Teacher Preparation

What I Learned in Reporting About Teach For America’s 25th Anniversary

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 19, 2016 4 min read
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Last Friday, Education Week put up a big package of stories I reported highlighting Teach For America’s 25th anniversary. It’s a lot of stuff to digest.

To give you a place to start, I wanted to outline some of the main themes that emerged in the course of my reporting—think of this as a Cliff’s Notes version.

First, let me be clear about what I set out to do with this set of stories. It is not a traditional “anniversary” series. It’s not about chronicling TFA’s past accomplishments and challenges, and it makes no attempts to adjudicate between the many supporters and critics of TFA, though those issues and voices are represented throughout, of course. Why? To put it plainly, the “TFA good/TFA bad” narratives are prevalent in other forums (try the Nation, the American Prospect, and so on for a critical perspective, or Corps Knowledge for the voices of supportive alums). Instead, we wanted to be forward-looking and zero in on the key issues that TFA is wrestling with going forward—and what they might suggest about the state of the teaching profession more generally.

So what did we conclude? Here are the most important themes:

TFA is decentralizing. As I report, TFA is giving its regions a lot more authority to change up their programming, while the central office is playing more of a technical-assistance, sharing-best-practices role. When I was visiting in Dallas, for instance, I learned that the group has done a lot more work on using a relationship-based approach to classroom management and on helping corps members execute lessons that are less teacher-centered. Increasingly, this devolution may have financial ramifications, with regions that can’t sustain themselves ultimately needing to shrink or close down. At this early stage, the long-term ramifications aren’t clear. Flexibility of this sort has a tendency to cut both ways: it opens up not only the possibility of innovation, but also of losing fidelity to one particular model. Part of me wonders if we may one day see a region that ends up looking so different from the rest of the TFA that it disaffiliates, or if the famously centralized organization may become more like a federation of loosely aligned local programs.

TFA’s pilot programs are maturing. On a parallel track, TFA has also been experimenting with a number of pilot programs. The two main ones, as I report, are on a year of additional coursework (with a focus on cultural understanding) and efforts to retain teachers beyond the two-year commitment period. At this point, these are so new that we don’t yet what their effects on classroom instruction and retention rates are going to be, although TFA is planning to study the outcomes over time. The fact that TFA is testing the waters in these areas suggests two things: First, it’s acknowledging limitations of its long-protected model. And second, it’s indicating that perhaps some changes might be warranted. As an aside: The 12 regions experimenting with pilots would make nifty story ideas for local reporters who want to dig in and flesh them out. (My retention story focused on Baltimore, where TFA’s alumni-relations team has set up a working group for those trying to earn a promotion on the city’s teacher-salary scale.)

Race and social-justice themes are emerging. In the wake of several widely publicized shootings of unarmed black men, social justice has re-emerged as a major theme in the ed. policy world. TFA is no exception. The group has grown much more diverse in recent years, and one of the pilots it’s launched explicitly takes on issues of power and privilege. Yet TFA is still struggling to overcome the image that it has a “white savior” approach to the communities in which it works. Much of this is reflected in the bigger political conversation about what alumni go on to do, and the organization’s political role in general (see below). One TFA official I spoke with during my reporting acknowledged that TFA’s work in communities sometimes came off as “transactional,” and that this was an area the group was trying to improve.

TFA’s tricky political balancing is getting tougher. TFA has long tried to remain apolitical. It was born at a time when school funding, desegregation, and asbestos removal from schools were pretty much the big topics in K-12 education, not teacher evaluation and charters. But it’s getting harder and harder for the group to strike a safe balance. One clear theme that has emerged is the division among alumni who want TFA to take specific policy positions. As I report, TFA has stuck a toe in this very muddy pond—siding, for instance, with groups like the Education Trust and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights on key provisions in the newly signed K-12 federal law, ESSA. How far will it be willing to go in the future? After all, taking a political stand means risking alienating supporters. Also worth mentioning here: TFA recently made its most explicit policy stand to date on the teaching profession, endorsing portable pensions, higher salaries, and loan forgiveness. That may seem like small potatoes, but for a group that has tried to avoid policy disagreements, it is notable.

I hope that you’ll also take a look at the interactives that our fabulous Web team helped prepare, including a map depicting TFA’s explosive growth over the past two decades, and one showing the breakdown of its corps members by race and gender.

Dig in!

Photo: Derrick Sanders, a 2015 corps member, teaches world history at Spruce High School in Dallas.—Brandon Thibodeaux for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.