Is Teach for America Flunking Out?

Among a divided community of alumni, a plethora of blog posts and think pieces, and a controversial business model, Teach for America has reached its moment of truth.

08.27.15 5:00 AM ET

As students head back to school in the coming days, the lowest number of new Teach for America (TFA) teachers since the start of the decade will go with them—just 4,100 new “corps members,” down from an incoming group of 6,000 in 2013.

For the past 25 years, the nonprofit organization has been recruiting young college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income school districts after participating in a five-week summer training program. TFA’s growth over that period of time has been steady, increasing its operating budget straight through the Great Recession.

Key to its success has been substantial private and public funding. Wells Fargo is one of the group’s corporate partners and the Wal-Mart founders’ Walton Family Foundation has donated at least $5 million. TFA has also relied on “tens of millions” of public funds and, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education gave the organization a $50 million Investing in Innovation grant.

But now, as TFA’s applicant pool shrinks and recruitment dips, its critics are claiming that alumni horror stories and ideological critiques of the organization are finally starting to take their toll. TFA, on the other hand, maintains that ongoing economic recovery is impacting their recruitment by driving top-tier applicants away from teaching. Whatever the case may be, this is the first major sign of faltering the organization has shown in over a decade.

Jameson Brewer is one of TFA’s most outspoken young critics. Unlike many TFA corp members, he majored in education as an undergraduate and initially pursued a traditional teaching career. But when teaching jobs proved especially scarce after the 2007 financial crisis, he turned to TFA to get his start. Suffice it to say, he did not have a good experience.

Now, alongside University of Georgia professor Kathleen deMarrais, Brewer is the co-editor of the new volume Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out. The book, he told The Daily Beast, was prompted by the dozens of emails he received from current and former TFA members after he began blogging about the organization a few years ago.

Brewer, now an Educational Policy Ph.D. student, firmly believes that the criticisms like those from the 20 TFA alumni contributors to his book are behind TFA’s recent recruitment struggles.

“TFA has controlled the rhetoric about TFA for the first two decades of its existence,” he told The Daily Beast. “Only in the last two or three years have we seen the growing tide of criticism and critique.”

Many of the critiques in the book are familiar but rarely have they been delivered in such a concentrated form. The alumni contributors dissect every aspect of the TFA experience: the recruitment process, the five-week summer training (“Institute”), the teaching experience, and the internal culture of the nonprofit itself.

One contributor describes being courted for the program with tactics that “mirrored the efforts of some elite consulting firm vying for our curiosity and attention.” Jessica Millen, who left the organization in 2013 after a brief experience in New Orleans, writes that her recruiter took all accepted corps members to a local restaurant and paid for “free drinks and appetizers.”

“I found it strange how much money TFA, a nonprofit organization, spent on us,” she remembers.

The brevity of the summer Institute is another common point of discontent. Millen describes attending what she terms “pep rallies” during her Institute that seemed “more like a multi-level marketing convention than a gathering of thoughtful educators.” Another writes, “the general tone of TFA was that ambition negated the need for experience” and that the organization “spent very little time on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the teaching profession.”

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Some contributors completed their two-year minimum commitment. Many left early, feeling unprepared to teach difficult classrooms in low-income school districts with just five weeks of training. Others cited a lack of experience among TFA supervisors as a factor.

Wrote one contributor, “[N]ot one of the TFA staffers evaluating my performance had more than 4 years of classroom teaching experience.”

When asked about the book, Takirra Winfield, vice president of national communications for Teach for America, referred The Daily Beast to the organization’s official response, which describes the volume’s contributors as “a small group of former corps members” who “have chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we operate.” The statement also makes reference to changes that the organization has been implementing based on feedback they have received in the last two years.

“It’s still early in some of this work, and we understand if alumni haven’t yet felt the start of these shifts in their own experience,” it reads.

Brewer told The Daily Beast that TFA’s response “sought to situate any of the organization’s downfalls in the past” without directly addressing the issues raised in the book.

In an additional note to The Daily Beast, Winfield said that Counter-Narratives “highlights just 20 of the more than 42,000 alumni voices we have” and pointed to a list of 20 positive stories that had been curated by TFA.

The Internet is indeed rife with contrasting accounts of the TFA experience. Veteran teacher Gary Rubinstein—referred to as “the grandfather of alumni TFA critics” in his contribution to Brewer’s book—essentially opened the floodgates for TFA criticism in 2011 with his blog post “Why I Did TFA, and Why You Shouldn’t.” Rubinstein’s words carried particular weight because of his long history with the organization as an early corps member and regular participant in recruitment.

Since roughly that time, the “I Quit TFA” piece and the “I Didn’t Quit TFA” piece have both become well-worn genres for young writers.

But these more personal accounts have been written against the backdrop of an increasingly heated debate over education policy and TFA’s pedagogical effectiveness. TFA was conceived in 1989 by founder and Princeton grad Wendy Kopp, who envisioned the organization as a way for talented young people to combat a teacher shortage and address educational inequality along lines of race and class.

Critics like Rubinstein, education historian Diane Ravitch, and others, claim that, in subsequent years, the organization has become something else entirely: an image-obsessed, funding-driven enterprise that undermines unions and displaces qualified teachers with inexperienced Ivy Leaguers. Critics also claim that TFA’s growth depends, in part, on the rise of controversial charter schools where one-third of its corps members teach.

TFA has vigorously disputed this representation of the organization but it does not necessarily deny that recruits may not be interested in pursuing a teaching career. In 2011, Kopp reportedly told a Seattle radio station: “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization. I think if you don’t understand that, of course it’s easy to tear the whole thing apart.”

In a 2015 Mathematica study of TFA teachers (PDF), over 87 percent said that they were not planning on a lifelong career as a classroom teacher, compared with just 26 percent of non-TFA teachers.

Retention aside, the TFA debate is often reduced to a single point of contention: Whether or not TFA teachers outperform other teachers during their time in the classroom. The Mathematica study did not find any statistically significant differences between TFA teachers and other teachers except for a slight edge for TFA in reading achievement for pre-K through second-grade students.

The study did find statistically significant differences, however, between the two groups of teachers in terms of job satisfaction, with TFA teachers falling behind their more traditionally-trained counterparts.

This study, which the editors of The New York Times called “Bad News For Teach for America,” is now TFA’s primary foundation for claiming that its teachers are effective.

But TFA hasn’t just been criticized for its perceived shortcomings; it has also been criticized, ironically, for the way in which it handles criticism.

In 2013, Wendy Heller Chovnick, a former staffer for the organization, told The Washington Post that “[TFA’s] inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made [her] start to see that Teach for America had turned into more of a public relations campaign than an organization truly committed to closing the achievement gap.”

Last year, The Nation echoed Chovnick when it accused TFA of having an “obsessive PR game.” After running a critical op-ed, the magazine obtained an internal TFA memo which revealed that TFA had sought the counsel of high-profile crisis management consultant Jim Lukaszewski to calculate its response.

In and of itself, that might not be unusual for an organization of TFA’s size and means but the memo also described an earlier incident with a group of Mother Jones readers that sparked further questions about the organization’s PR strategy. In April 2014, TFA had purchased access to the Mother Jones email list and sent a promotional message, which prompted some readers to criticize both the publication and TFA on social media. At the time, TFA issued—and tweeted out—a swift response that said that “a small group took to Twitter to repeat negative comments about us that have no factual basis.”

“It’s disappointing that they choose to divert attention from the issue and instead focus on punishing an independent media outlet for accepting advertising that’s fully in line with its policy,” the response read.

The internal memo described TFA’s rationale for deciding to officially comment on what was essentially a negative reaction to the group’s own advertising: “When Twitter Reach grows to 30,000 or more, we’ve noticed a tipping point—that’s the point at which something gets outside of known detractors and catches the attention of new people.” If the conversation crosses that threshold, the memo says, the organization will officially respond through its national Twitter account.

“We don’t respond when it is known detractors chatting with one another and no one else is joining in,” it continued.

Since 2013, the organization has also maintained a running list of responses to its critics on a section of its website called On the Record—a standard practice for many online newsrooms.

But TFA doesn’t just use the On the Record website to respond to articles published by national publications like The Nation or regional ones like The Salt Lake Tribune. The organization also issues detailed responses to blog posts written by TFA alumni and other critics. Blogger and special education teacher Katie Osgood—labeled a “known detractor” in the 2014 internal memo—earned an official On the Record response from a multimillion-dollar organization for a blog post that has just two comments and has only been shared on Facebook 129 times, according to the Facebook API.

When asked about the accusations of having “obsessive” PR, Winfield told The Daily Beast that “many organizations have a PR strategy/communications team—TFA is no different.”

As for the notion that TFA’s naysayers are affecting recruitment, Winfield emphasizes various structural factors instead: an improved economy and decreased perception among young people of teaching as a viable career.

“[A]s about 1 percent of the teaching force, we are not immune to these trends,” said Winfield.

Winfield said that it is “even harder to get people to teach in low-income schools, which are schools and communities we serve.”

A February report from Bellwether Education Partners (PDF) presented the situation in a different light: “While a variety of factors have contributed to this trend—including an improving economy that increased employment options and competition for recent college grads—it is clear that the polarized education climate and external critiques have had an impact.”

Bellwether further reports that TFA’s follow-up outreach with “high-potential candidates” who turned the organization down indicated that, “negative criticism of Teach for America influenced nearly 70 percent of these candidates’ decisions.”

And there are new indications that TFA is shifting its practices in response to the criticism it has borne in the 2010s.

“When our co-CEOs [Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard] took the helm of the organization in 2013, they embarked on a listening tour learning from teachers, students, community partners, alumni, et cetera,” Winfield told The Daily Beast, “and a lot of those invaluable conversations have informed some of the innovations and changes we’ve made over the years.”

Vox detailed some of these changes last year: a new pilot program for some early-decision TFA recruits that would allow them to receive a full year of training and another program which would ask recruits in some regions to commit to a five-year teaching career rather than a two-year stint.

Even Rubinstein, who has, by his own admission, been “TFA’s most outspoken and tenacious critic,” was marginally impressed by TFA’s new tone at the annual “What’s Next at Teach for America?” event.

“This is a more humble sounding TFA,” he wrote in a June blog post.

But the organization’s critics will keep a watchful eye.

“Humility would surely help,” wrote Diane Ravitch in June. “But more important would be a change in mission, going only where they are needed; serving as assistant teachers not full-fledged teachers; refusing to replace experienced teachers who were laid off to cut costs; refusing to act as the labor force to staff non-union schools; abandoning their hubris.”

For his part, Brewer is skeptical of the new pilot programs in the absence of more thorough information about them.

“Such attempts to ‘improve’ are clearly nothing more than public relations facades to stave off critique,” he told The Daily Beast.

In the midst of this battle for public perception, the definitive list of factors driving TFA’s recruitment troubles may prove difficult to determine. But whatever the cause, one thing is certain: This is Teach for America’s moment of truth.