If you’ve taught your way through Teach For America like I have, you know that feedback is part of the job. Not only do new teachers receive critiques from principals, fellow educators and students, they’re also deluged with weekly and monthly reports on their success from the organization itself.
Although the amount of feedback varies from region to region, the message is clear: With enough data, anyone can become a champion educator, able to lift students’ reading and math scores many years in a single leap.
Unfortunately, TFA does not apply a similar philosophy to its own organization. Not only is TFA notoriously unwilling to listen to outside or internal critics (one former TFA manager decried its “inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism” in The Washington Post). The organization has also spent millions of dollars on a press shop built to promote its brand while aggressively and proactively discrediting critiques.
This is bad for the organization, and it’s bad for students. TFA has real problems — its teachers are largely unprepared and fare no better than regular educators. It has a high drop-out rate, and the number of applicants has plummeted. Additionally, TFA sends its volunteer teachers to school districts in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, places now facing teacher layoffs and hiring freezes. Some school districts have even rescinded contracts with TFA, citing teachers’ lack of preparation and low retention rates.
Alum Catherine Michna* has said that she won’t write recommendation letters for students who want to join the program. “TFA members do not work in service of public education,” she wrote in Slate. “They work in service of a corporate reform agenda that rids communities of veteran teachers, privatizes public schools, and forces a corporatized, data-driven culture upon unique low-income communities with unique dynamics and unique challenges.”
TFA has the resources and the clout to address these concerns. Instead, it has chosen to ignore its dissenters. The organization is stuck, and it shows few signs of evolution.
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TFA was born in a Princeton undergraduate thesis, written by founder Wendy Kopp in 1989. In that paper, Kopp imagined a program that made teaching “an attractive choice for top grads” across the country. Ideally, she wrote, getting into TFA would be as competitive as winning a Rhodes scholarship. Controversially, Kopp didn’t want to build better lifetime teachers. In a 1996 interview, she described the organization as a “leadership development program.” College grads would start in TFA, then go on to education leadership positions across the country.
In this, she’s succeeded. Today, TFA educators make up less than 0.2 percent of America’s teaching force, heavily concentrated in many poor urban districts. But their political influence is much greater. More than 70 alums currently hold public office; several more work in the U.S. Department of Education and as congressional advisers. Alums run the school districts in Newark, Atlanta and New Orleans.
The organization’s power comes in part from its stunning media presence, and that’s no accident. The organization spends $3.5 million a year on advertising and promotion. As former manager Wendy Heller Chovnick explained to the Nation, communication specialists were assigned to each region, tasked with getting good stories out there and “swiftly address[ing] any negative stories, press or media.”
Additionally, a portion of TFA’s Web site is dedicated to “de-bunking” feedback. The “On the Record” page lists stories, blogs and reports that don’t align with TFA’s claims, along with the organization’s side of the story. For example, Esther Cepeda wrote a column for The Washington Post Writers Group critiquing TFA’s approach to recruitment and classroom management, based on a book I co-edited. In response, TFA charged Cepeda of offering a “limited perspective” and said that their “program model is not designed to meet the needs of every aspiring teacher.” When TFA got early word of a potentially negative Nation article, the media team crafted a preemptive blog post, addressing many of the anticipated criticisms. An hour after the piece ran, the organization brought in “America’s Crisis Guru” Jim Lukaszewski to draft a point-by-point takedown.
This approach hinders TFA’s ability to grow. Recently, Nonprofit Quarterly called TFA an example of what not to do when receiving critical feedback. TFA’s “certainty and overabundance of self-protectiveness can cause a group to look to single-mindedly extend its own life behind a barricade in some kind of isolationist nonprofit survivalist mode,” the authors wrote. That “self-protective reaction [breeds] certainty and hubris.”
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To its credit, the 25-year-old Teach for America has started to change. The organization now offers a fellowship to corps members who commit to teaching for more than two years. In some places, it now recruits college juniors in order to provide longer-term teacher training. Half of its teachers are now minorities, and many come from low-income backgrounds. In a statement, the organization said that “it’s still early in some of this work, and we understand if alumni haven’t yet felt the start of these shifts in their own experience.”
But it’s not nearly enough. I recently co-edited a book that features 20 essays by former Teach for America members. All offer critical perspectives, highlighting the organization’s major problems. Several writers, for example, took TFA to task for its five-week training program, which distills teaching to a very myopic and oversimplified recipe. As one former corps member wrote, “the five-week training program had not prepared me adequately.” Another critic, Gary Rubinstein, has said that the organization sets teachers up for failure: TFA teachers “don’t know how to deal with discipline problems, because they’ve never dealt with a class with more than 10 kids — there’s no way to deal with so many potential problems when they’ve never been practiced.”
TFA has also faced criticism for its shoddy teacher evaluation tools. Though the organization claims that the majority of its corps members raise the reading and math scores of its students by at least a year, the organization’s former research director, Heather Harding, disputed that finding. In a Reuters article, she acknowledged that many teachers provide performance statistics based on self-designed assessments. “I don’t think it stands up to external research scrutiny,” Harding said.
Additionally, TFA’s message of hyper-accountability ignores the broader problems in education today. Decades of educational research have confirmed that out-of-school factors like poverty explain two-thirds of the variance in student achievement. Despite this, TFA has continued to insist that good teachers are all schools need to close the achievement gap. This is little more than a “band-aid,” teaching scholars say. And that message also leads to high rates of teacher burn-out.
Other complaints revolve around the organization’s focus on leaders, not teachers. One 2015 study found that more than 87 percent of TFA corps members were not planning on a lifelong career as a classroom teacher. Just 26 percent of non-TFA teachers said the same. These leaders go on to push TFA’s agenda of privatized schools, standardized tests and a de-unionized teaching corps (though it’s far from clear that these help students). Burgeoning research suggests that TFA alums who become school board leaders, for example, are far more likely to support pro-reform agendas than their non-TFA alum counterparts.
Defenders of TFA say that we should lay off. A least, they argue, corps members are “at least doing something.” This, however, is an absurdly low standard for teachers — especially teachers of the nation’s most disadvantaged students. While we all have high demands for teachers, we should also have high demands for federally funded organizations like TFA that seem to believe they are above reproach.
* Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Micha’s occupation.