Teach for America Grows Up

What TFA can teach the NCLB era.

In the field of social entrepreneurship, there is hardly a more legendary success story: In 1989, Wendy Kopp, then a senior at Princeton University, submitted an undergraduate thesis in which she proposed a national teacher corps whose members would commit to spend two years in the nation’s most hard-pressed schools. Within a year, her fledgling enterprise, Teach for America, was up and running, attracting 500 recruits (me among them) who gathered in June of 1990 for six weeks of boot-camp training prior to taking jobs at inner-city and rural schools across the country.

However, after its initial success and publicity, as Donna Foote reports in Relentless Pursuit, TFA fell on hard times. Seed money (which is easier to raise than ongoing capital) dried up. Although the program received high marks from principals and school districts, it came under harsh criticism from an education-school establishment concerned about high turnover and lack of training among recruits. Corporate underwriters got spooked. For several years, it was unclear whether the organization would survive.

Needless to say, TFA has more than survived. This spring an extraordinary 24,700 of the nation’s most sought-after college graduates applied for a record 3,700 TFA spots—800 more positions than last year. In other ways, big and small, the program has grown and matured and is far more sophisticated and rigorous than the one I joined nearly two decades ago. During the intervening years, the larger educational landscape has also changed, with the passage of the imposing federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind—which has, like TFA, placed a premium on results, rather than mere good intentions.

With reauthorization of NCLB looming, Foote’s account couldn’t be better-timed. Her inside view of TFA’s self-reinvention—as well as anatomizing the organization’s growing pains, she follows the struggles of several TFA recruits at Locke High school, one of the worst performing and most violent in Los Angeles—demonstrates what relentless reflection on, and revision of, a mission and its methods can accomplish. The lessons on display are especially important for an era in which a ruthless focus on student outcomes risks overlooking a key ingredient of that enterprise: inputs for teachers, who need all the help they can get as they face an educational culture of new pressures and expectations, along with age-old challenges.

In particular, Foote outlines how, starting in the mid-1990s, TFA bore down on a single, overarching goal: significantly boosting achievement (defined as a one-and-a-half- to two-year jump in grade level or 80 percent mastery of a subject) in corps members’ classes. The organization began to gather data on recruits’ experiences and to run this information through sales-force software and other programs of its devising; the aim was  to identify the personal characteristics and classroom practices that seemed to contribute most to raising literacy and numeracy. In the process, Foote writes, TFA “took on many of the characteristics of a successful, results-driven corporation,” even as it retained “the soul of a nonprofit.”

For example, by analyzing corps members’ personality traits, TFA discovered that those with an “internal versus external locus-of-control orientation” are less likely to drop out of teaching early and are generally more successful in the classroom. To translate into plain English, such a teacher typically takes “full personal responsibility for student achievement, refusing to blame outside factors, such as truancy or lack of parental support, for underperformance.” It’s worth noting that it doesn’t really matter whether such teachers are, in fact, solely responsible for their students’ progress. Teachers with such a mindset still get better results, TFA has found, presumably because they try harder to work around external problems and don’t give in as easily to complacency or despair.

When one TFAer at Locke quits his first fall, defying expectations—he’d actually scored high in his recruitment interview for “perseverance”—Foote describes the cascade of second-guessing that ensues as TFA strives to understand what went wrong. It’s a kind of follow-through that is absent from NCLB and often nonexistent on ed-school campuses, where responsibility for a graduate’s fortunes ends with the bestowal of a diploma. This willingness to take corps members’ professional satisfaction seriously reflects an awareness that teacher performance, unsurprisingly, hinges on it. And this scrutiny is what distinguishes TFA from so many other efforts at school reform: The program is constantly tracking, examining, and, when necessary, modifying its procedures and approaches.

Thus, while TFA partakes of NCLB’s standards-driven ethos, it has done so with distinctive attention to the people responsible for actually implementing reforms: teachers. For TFA, as for NCLB, accountability is a mantra, yet it functions not as a threat hanging over the head of its recruits—which is how benchmarks loom in too many schools—but as a tool to help teachers achieve shared goals. Indeed, TFA is apparently the only supervisory presence—from the principal of Locke to the Los Angeles Unified School District—actually providing any consistent oversight or direction at Locke, even as the school faces the threat of a state takeover. Midyear, not a single administrator at Locke has visited one TFAer’s classroom after his first weeks of school. When state officials observe another first-year corps member’s class, they focus on the cleanliness of her room without ever mentioning the content of her lesson or methods.

Yes, NCLB accurately pinpoints failing schools, but it doesn’t assure that anyone will actually take responsibility for fixing them. As one TFAer ruefully observed in 2005, Locke had enjoyed three new administrations in almost as many years, each charged with turning the school around, but the only thing to have changed was the personnel. Two years later, at the book’s end, a fourth administration is in place to little apparent effect: Earlier this month, Locke attracted national attention when a 600-student riot erupted at the school.

In the face of official neglect, TFA encourages its members to concentrate on what they can control: raising achievement in their individual classrooms. And in Foote’s account, corps members at Locke mostly do succeed, against all odds. Aiding them in this effort is TFA’s considerable support network. A staff member from the program’s L.A. office is assigned to each recruit and regularly visits classrooms to provide concrete feedback and strategies for improvement. TFA also requires one day of training per month for L.A.’s recruits. Such “teacher development” is not all touchy-feely supportiveness; on the contrary, as Foote recounts, corps members can chafe at the constant oversight. (All this is a big change from my day. After the summer training program in 1990, I basically never heard from TFA again.) What little cohesion exists at Locke is largely among TFAers and their like-minded colleagues.

Also, in part encouraged by NCLB mandates, all TFAers at Locke must be enrolled in a credentialing program as a condition of their full-time employment. (Most receive a master’s degree before their two-year commitment is up.) By 2010, TFA expects it will be spending $20,000 per corps member to recruit, train, and support its teachers. In other words, TFA isn’t achieving its successes on the cheap. It takes a significant investment in teacherseven those from Ivy League schoolsto boost achievement in woefully underperforming schools.

The biggest complaint about TFA has been that its members only sign up for two years, doing little to solve teacher turnover in bad schools. Yet here Foote’s fine-grained account of Locke supplies the larger context and a corrective. TFA represents only a small fraction of the school’s faculty, three-quarters of which have been there less than five years. The choice at Locke and similar inner-city schools isn’t between a TFA recruit and a certified teacher. It’s between a TFA recruit, who has frequently aced California’s particularly tough content-specific exams (in hard-to-staff courses such as math or science) and is thus “highly qualified” under NCLB rules, and an uncertified teacher who has no such knowledge or background. Indeed, even with TFA’s presence at Locke, the school can’t fill all of its positions. As a result, the principal must rely heavily on “permanent substitutes,” who need “only to have graduated from college with a 2.7 GPA and to have passed the CBEST,” a general-knowledge test “considered easier than the high school exit exam.” Many of those who stay at Locke, year after year, do so because no other school wants them.

The second biggest criticism of TFAers is that their motives are callow: They’re burnishing résumés before proceeding with grander, more remunerative careers in law or business. Yet few 21-year-olds have an accurate sense of where they’ll be in five or 15 years. Most will move and change jobs, even careers, multiple times—whether they join TFA or not. Nationally, 14 percent of all teachers (not just TFAers) leave the classroom after their first year, nearly half by the fifth. Given these statistics, a credentialing system, still promoted by many ed schools and based on the assumption that people will teach for 20 or 30 years, is a relic of a bygone era when company loyalty was the norm, and women and minorities had few career options. To be sure, teachers need better training and ongoing support, particularly once they’re in the classroom. That is precisely the reality that TFA has responded to. But if education hopes to attract the best teachers, it must find new ways, as TFA has, to compete for talent in an ever-changing, more mobile workforce.

In fact, TFA’s greatest (and often overlooked) achievement is that its recruit force has turned out to be anything but fickle. Many corps members, including most at Locke, remain in teaching past the two-year mark—quickly rising to leadership positions. Hundreds are now principals of their own schools or are overseeing thousands from district-level positions. A substantial number have risen to national prominence. The founders of KIPP, the widely praised chain of inner-city charter schools, are TFA alums, as are a significant number who work for KIPP. The new reform-minded head of the Washington, D.C., schools is a former TFAer—the first (but surely not the last) to become superintendent of an entire urban system. Many more remain in education more broadly—working for educational nonprofits, school boards, or legislators—or have gone into banking or law, where they now hold the purse strings of corporate philanthropy.

This has always been the most radical and far-reaching part of Kopp’s vision: not just to place teachers in schools for a few years but to incubate a national corps of educational leaders in all walks and levels of society who, by virtue of their shared experiences, might then be in a position to create genuine, systematic reform. Leftists always talk about “the power structure” when discussing the poor, but it took a blond-headed, pro-business Princeton grad from Dallas to put in place a movement that stands a chance of actually changing that structure.