Has TFA Lost Its Way? No — It Is Evolving to Meet the Needs of Its Recruits & the Students They Teach

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Recently, I got teary-eyed listening to Wendy Kopp tell the story of Teach For America on Guy Raz’s podcast How I Built This on NPR. Essentially, it reminded me of the moment when I read about Teach For America and Kopp in Newsweek magazine in July 1990. It told the story of a Princeton grad who was launching a national teacher corps by sending recruiters to top university campuses and placing those idealistic, talented undergrads to teach in the nation’s neediest schools.

I was sold. I saw myself among those optimists. I went in search of those recruiters on my campus, Northwestern University, where I was a student at the Medill School of Journalism. I met a couple of TFA recruiters my junior year and put my dreams of law school on hold for a more pressing and private aspiration: to give back to my community as a teacher.

My path was set. I joined TFA’s 1992 corps (a vintage cohort that spawned the founders of KIPP, two DC schools chancellors, and countless other education reform leaders) and never looked back. That was 25 years ago, and I’ve spent my entire career working in education.

Recent commentary has declared that TFA has lost its way and moved radically left, sacrificing its rarefied status as an organization that brings together bipartisan support for improving the U.S. education system. As an alumna and former TFA staff member, I believe this conclusion represents a fundamental misreading of history. Current TFA “policy” does not reflect some move toward a progressive agenda and away from conservative ideals, but instead represents a combination of the mood on college campuses coupled with what the organization is learning as part of its struggle to meet its programmatic goal — closing the achievement gaps for poor kids.

The truth of the matter is that TFA was never built to be an arbiter of policy or politics, and to the extent that it wades into sector debates, the voice of the organization captures the perspectives of its corps members and alumni. TFA is the quintessential big tent — able to expand when pushed and pulled by its inhabitants and tolerant of conflict in the service of vetting new ideas and perspectives. TFA’s voice and stance are more akin to those of its recruits: talented, hardworking undergraduates trying to change the world.

As an African-American corps member and teacher, I completed my two years of teaching in rural eastern North Carolina wondering why TFA hadn’t prepared me for many aspects of my service. I was not only unprepared for the diversity of student ability and performance in my classroom; I was stunned by the level of systemic and overt racism I found in the American South. Later, working as a teacher educator, I was struck by how little TFA did to engage its educators in learning culturally responsive teaching, given where the organization places its recruits.

It was around this time that I learned about the emerging work on the Teaching as Leadership framework that TFA eventually codified in the book of the same name. One thing I’ve come to expect from TFA is a focus on continuous improvement that propels the organization to grow and evolve. I see recent efforts to expand the Teaching as Leadership framework to include culturally responsive teaching and the integration of a holistic view of the myriad challenges facing students and families not as leftist, but as pragmatic.

Any astute observer of TFA’s evolution as an organization that has grown to scale knows there is a certain orthodoxy to the operation. In Donna Foote’s book Relentless Pursuit, she captures it this way describing the growth of the organization: “TFA set organizational goals, tracked progress, and continuously analyzed virtually every aspect of the enterprise in order to reach those goals. Today, data analysis drives the organization’s relentless pursuit of results.”

It was TFA’s focus on talent that ushered in a wave of reforms under the “human capital” banner. TFA’s presence in every major school district was the perfect illustration of what research was proving empirically — the most important in-school factor was the quality of the teacher. In that same vein, it is no surprise that TFA is listening more closely to evidence that factors outside the classroom and beyond academics shape student performance. TFA’s acceptance that poverty, trauma, and identity matter for students is good reason that the organization and its community have begun to connect to the political movements that undergird efforts to reform policing practices, support immigration, and advance the civil rights of the LGBT community.

What TFA has learned is that education is about more than what happens inside the classroom.

Finally, it’s important to remember that like many organizations, TFA is beginning its second act as its founder exits the central leadership and new leadership emerges. It would be a mistake to conflate TFA’s maturing policy platform with the identity politics frame being thrust upon new CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard. Straight from a Harvard Business School case study, Kopp surely has shepherded TFA’s transition into the post-founder era carefully and deliberately. Probe Villanueva Beard’s backstory, and you will find a classic American Dream narrative that offers something closer to the meritocracy we all want to believe in. Smartly, though, Villanueva Beard understands the need to listen to what narratives are most compelling to her most important audience: young people on college campuses.

It is this naive yet supremely inspirational frame that characterizes TFA’s voice across time. In the inaugural TFA summer institute, charter corps member Ray Owens embodied these themes. He said to his fellow teachers: “…it will not matter that you are Phi Beta Kappa. The children in Compton or rural Georgia may not be impressed that you attended a prestigious university … it will not matter whether you graduated magna cum laude or “thank you lawdy.”… What will matter will be your ability to earn the respect and admiration of your students. That means that we will have to show them that we care and that we believe in them. Saying it will just not be enough. We must show it in the way we look at them. We must show it in the way we encourage them. And we must show it in the way we work relentlessly in their behalf. … I leave this institute with fresh hope … a hope that is rooted in a belief that when people care enough and believe enough that they really can make a difference. … Whatever our differences may be, now we must come together on the issue of providing the best possible education to the young people of this nation.”

Looking closely at the types of “risky” issues TFA has chosen to speak out about, it’s easy to see the organization seeking to care for students in a way that respects and admires their ability to keep reaching for the American Dream. That doesn’t feel like being lost to me — but the journey is long, and the best bet is that TFA will keep looking to find a safer and more efficient route.

Disclosure: The 74 receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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