School & District Management Opinion

Superheroes and Transformers: Rethinking TFA’s Leadership Models

By Tina Trujillo, Janelle Scott & Phi Delta Kappan — April 25, 2014 15 min read
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Many young children enjoy playing superheroes and Transformers. Often they can be found acting out fantasies in which they assume the identities of these all-powerful characters. The drama usually unfolds the same way: Villains use their power to abuse others until a bold, relentless protagonist uses novel talent and transformative strength to crush the evil forces. The hero/ine, motivated by a fierce sense of urgency, bravely resolves the victims’ plights — often by blowing up things and leaving a path of destruction in his/her wake as he/she metes out justice and order.

This pretend play carries several benefits during early childhood. Children can try different forms of power in both “good” and “bad” roles. They can develop social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills. But these simplified tropes don’t necessarily serve us well as adults seeking to solve complex social dilemmas. Without deliberation and cooperation, a focus on superhero solutions can minimize our attention to more nuanced human concerns. Worries over competition, valuing fierce individualism and dramatic results, and charismatic heroes can edge out considerations about empathy for others, civic awareness, collaboration, creativity, equity, and social justice.

Nevertheless, our yearning for heroic leaders persists throughout society. Education is no exception. In fact, in our study of Teach For America (TFA), we found these themes of heroism and individualism repeating themselves among many TFA alumni and current corps members when they reflected on the educational leadership they deemed most desirable for redressing educational inequities. For our respondents, most of whom were on a professional fast track to become leaders themselves, the archetype of the valiant leader in a relentless pursuit of excellence and justice was by far the most frequently cited model of leadership. They were enchanted with the image of a morally virtuous, epic hero.

Studying Teach For America

In 1990, TFA began as an alternative teacher preparation and placement organization. Today its mission has shifted to building a movement to eliminate educational inequity by selecting and preparing our nation’s most promising leaders. TFA has successfully seeded its leaders across a wide range of charter management organizations, school districts, corporate-funded education reform agencies, and government offices. Yet many of TFA’s highest-profile leaders seem to stir up strong reactions from observers of all political persuasions.

For three years, we’ve been researching TFA alumni and current members’ notions about the leadership they believe could best increase educational equity. We’ve also talked with them about their diagnoses of educational inequality and ideas for policies that can effectively redress them. In this article, we report on what we found from one subset of our data, our interviews. In total, we interviewed a representative sample of 117 alumni and 47 current corps members, all of whom participated in the program between 1991 and 2013 and who worked in 25 different TFA placement regions across the country.

The Knowledge Base on TFA

Most literature on TFA falls into four general categories. The first, the conceptual debates, considers the most promising ways to prepare teachers to serve in hard-to-staff, under-resourced schools, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of relying on TFA teachers, most of whom are white and from elite backgrounds, to serve primarily children of color in low-income communities. Other literature investigates TFA’s test-based effectiveness. This research tends to show that students of TFA teachers have mixed results, and the effects of these results are usually small. The third category contains journalistic and biographical narratives that detail corps members’ conflicts and joys as novices working in communities in which they are usually professional and cultural outsiders. The last category includes studies that frame TFA as an organization that is part of a social and political movement. This work takes up questions about TFA’s attempts to remake public education, often by encouraging its alumni to pursue leadership positions in education, government, and other sectors.

As yet, relatively few scholars have interrogated the types of leaders that TFA expects will carry out this social and political movement and the potential consequences of these leadership models for educational equity. What TFA-styled leaders view as the sources of educational inequality, as well as what they judge to be the best leadership for remedying it, can influence the policies they promote. Yet research shows that the likelihood that policies will create more equitable school systems varies based on whether they focus on more managerial, quick fixes or more systemic changes to the social and political conditions that produce gaps in educational opportunities among students. Bearing this distinction in mind, we set out to understand not just what TFA corps members want in their leaders but the likelihood that such leaders will promote socially just, equitable schooling.

Leading for Equity or Managing for Change?

Bookstore shelves and online resources are full of prescriptions for how to be an effective leader. Advice about instructional, transformational, moral, distributed and social justice, and even cage-busting leadership abounds. While the specific ingredients of each leadership model differ, most share a familiar theme. Most promote charismatic and inspirational leaders who also are scientific and technocratic problem solvers. Many of these proposals encourage leaders not to shy away from confrontation, to demand nothing short of excellence, and to facilitate collaborative arrangements insofar as they help persuade others to follow their lead. Implicit in most of these models are ideas that have persisted throughout more than a century’s worth of recommendations from business and management. In fact, aside from the social justice leadership model, most emphasize approaches geared toward managerial goals: maximizing organizational efficiency, setting ambitious and easily quantifiable goals, measuring effective performance, and controlling others with threats and incentives.

Experts in educational leadership have termed these technical models managerialist leadership (Gewirtz, 2002; Gunter, 1997; Trujillo, 2014). They caution that such a heavy managerial orientation detracts from leaders’ attention to pedagogical, socioemotional, and civic aims for schools. When managerialist leaders stress the importance of being results-oriented in order to close so-called achievement gaps on standardized tests, they assume that individuals, through sheer perseverance and talent, can engineer creative solutions for improving educational outcomes in racially and socioeconomically stratified communities. Their attention to systemic inequities, like disparities in school funding and other resources, is minimal. Such models hamper leaders’ potential to achieve more equitable, systemic changes.

Managerial problems need managerial fixes

We began our investigation by trying to ascertain what TFA alumni and current corps members viewed as the major sources of educational inequality. Over 80% of our participants depicted the causes of inequality in technical or managerial terms. For example, most TFAers reasoned that educational inequalities resulted from leaders’ poor management of financial resources and an inability to effectively create instructional capacity in teachers. If principals, superintendents, and other leaders could more cleverly allocate scant dollars, then teachers would become better at their craft and students would learn more, they reasoned.

Likewise, these same respondents usually communicated that low expectations were at the root of these inequalities. If principals held higher expectations for all teachers, then teachers would rise to the occasion; if teachers held higher expectations for all students, then gaps in achievement would fade.

Finally, most members we talked to concluded that educational inequalities were due to a fundamental lack of stricter accountability. Many said teachers and their leaders had become complacent. Without more flexibility in hiring and firing, as well as more salary structures tied to student test scores, public education lacked the kind of bold, no-excuses leaders who could rouse apathetic educators into action.

In the minority were TFA members who pointed to broader policies that have perpetuated certain inequalities, such as school finance policies that allocated insufficient dollars to the neediest districts or high-stakes accountability policies that punished schools for low performance without providing capacity-building opportunities. Yet, by and large, most TFA affiliates saw the problems as managerial ones that required managerial fixes.

Obliterating inequality through management

Next, we turned our sights to corps members’ views on what they saw as the most promising responses to their identified problems. Consistent with their views about the original sources of inequality, most preferred solutions that emphasized stronger management and accountability inside schools. Aside from expressing general wishes for greater overall funding of public education, they rarely recommended external, systemic changes.

In fact, most respondents communicated a similar list of reforms: scale back unions’ collective bargaining agreements in order to increase principals’ flexibility in personnel matters; increase teacher and principal effectiveness through tighter accountability; increase principal and teacher expectations; tie teacher compensation to student performance; hire better “talent”; standardize curricula and assessments; expand technology and data use; and generally “transform” and “shake up the system.”

When asked how leaders might actualize these goals, most corps members pointed to leaders who consistently shared certain characteristics. For them, the most promising leaders for pursuing these changes had to be strong, smart, visionary, charismatic, courageous, transformative, and excellent. These leaders, in their view, were not afraid to challenge the status quo, have high expectations, focus on results, maintain a sense of urgency in their work, and put children’s needs first. In short, their idealized leaders looked much like the superheroes and Transformers of our youth. In what follows, we provide a sampling of each of these leadership qualities, as expressed by TFA alumni and corps members.

Strength, charisma, and passion for outcomes. One alum summed up the perspective of many of our respondents when he said, “a strong leader is smart, motivated, driven, charismatic, and an excellent communicator.” Another alum underscored this sentiment as she explained that “leaders have a strong vision. They have a strong will to stay focused on that vision. They have the charisma to bring other people on board and to motivate them to keep working for that vision. And they always focus on outcomes.”

Similarly, another alum echoed several others when he stated that education “needs strong leadership, and hand in hand with strong leadership is better allocation of resources... that are actually going to impact children... [like] technology.” Many others repeatedly called for “bold leaders” who were “brave” and “passionate” enough to “strengthen teacher accountability for results” and who “never give up.”

Courage, talent, and high expectations. Another oft-heard refrain from alumni and current corps members was that the best leaders “are not afraid to be wrong” and “aren’t afraid of teachers unions.” This current corps member underscored many of her colleagues’ views when she described how a good leader “does whatever it takes, doesn’t back down, holds high expectations, and pushes forward.” She went on to explain that good leaders are “not as focused on the classroom, but on the policy. They focus on talent and getting great people in there.”

Management and control. For many former TFAers, the best leaders were those “with the ability to influence others, to manage people, and to manage [their] own time well.” This corps member summed up many others’ comments when she said “a leader needs to have management skills and organizational skills. That person also needs to be really, really good at dealing with people and have strong interpersonal skills. They need to be able to have other people buy in to whatever philosophy they want.” Unlike most of her counterparts, however, this alum also stressed that good leaders “need a very strong understanding for what good teaching is” — a viewpoint we heard less often.

Excellence. Finally, one of the most frequently mentioned leadership qualities was excellence. However, several corps members recognized a dilemma in this focus on excellence. One teacher captured many of her peers’ reflections when she acknowledged that although TFA wanted her to be an excellent teacher leader, “a lot of people get burned out really quickly because you work so hard, and you are always on, and your kids have your cell phone number, so you’re never rid of them.... But we have to be excellent.” For her and several other TFAers still learning how to juggle teaching’s multiple demands, the pressure to be excellent felt daunting, and the sustainability of such a goal felt dubious.

Role models: Market-oriented “reformers”

We also asked TFAers to identify leaders who they believed exemplified the leadership that could address the educational problems they identified. They repeatedly called up leaders who they depicted as “challenging the status quo,” acting with a sense of “urgency,” and “putting kids first.” By far, the most frequently named leaders included TFA alumna Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst and former Washington D.C. Public Schools chancellor; Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor; John Deasey, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District; Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools and a TFA alum, and Colorado state senator Mike Johnston.

All of these leaders are known primarily for their support of controversial policies backed by the corporate community, such as attempts to scale back collective bargaining and expand market-oriented, competition-driven reforms. Some have advocated for basing teacher evaluations, merit pay, and hiring and firing on student test scores, closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools, or laying off large numbers of teachers and principals in order to turn around performance.

Ironically, however, research shows that such policies have failed to advance educational equity (Trujillo & Renée, 2012; Weiss & Long, 2013). Despite the rhetoric about results, excellence, and challenging the status quo, these leaders have popularized policies that produce few benefits to children and, in some cases, detract from their educational experiences. These include test-based teacher evaluations, increasing school choice, and closing or turning around presumably underperforming or underenrolled schools, among others. Research documents that such dramatic, seemingly quick fixes usually fail to increase test scores and sometimes increase achievement gaps. They push out experienced teachers but not necessarily the worst ones. They close schools but don’t save districts money or send displaced students to better ones. They replace traditional schools with charters that don’t consistently perform better and that usually drain dollars from financially strapped districts. They lay off staff, which disrupts schools’ climate and order and does not consistently boost test results.

In essence, these leaders have promoted reforms that reinforce the status quo while also disrupting the structure and governance in urban school districts and have championed changes to teacher labor force policies. They’ve acted swiftly and pressed for dramatic changes, but, in doing so, they’ve ignored the types of data-based evidence that they purport to respect. Most of their changes are unwarranted or contradicted by what researchers and communities know schools need for sustained, equitable improvements.

Like the hero/ines of our childhood, these well-meaning, committed leaders have tried their best to triumph over what they see as the core problems of public education. But they share a tragic flaw — the tendency to view the causes of educational inequality myopically. They view these problems almost exclusively as managerial ones. Their attention to schools’ social and political inequities, in most cases, is minimal. Their collaboration with communities through more communitarian reforms is usually marginal. Their regard for children’s socioemotional needs and their civic awareness — not just their test scores — seems peripheral to their work.

Of course, most of the leadership qualities that TFAers described are desirable in the right settings. Public education needs courageous, committed leaders who understand children’s full range of needs. Families, practitioners, and scholars want to challenge the status quo but not at the cost of engaging in changes that we know can do more harm than good. Public education needs leaders who embrace broader goals for children and who advocate for less popular but sustained investments in schools and communities. Such investments have promise in generating more equitable opportunities for teaching and learning. As TFA alumni increasingly assume school and system leadership roles, their perspectives on what will transform public education warrant closer attention from researchers. They will also require engagement with those researchers, advocates, teachers, and leaders long involved in collaborative social justice work in education. Yoked together, there is a space for heroic and even transformative progress to be made in creating more socially just schooling.


  • Gewirtz S. (2002). The managerial school: Post-welfarism and social justice in education. London: Routledge.
  • Gunter H. (1997). Rethinking education: The consequences of Jurassic management. London: Cassell.
  • Trujillo T. (2014). The modern cult of efficiency: Intermediary organizations and the new scientific management. Educational Policy, 28 (2), 207–232.
  • Trujillo T., Renée M. (2012). Democratic school turnarounds: Pursuing equity and learning from evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.
  • Weiss E., Long D. (2013). Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality: The impacts of test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, and increased charter school access on student outcomes in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Washington, DC: Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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