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Teach for America Reboot

Russo_pulse

Teach for America Reboot

How TFA responded to critics.

By Alexander Russo

Earlier this year, roughly 15,000 folks showed up in Washington, D.C., for the 25th anniversary of Teach For America. The nonprofit teacher recruitment and training program started out as a Princeton senior’s undergraduate honors thesis and is now one of the biggest and best-known education organizations in the country.

Whether you like TFA or not, its accomplishments—50,000 current and former members, and 15,000 alumni of color, including #BlackLivesMatter leader DeRay McKesson, and a $300 million yearly budget—are hard to ignore. The organization is the nation’s largest single supplier of classroom teachers.

But TFA hasn’t just gotten big. It’s become a school reform lightning rod, criticized for underpreparing its recruits and displacing veteran teachers during the Great Recession. A few school districts declined to work with TFA because of these concerns. The controversies, plus the polarization of public opinion, affected TFA’s impressive recruitment numbers. And then, three years ago, founder Wendy Kopp left.

Since then, TFA has rolled out a series of adjustments and initiatives, all of which were on display at the 25th reunion. Some of the efforts haven’t worked out. A “co-CEO” model to succeed Kopp was abandoned after not too long. Other initiatives are incomplete. However, the changes seem promising and may already be helping TFA teachers and alumni work better with the schools and districts where they are based.

First and foremost, TFA has gone to great lengths to diversify its teacher demographics—so much so that the latest crop of teachers is 50 percent minority. The organization has also started an alumni group for people of color, called The Collective, that encourages alumni to stay engaged with education and help support more minority students to become educators. And it seems to be working. I’ve been to a lot of education conferences over the years, but this was perhaps the most diverse one I’ve ever attended.

With the departure of founder Wendy Kopp (who now heads the global organization Teach For All), TFA is headed by Elisa Villanueva Beard, a dynamic, not-quite-40-year-old mother of four who seems energized by and connected to her work.

TFA has a number of other changes in the works. Programmatically, it is pushing to decentralize its operations so that each region around the country can operate more independently, finding and serving needs on the ground rather than meeting central office requirements and procedures. It’s also piloting two new changes to the longstanding five-week summer institute and two-year expected term of service. Some TFA recruits are now applying a year early and starting to study teaching during their senior year of college, giving them much more time and practice before they start teaching officially. And teachers are being encouraged to stay in the classroom longer, either full time or in a hybrid teacher-mentor capacity.

In about a dozen of TFA’s 50 regions, there are now financial incentives for some teachers to stay longer. The message was clear at the summit that staying in the classroom was an honorable thing to do.

Even more important, TFA leaders are speaking about out-of-school factors like poverty and racism that the group once downplayed, and acknowledging it might be a long time—but not -forever—before the deep societal problems that affect education are fully addressed.

What all these changes mean for districts is that there should be a more diverse set of TFA teachers available, some of whom will have received more training than in the past, and that the relationships with local TFA officials can be more personalized. While it’s still true that few alumni stay in their first school, many remain in the classroom, and an estimated 65 percent work in education in some way.

The controversy surrounding TFA may have been helpful, in the end. As Villanueva Beard told Politico, “I’m grateful for when people make our shortcomings clear, because it enables us to get better.” 

Illustration: Lincoln Agnew

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