Growth Lessons for Nonprofits from Teach For America

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Teach for America

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Wendy Kopp, at the World Economic Forum

July 10, 2015; Washington Post

Twenty-five years ago, Teach For America was just Wendy Kopp’s undergraduate project. Today, it is a pillar of the effort to radically change American education with a huge national footprint. From 384 corps members touching the lives of 20,000 public school students in 1990, it has grown to 10,471 corps members teaching 600,000 students in 2014, and from a startup with a small budget to a large nonprofit organization raising and spending $358 million in 2014. But criticism of TFA has been constant from within and without. Does it actually produce outcomes that justify its pillar status—and if not, why not? But beyond those questions of the intrinsic worth of the model are questions about the way TFA has managed its explosive growth. Has that growth eliminated the organizations claim to being a change agent first and foremost in favor of becoming an independent institution, and if that is true, do the outcomes of the organization justify that status?

A new book, Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, edited by T. Jameson Brewer, a former TFA corps member and a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Kathleen deMarrais, professor and head of the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia’s School of Education, provides insights from the perspective of its alumni and offers some interesting insights to the challenge of managing dramatic growth and success.

Valerie Strauss, the Washington Post’s education writer, interviewed Wendy Heller Chovnick, the author of one of the book’s chapters, back in 2013. Ms. Chovnick used her experiences as both a TFA classroom teacher and as a senior manager in TFA’s Phoenix Region to offer some insight to the challenges of growth.

From her vantage point, Ms. Chovnick saw an organization that had become walled off from its critics:

“Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything. During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media. This inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made me 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. Unfortunately, the organization seemed to care more about public perception of what the organization was doing than about what the organization was actually doing to improve education for low-income students throughout the United States.”

Success, particularly when an organization’s approach is disruptive to the field around it, brings attention and criticism, and a self-protective reaction can breed certainty and hubris. If fear of criticism creates blinders that make it more difficult to see new threats and opportunities that require new strategies and tactics, or deep flaws in the original conceptualization of the organization, then the organization will fail to learn the lessons that only critics and outsiders can teach and will be worse for it.

Meanwhile, that same certainty and overabundance of self-protectiveness can cause a group to look to single-mindedly extend its own life behind a barricade in some kind of isolationist nonprofit survivalist mode. In one of her observations, Chovnick questions why this organization, meant to shake things up so there could be sustainable changes in education, now has a $200 million endowment. “The endowment suggests that TFA wants to exist in perpetuity,” she writes. “The strong implication is that the organization does not truly believe it can ever close the achievement gap.”

During growth, nonprofits must increase their investments in management and support, but balancing this in many groups becomes sensitive, with a risk of robbing core operations of the focus of its leaders. Ms. Chovnick saw an organization whose growth was creating a bureaucracy that was distant from the actual work of TFA and which required an increasing share of the resources to fund. She saw “a lot of national teams, national staff members, and national infrastructure [that were] not providing much support to our region and was definitely not translating into improved educational outcomes for students.” Further, this was an organization where “only a small fraction of the dollars are devoted to the real work happening in regions to improve educational outcomes for low-income students and too many of the dollars are spent on unnecessary management layers and national teams that do a lot of thinking and changing but not a lot of concrete work to close the achievement gap in classrooms across the United States.”

TFA, as Ms. Chovnick sees it, has an innovation/direction imbalance in the way it approaches the work. While the ability for an organization to change is a strength, she again says that this is a matter of balance—some things should be constant as other things are being improved:

“TFA’s flawed business model, where it is constantly innovating and changing, does not allow for any stability in the organization. A certain degree of stability is necessary for success. This corporate model of constant change is failing at every level. TFA must have high expectations, but the organization must also learn patience, or it may never figure out what works and what does not.”

So, in short, without addressing questions of worth or unintended consequences of TFA, some of the concerns brought up in this one chapter are instructive to nonprofits faced with growth. But in a larger sense, the problem with very large, well connected organizations becoming over-focused on themselves as institutions is that constituents may suffer consequences because it slows learning overall. Either the idea catches fire in the field, or it does not and has to be pushed forcefully by a single entity. But that is a discussion for another day.—Marty Levine and Ruth McCambridge