member started her second year of teaching in the fall of 2014. Her experience makes me question the structures and “support” TFA puts in place for corps members.
My former student struggled significantly in her first year of teaching due to many factors, including an ineffective administration (the entire administration was replaced during the summer of 2014), a very challenging student population with many unmet basic needs, and the fact that being a first year teacher is extremely challenging for anyone. So, she reached out to her MTLD for support. It was, and still is, my understanding that it is the role of the MTLD to help struggling teachers and to help all TFA teachers be as effective as possible in the classroom. Yet, it took months for her MTLD to make the time to actually visit the teacher and her classroom, in part because the MTLD has so many TFA-driven meetings and conferences to attend.
According to this corps member, “It has been my personal experience that my MTLD spent less time coaching me and more time in retreats that were supposed to be beneficial to me. My MTLD only came to my school two times and her manager only came once. Both my MTLD and her manager did not know how to support me, which they admitted to me, partly because the school I am teaching in is so tough.”
Back in 2001, if I had contacted my MTLD (called a program director then), she would have come to my class the following day or at least within a week to offer support and guidance. As a new teacher, I remember how helpful it was to have an experienced teacher observe my classroom and give me feedback or suggestions. It is unfortunate that TFA’s significant growth, accompanied by a corporate structure filled with meetings and staff development conferences, appears to be getting in the way of providing some struggling corps members with the support they need and are explicitly requesting.
As I reflect on my time working with TFA, I attribute much of the negative change to the organization’s misguided decision to change its core values in 2011, and to the organization failing to ask the right questions. When I started working with TFA, the core values were: Relentless Pursuit of Results, Sense of Possibility, Disciplined Thought, Respect and Humility, and Integrity. These values were clear and easy to understand, and could be both identified and cultivated in corps members and staff members.
The current core values are: Transformational Change, Leadership, Team, Diversity, and Respect and Humility. These new core values are aspirational and unclear, and changed TFA as an organization as well as its overall attitude towards its work. The changes I witnessed were not positive. Instead of valuing hard work, a belief in others, and constant critical reflection to drive the actions most likely to help close the achievement gap, TFA now values transforming things above all else. While these new core values may very well be appropriate for the TFA alumni movement, I consider these core values for brand new teachers, and often inexperienced staff members, to be misguided, and even irresponsible.
We would never ask anyone in a brand new field or a brand new job to be transformational from day one. Instead, we would expect those individuals to work hard and learn as much as possible so that they could one day become transformational leaders in the field. I often reflect on a line from a song by Common featuring Mos Def called “The Questions.” In it, Mos Def asks, “How you got high expectations but got no patience?” This line highlights why I believe TFA is failing its corps members and its staff members, and failing as an organization. The only constant at TFA is change.
Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same and the further TFA drifts from fulfilling its mission. TFA’s flawed business model, where it is constantly innovating and changing, does not allow for any stability in the organization. A certain degree of stability is necessary for success. This type of constant innovation and change in a classroom would create a highly unstable environment for students that would result in an unproductive and unpleasant learning environment that would prevent students from succeeding. The same is true at TFA. This corporate model of constant change is failing at every level. TFA must have high expectations, but the organization must also learn patience, or it may never figure out what works and what does not. Ironically, after changing its core values and the academic outcomes corps members were working towards in 2011, TFA is currently in the process of trying to reinvent and re-envision these new core values because of all of the negative consequences they have had throughout the organization.
TFA staff members, corps members, and critics of TFA all have a sense of urgency about closing the achievement gap, and I believe we would all agree that high expectations are essential. However, expecting corps members to be transformational leaders and close the achievement gap in their first year of teaching is foolish. All of the transformational teachers I know have a deep sense of love and respect for their students and the communities in which they work. In addition, the vast majority of transformational teachers I know have either exceptional training in the specific subject(s) they are teaching and/or a consistent and long-lasting dedication to the students, schools, and communities in which they work, which lasts far beyond the 2-year TFA commitment.
TFA should be much more reflective and cautious with the changes it makes and the results it expects. A return to the disciplined thought of the past would do the organization a lot of good.