Teacher Preparation

Outside the Classroom, TFA Leaves Increasingly Complex Political Trail

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 15, 2016 | Corrected: January 20, 2016 10 min read
Zeke Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit the Intersection, works with a student at Bard High School Early College in Baltimore. Cohen says his experience in TFA was crucial to his decision to start his student-advocacy organization.
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Corrected: This article originally misstated the length of time that the Intersection Executive Director Zeke Cohen worked as a teacher in Baltimore. It was two years.

When Jade Malonga talks, people listen. The high school senior at Dunbar High School here has definite opinions about her education, and her passion is making sure students’ voices are heard in public forums.

“I hate it when school boards have meetings about ‘the best thing for our students,’ when there aren’t any students in the meeting,” she said.

She says she owes much of her poise and eloquence to the community-organizing training she received at the Intersection, a nonprofit run by Teach For America alumnus Zeke Cohen.

“Before I even began to be in meetings, Mr. Cohen sat me down and said, ‘I know you have the power and the passion and the motivation, but we have to form you first. What’s the background you need to know, the knowledge you need to know?’ ” Malonga recalled.

Cohen conceived of the student-advocacy nonprofit during his two-year stint as a Baltimore teacher. And, crucially, he says he probably wouldn’t have come up with the idea without his experience in TFA.

Together, Malonga’s and Cohen’s trajectories form a proof point of sorts for TFA’s contention that its long-term goal is to lead alumni to careers dedicated to tackling the causes of educational inequity.

And yet TFA’s social-justice bona fides remain a point of major contention in the education field.

On blogs, social media, and in news stories, critics have questioned not just the teaching aspect of TFA’s mission; they’ve charged that its broader goal of preparing civically minded education leaders has ended up destabilizing the very communities it prioritizes.

“The message becomes that you as a community can’t solve things for yourselves,” said T. Jameson Brewer, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who recently edited a volume of essays from critical TFA alumni. “I think that’s where it fits into the larger environment of reform. They’ve bought into the myth of meritocracy, the myth of the failed school, and that they need to fix the bad teachers and get into elected positions to spread vouchers, spread charters.”

It is a debate that, like much in K-12 policy circles, is often dominated by emotion and anecdote.

But one thing is clear: 25 years in, never has TFA’s mission beyond the classroom been more contested.

Contested Mission

TFA’s leadership philosophy has, historically, been poorly understood, contends Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder. One often-heard criticism is that TFA endorses the idea that teachers alone can overcome the challenges of poverty and racism.

But from the beginning, Kopp said, “the idea was that these folks would see the microcosm, their classrooms would be a microcosm for the various issues … and then they’ll ask themselves, ‘How can I have the greatest possible impact with this?’ And it will lead them to improve child services, and create more effective schools, and take on economic development.

“Our vantage point is that, sadly, given the complexity of the issues, we need many people to tackle issues outside of our schools. That is, in fact, the theory,” she said. (Kopp is now the CEO of Teach For All, an international offshoot of TFA.)

There is no question that TFA’s now 42,000 alumni have had a dramatic impact. More than 11,000 still teach, some 930 others now head schools, while still others have gone to begin charter-management organization or even serve as teachers’ union chiefs.

Zeke Cohen, a TFA alumni, talks with students in the Baltimore offices of the Intersection. He believes that, in recent years, TFA has become more explicit about addressing issues of race, class, and justice.

But it remains unclear exactly how the TFA experience informs corps members’ hearts and minds.

One of the few studies to tackle that issue found some evidence that corps members are more likely than nonmembers to believe, for example, that the achievement gap between wealthy and disadvantaged students is “a solvable problem.”

There are also the individual stories of alumni who stayed in teaching and who can pinpoint ways in which TFA made them more aware of biases, as well as the unconscious ways teachers sometimes contribute to them.

For Joe Francaviglia, a 2011 Baltimore corps member now in his fifth year in the classroom, it came in the form of feedback from his TFA coach on his second day teaching.

“Her direct quote was: ‘Do you think you’re holding all your students to high expectations?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course I am.’ And she said, ‘Zoom out: This student was doing this, and you didn’t say something, but when this student did it, you said something. Do you have different expectations for other students?’ ”

Charter Flashpoint

The critics, on the other hand, often take a more macro picture, arguing that TFA has implicitly supported a pro-privatization approach to improving schools, to the exclusion of other tacks.

“It wasn’t uncommon to go to a TFA event and have a panel of people talking about what great schools look like, and pretty much everyone was an ardent proponent of charters,” said Ben Spielberg, a 2010 corps member in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It gives incoming corps members a specific perception of ... what it means to be a proponent of educational equity that I don’t think TFA should ideally be promoting.”

Charter schools remain a major flashpoint in debates about TFA’s mission. A third of corps members now work in the independently managed, publicly funded schools, many in chains that TFA alumni helped to found.

TFA’s tacit approval of charters has brought both internal and external criticism from elsewhere: A Reuters headline asked whether TFA had betrayed its mission in placing so many corps members in them. And debates about charters have a social-justice subtext of their own—whether the schools discipline or suspend too many students of color, “cream” top-performing students, or otherwise contribute to an increasingly stratified public school system.

As TFA has grown, so has the pushback. There have been campus demonstrations, conferences, and critical articles pointing out apparent mismatches between TFA’s social-justice words and deeds.

After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, TFA personnel poured into New Orleans to staff a burgeoning network of charter schools, an affront to the 7,000 mostly black teachers who lost their jobs after the storm. TFA offers defenses behind this move and many other placement decisions, but such episodes continue to color public perception.

“I was a little shaky about TFA,” said Kassidy Maxie, a senior at Hunter College in New York City, who will be a corps member in the fall. “I had even written a paper about why not to join TFA—it had a ‘Jesus savior’ complex thing going on. I would hear it from some of my professors who would pull me off to the side.”

Today, TFA insists that it doesn’t take a position on charters, remains independent of its funders’ wishes (the pro-charter, pro-school-choice Walton Family Foundation is among its largest donors), and simply responds to regional demand for its teachers.

And although TFA says it’s broadly supportive of what its alumni go on to do, it has been reluctant to endorse—at least publicly—any specific education policy agenda.

To an extent, federal lobbying records back that up. TFA’s footprint doesn’t show up in them until about 2006. But the group’s growing and powerful alumni network has helped it to win big bipartisan support among both Democrats and Republicans. And it has been loath to jeopardize those relationships, say those in the advocacy world.

“They have enormous political power. But up until this year, as far as I can tell, they never used it for anybody other than themselves,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of disadvantaged students.

A Change in Rhetoric

Video: TFA Looks to Innovate

TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard says the organization is working to adapt to changing student needs and expectations for teachers.

That may be starting to change. Among the themes that TFA’s current CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, has prioritized is greater attention to social justice.

“It’s dishonest to not talk about race and class and privilege, and we think that’s really important,” she said.

It’s a notable change in organizational rhetoric, Cohen of the Intersection acknowledged.

“When I came in 2008, there was a lot of conversation around data and data-driven practice, and understanding the work through various academic metrics. None of that is bad per se, but in some ways I think it missed some of the larger picture,” he said. “It was much more about, ‘There’s an achievement gap, it exists, and our job is to come in and fix it.’ Now I see much more explicit conversations around race, class, power, privilege, and justice.”

TFA has moved aggressively over the last decade to diversify its teaching corps. Now, about half of recruits identify as people of color. Those efforts have helped launch new advocates who have staked out an explicit agenda to elevate the voices of communities of color within TFA.

Brittany Packnett, currently executive director of TFA’s St. Louis region, was among a group of Washington-based alumni who a few years back created the Collective, an affinity group for corps members of color. The initiative got the attention of TFA leaders, who eventually gave it financial support and helped expand it.

In St. Louis, Packnett has also been a prominent leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. Among other efforts, she helped open community schools during the disruptions over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., and now serves on the independent commission that is advising policymakers in the region.

Her participation in those activities isn’t officially connected to TFA, but the thematic overlaps are clear.

“The main place where I’ve really tried to evolve my [TFA] region is that we recognize that educational equity can’t just be about the right mindsets or understanding,” she said. “We also have to build in [corps members] the belief that as teachers they have to work against those inequities and build the skills to do it—through how they teach, what they teach, and the kind of students they help build.”

That philosophy is also apparent in the work Cohen and his staff here at the Intersection do with each cohort of student leaders.

Over a space of several weeks, the high school students begin by deepening their understanding of the systematic forms of discrimination in their own city, from regulatory bias to segregation. Eventually, they will go on to learn the basic tools of organizing.

Prior Intersection volunteers have testified on the DREAM Act; right now the group’s main campaign is to go door-to-door to city businesses to get them to create 235 youth jobs, one for each person killed by gun violence in the city in 2013.

A Political Quandary

Inevitably, there remain critics who simply see TFA’s model as incompatible with social justice or school equity.

“You can set down 100 studies in front of me and try to convince me they are good for society, but the wealthy would never let their children be taught by TFA or by alternative [teaching] routes. Never,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of California, Davis.

TFA has, to an extent, made peace with the idea that it remains controversial. Whether it can continue to straddle a dwindling isthmus in the polarized world of politics and K-12 policy is another matter.

Alumni like Ben Spielberg argue that, if TFA is serious about being a social-justice organization, it should endorse broader anti-poverty efforts, like a single-payer health-care system, tax reform, and wraparound services for low-income kids.

Recently, TFA has taken an explicit policy stand in a few limited areas. It came out in support of the DREAM Act, and in a symbolically important move, selected 50 recruits who qualify to work under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy.

And in 2015, observers said, TFA was among those who lobbied on behalf of maintaining accountability protections for underserved students in the recent rewrite of the main federal K-12 law, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

That move risked alienating Republican allies, who favored stripping away most vestiges of federal control.

“I think [Villanueva Beard] drove a lot of it, that they have to be willing to speak out on policy issues other than their bottom line, even when it offends their protectors,” Haycock said.

But pushing too far is nevertheless a thorny topic. Indeed, a newer thread of criticism reveals a changing dynamic: Long attacked mainly by progressives, TFA members’ interest in movements like Black Lives Matter has drawn some conservative criticism.

For now, however, Villanueva Beard has nixed the idea of pushing much beyond education issues onto other topics.

“We obviously encourage all of our employees and our community be very involved on all of the various issues confronting our children, but as an organization, we are very clear on our lane,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as TFA’s Political Role Complex


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