Things aren’t going all that well for Teach for America, what with recruitment significantly down and the bloom off of its rosy cachet, so it is now trying to rejuvenate, so to speak.
This story by my Post colleague Emma Brown spells it out, noting that applications have fallen 35 percent during the past three years and that the organization is working to find new ways to attract recruits and putting a broader mission front and center.
What’s that broader mission? Social justice, apparently. How is it getting out the word? Any way it can, including on social media with some rather unusual advertising. In fact, one former TFA member calls its a “PR stunt.”
Formed 25 years ago by Wendy Kopp from an idea she developed in a thesis at Princeton University, TFA is famous for recruiting new college graduates, giving them five or so weeks of training in the summer, and then placing them in high-needs schools, all on the theory that smart young people can, presto, be great teachers with little training and that such a program could help end teaching shortages and student achievement gaps.
TFA became the darling of the pro-market school reform crowd, taking in millions of dollars from wealthy education philanthropists and the Obama administration. What drove critics crazy, along with the minimal training, was that TFA asked its corps members to commit to only two years in a classroom, building in a revolving door that many educators say was unhealthy for students with high needs who need consistency. The two-year commitment was part of TFA’s overall goal, as Kopp said, to create an army of educated people who would take powerful jobs in American society and advocate for public education. As education historian Jack Schneider wrote:
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.”
It also was a great way for corps members to beef up their résumés. In her story, Brown wrote about TFA recruiting events at various universities:
Students had a chance to observe TFA corps members teaching. Then they were treated to lunch and a panel of TFA alumni speaking about how their classroom experiences had translated into marketable skills in fields including law, politics, education advocacy and nonprofit entrepreneurship.
And now it seems that TFA wants to be seen as being about much more than teaching. From Brown’s story:
“We believe that this is far bigger than teaching,” Kimberly Diaz, of the organization’s D.C. regional office, told a group of prospective applicants from Georgetown and George Washington universities in April. They had just visited an elementary school in suburban Maryland and heard from alumni working outside of classrooms. “This is about dismantling systems of oppression.”
This is what veteran teacher and education blogger Peter Greene, on his Curmudgucation blog, calls “mission creep:”
Far bigger than teaching. Your two years struggling in a sixth-grade classroom will actually be part of dismantling systems of oppression (“No, Pat, I can’t help you with your algebra right now. I’m busy dismantling a system of oppression.”)
TFA is trying to get out the word about the work of its corps members and alumni on social media, including some sponsored tweets that were spotted by Gary Rubinstein, a former TFA corps member and now veteran teacher who called it “TFA’s latest PR stunt” on his blog. What’s the stunt? Buying advertising on other websites and making it difficult for readers to notice who actually wrote it. Perhaps the most glaring are sponsored tweets on the Education Week Twitter account that put TFA in a great light. For example:
— Education Week (@educationweek) May 13, 2016
— Education Week (@educationweek) May 3, 2016
Sponsored ads are nothing new — virtually all news organization accept them — but the question is how easy it is to see whether it is news content or advertisement. In the above tweets — and more than two-dozen more, which you can find here — it is difficult to recognize that the tweets are sponsored ads, aside from the separated hashtags.
It’s easy to understand why TFA would want to attach itself to Education Week, a respected news organization. Why, though, would Edweek do it? I asked the organization, and this is an emailed response from Edweek Managing Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
“Education Week is conscientious about ensuring that advertising, an essential part of the business model for most news organizations, follows industry standards and practices. We have had sponsored tweets for several years, clearly labeled. This is not a unique ad format in the industry. The TFA sponsored tweets are clearly labeled. In a glance we feel it is apparent that it is a #sponsored #ad, which, in addition to the hashtags as part of the 140 character message, includes the TFA Web address under the image.
Sharise Johnson, TFA’s managing director for national communications and engagement, said that Education Week is the only place where TFA is doing sponsored ads at the moment. In an email, she wrote:
EdWeek is currently the only outlet we’ve worked with to share branded content. Our goal in advertising on EdWeek was to share the story of Teach for America’s impact and effectiveness over the past 25 years through the lens of a diverse set of regions. Many of these regions have been in operation for more than 20 years, working in collaboration with schools, districts and communities to help provide educational opportunity for low-income students. As these pieces examined the setbacks and challenges of our work in regions, we chose EdWeek as a trusted, education news source and outlet that would reach a broad audience of education leaders, teachers, parents and more, with whom we could share our learnings across various regional contexts.