TFA Faces “Limits to Growth” Syndrome

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March 21, 2016; Washington Post and The Atlantic

Teach for America is finding, as most organizations must, that growing or even sustaining success year after year is very hard to do. In the 25 years since it was founded, TFA has grown massively to become a major provider of public school teachers and has created a track that shortens the traditional 4+ years of teacher training to only a few weeks. While there are critics of TFA who see its approach as weakening public education by undermining the teaching profession, its supporters include the major foundations that provide TFA with hundreds of millions of dollars and the many educational leaders at the local, state, and national level who think that teachers and their unions are the source of the major weaknesses they see in public education.

After a period of rapid growth, the going got tougher for TFA two years ago. The number of new members of TFA’s teaching corps dropped by more than 10 percent, ending a 15-year growth spurt. Another double-digit drop was experienced this school year. For a program that expects most of its members to teach for just a few years, a declining level of recruitment is a serious problem. And earlier this week, TFA announced that for the second consecutive year, it was significantly reducing the size of its central staff. In a letter to current and past TFA corps members, TFA CEO Elisa Beard described the staff reduction as part of a strategy to refocus resources closer to where TFA’ers do their teaching and not as a sign of a troubled organization.

Our regions will have more autonomy to adapt and innovate on our program in ways that meet the unique and varied contexts in which we work. Our center will become leaner and more nimble, oriented toward learning from the real progress we see in classrooms, schools, and communities in order to accelerate change across our entire network.

Included in the list to be eliminated are several positions of particular interest because they touch an area where TFA has faced significant criticism: the diversity of its teaching corps members. As of this fall, TFA is eliminating its Office of the Chief Diversity Officer. Over the past two recruiting cycles, TFA has been successful in increasing the diversity of their corps members dramatically. In response to an inquiry from the Atlantic’s Emily Deruy about how this change would affect the organization’s effort to build diversity, TFA said, “For us, this work needs to live on every team and in every region with clarity of accountability. This shift will ensure that diversity and inclusiveness is integrated throughout our work and sits squarely with those closest to the work.”

But the challenges that TFA faces now that it’s a mature, established organization may be difficult to respond to without a significant change in its overall strategy. It has become a big enough player in the school systems it partners with that its impact goes beyond effectiveness in the classrooms its corps members teach in.

Blogster Jennifer Berkshire of Edushyster recently interviewed TFA alum and scholar Terrenda White about TFA’s overall impact on the diversity of America’s teachers. Discussing a recently published paper, “Teach For America’s Paradoxical Diversity Initiative: Race, Policy, and Black Teacher Displacement in Urban Public Schools,” White said:

When I was first writing about TFA, I was complaining about the lack of diversity in the corps, especially when I was there in the early 2000s. And so a part of me is really happy that TFA seems to care about diversity and improving their numbers, and I think I’m fair in my piece about acknowledging that. But while TFA may be improving their diversity numbers, that improvement has coincided with a drastic decline in the number of teachers of color, and Black teachers in particular, in the very cities where TFA has expanded. I don’t see them making a connection between their own diversity goals and the hits closures where teachers of color disproportionately work, charter school expansion, teacher layoffs as schools are turned around.

If the impact of the overall reform strategy that TFA is central to is to reduce the diversity of public school teaching staff, is it enough for TFA to be worried only about how diverse its own corps members are? If diversity matters to TFA, it becomes important to look at how their ability to bring thousands of new, short-term teachers into the systems they work just pushes out existing, career teachers of color. Isn’t it important, if diversity is important, to support a model of teaching that sees it as a long-term career, to increase recruitment of teachers overall?—Martin Levine