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Teaching Profession Opinion

Studying TFA as a Spawning Ground

By Rick Hess — March 11, 2011 3 min read
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Question: What do KIPP Academy cofounders Mike Feinberg and David Levin, Tennessee state chief Kevin Huffman, StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and hard-charging Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston have in common?

Answer: They’re all alumni of Teach For America (TFA).

Like these folks or hate ‘em, it’s clear that TFA has had a profound impact on the face of American education. In the recent Ed Next feature “Creating a Corps of Change Agents,” Harvard’s Monica Higgins, Wendy Robinson, and Jennie Weiner, and yours truly explored the degree to which TFA has played an outsized role in nurturing educational entrepreneurs.

After all, while much of the debate surrounding TFA has emphasized the impact of corps members on student test scores, it’s pretty easy to argue that TFA’s most significant impact has been the people it has brought into American schooling—and the ways it has colored their ambitions. Our analysis focused on the degree to which TFA recruits and cultivates entrepreneurial “change agents” in the field of education. With TFA having just last month celebrated its 20th anniversary, at a star-studded gathering that featured the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Gloria Steinem, and John Legend, it’s a good time to assess TFA’s broader impact.

To examine which organizations have successfully “spawned” education entrepreneurs, we took a group of entrepreneurial organizations within the education sector and traced the work histories of their founders and other “top management team” members. We defined the entrepreneurial organizations in question as those founded since TFA launched that were domestic, K-12 focused, and nationally-known. All told, this totaled 49 entrepreneurial organizations—comprised of 71 founders and 320 top management team members—that ranged from charter school organizations to teacher prep programs to companies that focus on K-12 data management or after-school programs.

We then identified where these leaders had most frequently been previously employed, as a way of identifying the top “spawners” of entrepreneurial talent.

We found that TFA alum were among the founders in seven of the 49 organizations (15%)—this blew away the rest of an elite field. The next closest “spawners” (which included McKinsey & Company, the White House Fellows Program, and Chicago Public Schools) each had founders in only two of these 49 organizations.

Similarly, 14 of the 49 entrepreneurial organizations had at least one top management team member with TFA experience. This again outdistanced all other rivals. The next closest was New York City Public Schools, which had previously employed a top management team member from ten of the new ventures.

A couple caveats are in order, and could serve as excellent areas for further research. First, it’s entirely unclear whether this “TFA effect” is due to the kinds of corps members that TFA recruits, the influence of the TFA training program and experience, or some combination thereof. Second, there are intriguing hints that the geographic regions of TFA alum mattered. Specifically, former TFA members who worked in New York City and San Francisco seemed particularly likely to lead entrepreneurial education organizations. This could be because those two cities are hotbeds for entrepreneurial behavior in education and elsewhere, or because of what’s going on in those TFA regions.

Perhaps the most provocative question posed by these results, as we noted in the article, is whether we need to rethink how we study TFA and “how we think about retention. Rather than assume that it is good or bad when TFA members leave classrooms or school systems ... [it’s important to recognize] they may still have an impact in education, perhaps an outsized impact” after they leave. It’s something to think about.

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.