Teacher Preparation

At 25, Teach For America Enters Period of Change

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 15, 2016 17 min read
History teacher Derrick Sanders, a first-year Teach For America corps member in Dallas, congratulates his students on a job well done. TFA marks its 25th anniversary this year amid a host of new initiatives that raise questions about its future course.
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Images of molecules are bouncing around on Karen Cruz’s computer-projector screen, here at Wilmer-Hutchins High School, as she walks her junior physics class through this morning’s lesson.

“Think of molecules like little kids,” she says. “If your molecules have a lot of energy, they need a lot of space.”

In Teach For America lingo, that would be called a hook, a compelling way to think about a concept so that it’ll stick in students’ minds.

Cruz, a first-year TFA corps member, has already had her students plot a set of data points so they can see the relationships among gas pressure, temperature, and volume. Now, she puts up an ungainly equation representing the combined gas law.

“I know it looks crazy and overwhelming, but let’s look at it like a regular equation,” she says, walking students through a word problem in which they have to identify the missing variable and work backward to compute it.

The students hunker down for independent work while Cruz circulates.

“Ms. Cruz,” one boy calls, seeking her assistance. “I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do next.”

“You have to get this variable alone,” Cruz prompts, pointing to his paper. “How would you do that?”

“I have to multiply on both sides,” he says, in a tone of voice halfway between statement and query.

Cruz smiles—a gesture that carries a meaning beyond signaling to her student that he’s got it right: It’s a personal acknowledgment how much he and most of the other students in the class have progressed in a few months.

On her first week on the job, Cruz had found students’ lack of foundational algebraic knowledge shocking. So she integrated algebra into the first 10 to 15 minutes of each class, determined that her students were going to learn physics, not some watered-down version.

“I could just not worry about the math and let them use calculators,” she says. “But to me, if you don’t have the foundation, you won’t learn the content.”

Organizational Shifts

Cruz exemplifies a lot of the characteristics that Teach For America is said to embrace: She’s driven, purposeful, capable of working through obstacles. She is also modest about her performance, fretting after the lesson about whether she included enough hands-on elements.

“I think the way I was taught [was] really different from the way education is going,” she says. “How do you make physics inquiry-based? It’s not just about doing labs. It’s about having kids figure out patterns.”

Those concerns are reflective of the new tack toward preparation taken by TFA’s Dallas-Fort Worth region, which is trying to move away from teacher-directed instruction in favor of techniques that focus more on students drawing conclusions on their own.

And rather than giving its new corps members a crash course on lesson planning, typically the first step in the TFA’s summer training, the Dallas region supplied its recruits with 700 ready-made lessons, focusing instead on giving candidates feedback on the finer points of carrying off a lesson well.

Most importantly, Cruz did her summer training with Dallas students and now teaches in the city. That alone is a change: Until this summer, Teach For America prepared its Dallas corps members 240 miles away in Houston.

Video: TFA Decentralizes Training

TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard says the organization has devolved more authority to its regional offices to account for different instructional and resource needs.

All in all, the training Cruz received is emblematic of a major shift in the now nearly 25-year-old organization’s overall philosophy. Teach For America has quietly begun devolving authority to its 52 regions, some of which are pushing the boundaries of the venerable group’s model.

It’s a major shift for an organization whose tendency toward centralization is so deeply ingrained that it’s felt and heard even more than seen. Staffers even speak a bewildering jargon all their own, replete with references to “CMAs,” “MTLDs,” “big goals,” the “locus of control.”

The ramp-up to TFA’s 25th anniversary, to be celebrated next month, has not been marked by the rah-rah theatrics that have characterized its earlier milestones. Instead, the group seems to have entered a period of introspection and change.

For some, the new approach is a reflection of the organization’s first and only leadership shift, in 2013, from founder Wendy Kopp to current CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard, who hails from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and completed her TFA experience in Phoenix.

Others have portrayed it as a reaction to years of relentless criticism and the pressure caused by a two-year decline in application numbers.

Whatever the underlying reasons, TFA’s new, decentralized approach and experimentation raise fresh new questions about the organization’s model—and its future course.

Generating Controversy

Physics teacher Karen Cruz works with her 11th graders during a lab at Wilmer-Hutchins High School in Dallas. Ms. Cruz, a first-year corps member, went through a modified TFA training program focused on student-centered learning.

The story of TFA’s birth in Kopp’s 1989 senior thesis at Princeton University is by now so well known as to be almost the stuff of legend. It hinged on the audacious, if not totally original idea that putting high-achieving young people into under-resourced, struggling schools could change students’ trajectories for the better, as well as produce a crop of new civically minded leaders.

A quarter of a century later, Teach For America is miles away from its plucky startup days. It has more than 40,000 alumni and commands a budget of some $300 million, most of it derived from philanthropic and government support. Observers say the organization’s mission has subtly shifted over the years, too, from supplying teachers to schools desperate for them to providing an alternative teacher pipeline for urban districts.

In the cluttered K-12 human-capital arena, TFA continues to occupy an odd third rail, preparing and supporting teachers but not hiring or firing them. It has also, for good or ill, become a proxy for advocates’ best and worst dreams about the teaching profession.

The group has, on the one hand, attracted a generation of smart individuals who might not otherwise have considered going into teaching. Especially in the beginning, it recruited its teachers from elite colleges, including some that didn’t even have teacher-preparation programs.

But it has also been accused of “deprofessionalizing” teaching, by bypassing established channels for preparing teachers and tolerating generally high rates of turnover by virtue of its two-year-commitment standard.

Today, thriving cottage industries of TFA critics and supporters duke it out on social media. So disparate are perceptions of TFA in media accounts that sorting through them is a bit like staring at an optical illusion. TFA has been copied, parodied, lionized, vilified.

For all that, the basic sketch of Kopp’s thesis remains intact, even as its initial, bare-bones approach to training has evolved significantly: TFA now spends an astonishing $53,000 to recruit, prepare, and support each teacher, both through the five-week summer boot camp known as Institute and the provision of two years’ worth of classroom-based coaching.

TFA’s standard preparation program can be most clearly linked to the work of Steven Farr, a staffer who codified the work of TFA’s best teachers in the early 2000s into a teaching framework.

In addition to specific training on lesson chunks like the hook, preparation includes modules on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and a good dose of classroom-management techniques of the type popularized by instructional expert Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.

Corps members’ experience once they enter schools can nevertheless be bewildering, often depending on their specific experiences at summer training. Ashley Douglas, now in her 4th year of teaching at Baltimore’s Liberty Elementary School, says the feedback her TFA instructors provided was good, but she has some qualms about Institute’s scope and sequencing.

“Week one I would teach phonics all week, and week two would be all mathematics,” she said. “We got a short amount of time in front of the kids, and there were like 10 kids in the class. So I wouldn’t say it was a very realistic experience.”

Commentary on TFA’s training model tends to fall into ideological camps, but those who have taken the middle road generally reflect Douglas’ assessment.

“If you ask TFA teachers, they will say that coaching is much more useful and focused on their practice than the similar advice they get from district administrators who come to check,” said Jal Mehta, a Harvard University associate education professor.

And yet, he said, “teaching is really difficult, and going into teaching with limited summer training is really hard. It can be challenging for students, and I think it can be difficult personally and psychologically for a lot of people in TFA.”

The mismatch between rhetoric and reality is one of the reasons why TFA’s Dallas staff insisted on training its own corps members this year. Some of its summer school classes topped out at 25 or 30 students, a difficult but far more realistic glimpse of their future work, corps members here say.

The Dallas region has also de-emphasized some other traditional elements of TFA’s training model. Elizabeth Fritze Cheek, the Dallas region’s director of teacher-leadership development, says that relying on TFA’s teaching framework too much sometimes encouraged “funky archetypes” about teaching that prioritized teacher actions. She says the focus ought to be on how students respond to their teacher’s instruction instead.

“As a novice, it’s the hardest thing to get away from, that teacher-centered classroom,” she said.

Dallas has also extended its summer from five to seven weeks and, through a partnership with a local nonprofit, the Momentous Institute, has added a heavier dose of social-emotional learning to the curriculum.

Classroom Snapshot: Henry J. Coleman

At the Dallas TFA training this summer, Henry J. Coleman taught a complicated lesson on how to find the median, the mode, and the range in a given set of numbers.

It was one of his early attempts at bat, during which he was watched both by a TFA staffer and by a veteran teacher.

Sometimes, Coleman remembered to wait for silence before moving on to the next segment of the lesson; sometimes he forgot. He called too often on the two students who raised their hands the most.

“You aren’t explaining it,” said one frustrated boy.

During a practice exercise, Coleman circulated, but never managed to make it to a group of girls who knew how to get the answers, but were struggling with the mathematical concepts underpinning the lesson.

Several months later, teaching math full time in Dallas’ Spruce High School, Coleman has made progress. He moves around the room more to engage all students. His rapport with students has notably improved. Students are much more respectful.

“Building relationships has helped me so much, because they are more open about themselves. They feel like they can relate to me,” he says. “I’m a black male teacher, and they don’t see many black male teachers.”

Today, Coleman is passing back and reviewing a practice math exam. He spends much of the period answering students’ questions individually.

TFA’s Dallas director, Alex Hales, who’s also sitting in, thinks Coleman still needs to improve classroom procedures and routines, so that when students finish reviewing their tests, they have something else to work on immediately.

Coleman has a bit of a hangdog expression on his face after class ends. Later, reflecting on the lesson, he comes to a similar conclusion as Hales.

“I just didn’t plan enough. The test, in reality, wasn’t the most rigorous test. It didn’t take the whole class period to review,” he says. “Ideally, I would have had additional practice exercises or a re-teach of whatever most students were missing.”

Turnover Concerns

To an extent, TFA has made peace with the idea that no method of teacher preparation is foolproof.

“I honestly think that my personal view on it is that teaching is really hard, and when you enter that first day of teaching no matter how you were prepared, it is incredibly challenging,” said Villanueva Beard, TFA’s CEO.

And the strongest research studies indicate that TFA teachers on average do as well in the classroom, or slightly outperform, other novices. Whether that is because of some aspect of training, corps members’ backgrounds, or pure ambition isn’t clear.

But those findings have not settled criticisms of the organization. A scathing 1994 article by teacher educator and policy expert Linda Darling-Hammond still serves as the basic template for most TFA critiques. In addition to panning the fast-track training, Darling-Hammond painted the group’s teachers as uncommitted to teaching and insensitive to their students’ diverse backgrounds.

Of the criticisms, the argument about turnover has been the most relentless and the most difficult for TFA to counter, in part because it is a concern some of TFA’s allies share.

History teacher Derrick Sanders reviews test scores with students at H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas. Sanders, a first-year TFA teacher, has built a strong rapport with his students, but says he could have used more help in lesson planning.

“Saying it’s a better source of talent for high-poverty schools than what many of them got before TFA does not mean the same thing as it’s the right way to staff these schools,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged students. “Their enormous prickliness shut down that conversation for 10 years.”

Even some former TFA alumni who now run schools and generally support the organization say they sometimes hesitate on taking on TFA corps members.

“I usually don’t hire TFA teachers. This has been a point of contention with the Baltimore office,” said Joe Manko, a former corps member and now the principal at Baltimore’s Liberty Elementary. “One of the questions I ask teachers during the interview process is, ‘Can you stay 10 years?’ Our kids have so much inconsistency in their lives, the last thing they need is more of it.”

That point of view is balanced out by administrators who think those TFA teachers who stay often go on to be among their strongest teachers.

“On average we find that they start [out] on the same level, traditional and alternative teachers. But TFA teachers advance faster,” said Timothy Hise, an executive director at the Dallas district.

Classroom Snapshot: Jocelyn Providence

Math teacher Jocelyn Providence does not want to leave the classroom after two years, even when she’s had a day as full of ups and downs as this one in October.

She is a 2nd-year TFA corps member at Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High School. Her relative experience shows: She has the routines down pat, she greets each and every student by name, and she knows who sits with whom and who they’re friends with.

“Susan, where’s Michael?” she says as the bell rings.

“I don’t know, he’s just not here! Why would I know?” Susan says.

“Because you hang out with him.”

“Mm-HMM,” Susan’s deskmate says.

Providence begins most of her lessons by having two of her students walk the rest of the class through My Favorite No, a review of the most common mistakes on the previous night’s homework and strategies for avoiding them.

Then it’s on to today’s lesson on how to transform quadratic functions by transposing them across an axis. She pulls up a computer program so the students, in pairs, can manipulate the functions and draw conclusions about them in a text box nearby. There’s some chatter and some smartphone fiddling, but nearly every student settles down and gets down to work.

Providence’s afternoon class—accelerated algebra for 9th graders, all of whom are still learning English—is a different story. This time most of the computers freeze up, students are distracted, and there’s always a low rumble despite Providence’s use of a classroom-management app to try to keep the lesson on track.

“Why am I doing this so much today?” she says, waiting for silence from her students for the fifth time.

Reflecting on the day’s lessons, Providence is clear-eyed about both her successes and weaknesses.

For one, she trusts her students to work together productively in groups far more often than she used to. The idea of My Favorite No came from her TFA coach, who challenged her to let students lead part of the lesson in order to boost engagement.

Yet she sees weaknesses in her ability to work with her English-language learners, partly a product of the minimal training TFA offers in that subject.

But even when she gets frustrated, as she did during her second lesson, she doesn’t pout or shout at her students. She says that one thing that has kept her moving forward has been a lot of support from her administration and her work colleagues.

It’s a reminder that teacher turnover isn’t just a function of attitude or training, but as reams of research conclude, the context in which teachers have to do their work.

“I can say as a whole it has a very supportive and collaborative staff and administration. And a lot of schools don’t have that,” Providence says. “I think not having it would change my perspective of whether I wanted to stay at this school and whether I would even stay in the classroom. I know there are other corps members [elsewhere] who are banging their heads against the wall.”

A New Attitude

For years, TFA had hunkered down when faced with bad press. That has begun to change under Villaneuva Beard’s leadership.

She launched a series of pilot programs in 2014 to address recruitment and retention issues—part acknowledgment of the criticisms, part attempt to see if experimentation will lead to better results that could potentially be scaled.

In fact, it’s hard to keep on top of all the new pilot initiatives TFA has in the works, which include new approaches for working with ELLs, an increased focus on LGBT issues, and a partnership with a black fraternity to increase representation of black men.

But there are limits to those efforts, too. Members can innovate as much as they want, Villanueva Beard says, “as long as the model is [that] we’re recruiting [teachers], we’re training them, and then they start in the classroom right away. ... We’ve set the minimum standards of what is our model and staying true to that.”

The organization’s decentralization has also brought new challenges for regions. The regions were already expected to generate most of TFA’s revenue, but the national organization doled that cash out as it saw fit, meaning more productive regions sometimes subsidized other ones. Now, regions’ funding will be more closely tied to outcomes.

With high student-achievement results in a district that has had a desperate need for talent, Dallas has been mostly spared. Not all regions have been as lucky. Several faced painful staff layoffs or shrank. In all, the organization has lost some 200 staff positions in 2015.

How regions will go on to define TFA 2.0 remains to be seen. In Dallas, at least, staffers say they’re up to the challenge.

Cheek, the region’s director of teacher-leadership development, is honest about what she thinks worked in Dallas’ revamped summer training and what didn’t. The region had more corps members exit early in the first part of the year than usual. On the other hand, even first-year teachers were trying out inquiry-based activities, she says. What’s more, the local partnership with the Momentous Institute has led to better classroom management.

“We’ve seen a difference in how our teachers address children, approach children, deal with discipline issues in classrooms. We’re seeing more of a relational approach from our teachers, even when they’re failing. …You’re going to fail at management [as a novice], you just are, but it’s what do you do when you fail that matters. Is that a relationship destroyer, or productive to relationships down that road?”

Classroom Snapshot: Derrick Sanders

In a few months on the job, Derrick Sanders, a 10th grade history teacher at Spruce High School in Dallas, has learned a lot, and much of it reflects the region’s new emphases.

“You walk up on the first day of school and you see all the kids looking at you. And you’re speaking and no one’s speaking back, and you’re shaking in your boots, hoping that you can establish some kind of rapport with them as quickly as possible,” he said.

He has. He’s learned that good classroom management comes not from assuming an authoritarian stance but from student relationships, for one thing.

“Now I can say, ‘Your sister wouldn’t approve of the way you’re acting now,’ ” he says about one of his rowdier students. “Because his sister doesn’t play—she takes the phones, she takes the video games.”

When Dallas TFA director Hales asks him about what the organization could have done better to support him, Sanders says he liked the Dallas region’s heavier focus on equity and race issues. He liked having model lesson plans to study and execute, and just wishes he’d had more time to review them.

“I would have liked to have gotten those folders the first day. That was the toughest thing ever. We planned, but we didn’t plan for 90-minute classes,” he says.

The bell rings. Sanders turns to the whiteboard, ready to teach.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as 25 Years In, TFA Faces Tensions, Courts Change


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