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Building a ‘Movement for Systemic Change': How TFA Took Off in the 2000s

By Guest Blogger — May 27, 2020 5 min read
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Helen Baxendale is the director of academic affairs and policy for the Arizona board of regents. Prior to this, Helen was an instructor at Oxford, where her Ph.D. dissertation examined the Teach For America program as a lens for understanding U.S. school reform. Helen will be digging into the rise, struggles, and future of Teach For America on the blog this week.

— Rick Hess

Teach For America (TFA) entered its second decade with a stable balance sheet, strong recruitment numbers, and an increasingly rapturous public reputation. But it remained a modest operation—by no means national in scope—and while alumni were starting to do some innovative things in the education sector, TFA was still a far cry from the “movement for systemic change” that founder Wendy Kopp hoped to build. By decade’s end, however, TFA was a vastly bigger organization, feted by political and economic elites, and roundly recognized as a key element in a now surging wave of educational reform. Today’s post explains what happened in the intervening years.

New millennium, new money, new ambitions

Around the turn of the century, philanthropic giving to K-12 causes began to soar. Philanthropic interest in education was nothing novel, but unlike their predecessors, the “new edu-philanthropists” were explicitly interested in structural reform and channeled their money toward nontraditional providers rather than school districts. Drawing lessons from the disappointing returns of the Annenberg Challenge of the early 1990s, this new breed of donors “had come to believe,” relates Eli Broad, “that [their] money could work best where [they] found real change agents to make it work.” He added that giving to districts was out because “the teachers’ unions were running the show.”

Seizing an opportunity to secure expansion funding, Kopp began to pitch TFA as a leadership “force for long-term change.” Donors saw a solution to the principal-agent problems that had plagued their earlier reform efforts and lavished the organization with resources. By 2008, TFA’s vice president would argue that “the program was never intended to solve the teacher-shortage problem. ... Instead, TFA intends to transform public education by exposing these talented people to the challenges of public education and engaging them in figuring out solutions.” Thus, the true import of TFA would only emerge as “alumni take on more visible and influential roles.”

More and different recruits to grow the movement

Making the “movement” as large as possible and deepening the impact of alumni were key priorities in TFA’s 2000-2005 five-year plan. On the advice of McKinsey & Co., TFA started to recruit like McKinsey & Co. Rather than waiting to see who would respond to calls for applications, TFA actively pursued those it wanted, targeting more sharply ambitious individuals, rather than “the stereotypical Peace Corps do-gooder” types who had tended to gravitate toward the program in its early years. Between 2000 and 2008, the annual intake of corps members swelled from 800 to 3,800.

Throughout the 2000s, various initiatives aimed at boosting alumni “impact” were grafted onto the core two-year program. Perhaps the most significant development on this front was Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE). Founded in 2007, LEE exists to channel corps members and alumni into opportunities in politics, policy, advocacy, and elected office. Though LEE has always professed to be totally apolitical, early caches of the webpage reveal an unmistakably pro-reform bent, with prominent links to opportunities at the likes of Students First and Democrats for Education Reform.

Regional expansion “under the radar”

Between 2000 and 2009, burgeoning and philanthropic support and a favorable federal policy climate helped TFA to expand to 24 new regions. With its explicit focus on data-informed instruction to close achievement gaps, TFA channeled the post-No Child Left Behind zeitgeist, and the program soon became a standard element in the ambitious superintendent’s performance-improvement toolkit.

Significantly, TFA faced limited resistance from incumbent interest groups, even as its rapid expansion led it into teachers’ union strongholds. There are several explanations for this. First, TFA only entered a new region once local “champions"—most commonly business and civic leaders—had cleared the way, assuring a friendly or at least neutral reception from local K-12 stakeholders. Second, TFA’s expansion unfolded incrementally, across a disparate set of venues, and the sum was difficult to adduce from the parts. Third, while TFA’s pitch to donors increasingly stressed the organization’s capacity (and desire) to effect “systemic” reform, the message to school boards and communities continued to be “we’re doing this because we believe that low-income kids deserve to have the same opportunities as kids in high-income schools.” Fourth and finally, teachers’ unions were preoccupied with the fallout of NCLB and—to the extent that it registered—TFA’s rapid growth was but a third- or fourth-order concern.

TFA’s “systemic” impact gets noticed

Throughout this massive growth spurt, TFA’s leadership carefully avoided taking public positions in increasingly rancorous debates over school choice and accountability for fear of alienating key players who, if really riled, could cut off placements in district schools. As Kopp told The Economist, “If we’re going maximise Teach for America’s impact, we can’t afford to turn off the people who have opposing views on charters.”

But by decade’s end, maintaining a plausibly neutral position on such divisive questions was all but impossible. As growing numbers of TFA alumni came to prominence as charter school magnates, hard-charging superintendents, firebrand reform advocates, and key architects of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top agenda, TFA was increasingly tarred with the same brush as organizations that explicitly assailed teachers’ unions, traditional school districts, and schools of education as obstructionist and underperforming.

In fairly short order, TFA discovered that it could not at once celebrate the dramatic changes instigated by the likes of Michelle Rhee and remain in the good graces of unions and other K-12 activists outraged by her reforms. By the time TFA celebrated its 20th anniversary, a major backlash was brewing.

— Helen Baxendale

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.