TFA Cannot Downsize Itself Free of Alumni Concerns– Especially Diversity Displacement
On March 21, 2016, education historian and activist, Diane Ravitch, posted a communication dated March 17, 2016, from “a current high-level administrative employee at Teach for America.” The big news is that TFA will be cutting roughly 150 national and regional staff. The communication also notes that when TFA failed to reach its recruitment goals for 2015, jobs were cut, but not at the higher levels. This time (2016), TFA did not reach its recruitment goals for a second year, and this time, the job cuts are not just “rank and file staff.”
On the same day as Ravitch’s post, March 21, 2016, TFA posted news of the cuts on its own web site.
In TFA’s case, the negative announcement is introduced via a shell of positive vocabulary:
Teach For America recently set out a new strategic direction focused on three objectives: strengthening our community, pivoting our programmatic model, and rallying the next generation of leaders to join this effort. To reach these objectives, our regions need to continue to adapt and innovate on our model for their unique local contexts, and our national organization needs to move from strong, direct management to facilitating regional learning and innovation. As CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard shared on February 29 with our network, this strategic shift is pointing us toward a leaner, more agile central structure, resulting in the elimination of some roles and the creation of others and a change to how we’re approaching the critical work of diversity and inclusiveness. …
The second paragraph is more direct at its center (the first opening and closing sentences are still emotionally-upbeat goo):
Extraordinarily talented and dedicated people work at Teach For America. Attrition and individual moves into other open roles at TFA should appreciably reduce the number of people who lose their jobs. We project our total national staff size will become about 15 percent smaller. For individuals who do not find their next role with us, we are providing a generous support package, as well as supporting our people in finding roles in our partner organizations. The need for talent is great in the vital work of supporting schools, children, and communities.
One of the cut positions is its national diversity office. TFA’s explanation: All TFAers should advance diversity; so, no diversity office is needed:
Additionally, guided by our strategic direction, we determined that the essential work of diversity and inclusiveness should sit squarely with those closest to and supporting the people who are most directly impacted. Every single staff member will take responsibility for diversity and inclusiveness, rather than having this accountability live in one centralized team. As just one example, the members of our program team who work most closely on corps member preparation and support will own our work on culturally relevant pedagogy.
The reality is that TFA has suffered in its recruitment for two years in a row, and it is changing its direction more drastically than it had planned, but it did plan to shift more decision making power to its regional offices, as noted in this February 2015 report on TFA, Bellwether Education Partners:
In 2013, the [TFA governance model] task force proposed a new operating model. Under this model, which Teach For America is phasing in over the next two to four years, regions will have greater control over their own budgets and staffing levels, and will be able to select varying levels of nationally provided services from a “menu” of options. … ..The task force then articulated a set of “freedoms and mutual responsibilities,” or FMRs, that outline the flexibility regions have to customize their work to local needs as well as the areas in which regions must implement a common approach or utilize shared resources.
Within the context of the FMRs, regions will have the ability to select to receive more or less support from national staff. … Regions that choose to receive less support will retain more resources within the region. Recruitment and admissions will remain national functions, as will core operating infrastructure such as technology, finance, and the Office of the General Counsel. …
The hope is that this approach will allow regions to innovate in ways that generate even stronger corps member and alumni impact. The risk is that it may now be possible for regions to fail. But Teach For America ultimately decided that the potential benefits—the ability to attract and retain experienced regional leaders, build deeper relationships with community partners, foster innovation, and ultimately increase corps member and alumni impact—outweighed the risks. Realizing these benefits, however, will require a significant culture shift. Regions will need to build internal capacity to work without a national safety net and to customize their work to local demands. National staff will have to shift from viewing their work as driving regional outcomes, to supporting regions in achieving their own goals. Eventually, the structure and work of many national teams may evolve significantly in response to regional demand. Teach For America has only begun this transition, which will continue to unfold and shape the organization’s development and growth over the coming years.
Bellwether’s report on TFA is an intriguing read because Bellwether is a friend to TFA, and Bellwether had to have TFA’s ready cooperation (and approval) to produce the report. As one might expect, in the Bellwether report, TFA appears to reveal itself as it sees itself– or at least how it viewed itself roughly a year ago. The report is a long read (97 pages), but it offers a comprehensive view of TFA history as TFA wishes to portray it and is therefore in its own right a study in TFA’s psyche.
And, as one might expect, a third party not enamored with TFA is able to readily view holes in that TFA-adulating presentation.
For example, the timing of the report captured TFA’s failure to achieve recruitment projections for 2015. It notes that TFA experienced high growth in the years following the economic crisis of 2008. TFA/Bellwether believe that a negative economy prompted more newly-graduated college students to flock to TFA for employment. As a result, TFA administration became larger.
If this were the case– that TFA grew as a result of a negative economy– then it seems that TFA leadership should have planned for a future when the economy was not quite so fragile– and when TFA recruitment might take a hit.
Based on the February 2015 Bellwether report, it does not seem that TFA had given serious thought to the possibility that their recruitment could fall. Then again, perhaps they thought of it and planned for what to do next (i.e., cutting national and regional positions) but just chose not to disclose as much in the Bellwether report.
What is also interesting in the February 2015 Bellwether report is that even though Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard were TFA co-CEOs at the time, Beard is frequently cited and Kramer appears to be missing in action. Indeed, in September 2015, Kramer “stepped down” as TFA co-CEO, leaving Beard as the TFA CEO.
An organization faced with national office downsizing surely does not need co-CEOs. Just an observation.
Aside from noting economics as a reason for decreased recruitment and failure to meet 2015 recruitment projections, the Bellwether report also notes that TFA faced negative press. In a comical quote, former TFAer (and, as of November 2014, former TN ed commissioner) Kevin Huffman states, “Teach for America is now Goliath instead of David.”
Sure, Goliath was a lot larger than David, but Goliath was the bad guy– whom David stunned with a rock and then decapitated.
Is TFA on its way to decapitation by negative press?
According to the report, TFA just didn’t see hefty resistance coming on social media.
That’s just foolish. TFA is a teacher temp agency that then tries to place its former temps in strategic and powerful positions in order to advocate for test-score-driven ed reform. Of course many people will not approve, and that disapproval could be strongly expressed on the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.
Perhaps in its arrogance, TFA did not believe anyone could effectively confront them in the media. But it happened. And, as the Bellwether report notes, the comedy continues. Consider this excerpt:
The volume and vitriol of the attacks caught Teach For America off guard. …The advent of social media exacerbated these challenges. While some of Teach For America’s critics, such as education historian Diane Ravitch, were highly adept in using social media to amplify their messages, Teach For America was slow to adopt a social media strategy. “We had lost touch with how this younger group of people were engaging with the world,” notes [former TFA staffer] Aimee Eubanks Davis.
“This younger group of people”?? Diane Ravitch is 77 years old.
Makes one wonder just how far out of touch TFA is with reality beyond itself.
It seems TFA just believed that younger people would not read Ravitch. But apparently, they do. (Ironic how she blew the whistle on the current TFA downsizing.) Whereas TFA might label her criticism as “vitriol,” it seems that they recognize that their recruits consider her as being among the “reputable voices” criticizing TFA’s temp-teacher lifeblood. From the Bellwether report:
Teach For America was equally unprepared for the negative impact that the external criticisms would have on corps member, alumni, and staff morale. “If you’re a brand new corps member and facing lots of challenges, the only thing that gets you through, especially the first year, is the belief that you are making a difference in the world,” says Ted Quinn. “If you struggle all day and then go on Facebook and Twitter and find reputable voices telling you that you’re hurting kids, it is absolutely shattering. We hear this very directly from our corps members. They may not buy into it, but they feel battered.” In the absence of a strong public response to critics, corps members felt abandoned and alone. Alumni and staff members report a similar experience.
The impact of external opposition has been most evident, however, to Teach For America’s recruiters. From 2013 to 2014, the number of applications dropped by 7,000. The number of first year corps members starting school in fall 2014 was smaller than the previous year—the first time that had happened since 2000—and the total number of corps members fell 800 short of the year’s target. These recruitment trends have continued: in December 2014, Kramer and Villanueva Beard sent a letter to district and school placement partners informing them that, based on current recruitment projections, Teach For America’s 2015– 16 corps could fall far short of the number of teachers its placement partners had requested. 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. As part of its continuous-improvement efforts, Teach For America conducts follow-up outreach to high potential candidates who ultimately choose not to apply. This outreach indicates that negative criticism of Teach for America influenced nearly 70 percent of these candidates’ decisions.
The report continues with TFA’s efforts to counter negative media:
…The feedback from corps members, alumni, and staff convinced Teach For America leaders that they needed to more proactively respond to critics. …
To address these issues, the organization created a new Public Affairs and Engagement Team, pulling together previously scattered functions of communication, marketing, external research, and community partnerships into a single integrated team. To lead this team, Kramer and Villanueva Beard tapped Aimee Eubanks Davis, a highly respected internal leader whose leadership of Teach For America’s diversity efforts had demonstrated her capacity to deal directly and sensitively with thorny challenges.
Eubanks Davis and then–acting Senior Vice President of Communications Peter Cunningham put in place a set of systems that allowed Teach For America to respond much more rapidly to external events and attacks. Every day, key leaders from the Public Affairs and Communications Teams participate in a daily call to review events in the past 24 hours, including any misinformation or attacks that demand a quick response, and to plan response for events expected later in the day. To keep an eye on the longer-term picture, the Public Affairs Team meets by phone to review communications and marketing campaign plans for the upcoming month. To help with rapid response, Teach For America also created an “On the Record” web page, where it can quickly correct misinformation and share facts. This approach allows Teach For America to respond to breaking news stories much more rapidly than it could through more traditional means, such as requesting corrections or writing letters to the editor.
TFA’s manner of countering criticism resulted in more criticism in George Joseph’s 2014 piece in The Nation. Joseph’s article demonstrates just how connected TFA is. In short, TFA was tipped off by another Nation writer about a freedom of information request made by its writer to the USDOE for info on TFA. A TFAer working at USDOE tipped off TFA, and TFA produced an internal memo about how to combat the negative press. Joseph obtained a copy of that internal memo. Joseph maintains that to TFA, negative media attention and “misinformation” are one and the same.
Back to Bellwether.
The report continues by noting TFA’s efforts over the past couple of years to create a “public-facing narrative about its work and values.” But here is another blind spot for TFA:
The Bellwether report does not address the growing number of former TFA voices critical of TFA.
And they are growing. And the authority of their authentic TFA experiences carries weight with a public that is itself growing increasingly critical of TFA.
For example, there is former TFAer Gary Rubinstein, who has been critiquing TFA for years and whose Open Letters series of posts to reformers (many who started with TFA) is well worth the read. For years, it seemed that Rubinstein was largely alone in his TFA criticism.
Not so any more.
For example, in 2015, former TFAer Jameson Brewer has co-edited a book, Teach for America Counter Narratives: Alumni Speak UP and Speak Out. Also in 2015, former TFAer Sarah Matsui published Learing from Counternarratives in Teach for America.
There are also Kerry Kretchmer and Beth Sondel, both former TFAers, who organized resistance to TFA. Moreover, one can view TFA alumni and other stakeholders concerns in the Julian Heilig’s Truth For America podcast on iTunes.
And the list continues to grow. What is important to note is that an emerging concern with TFA is that even though it maintains that its recruits are ethnically and racially diverse, those recruits are displacing teachers of color whose lives are grounded in communities in which those revolving-door, “diverse” TFA recruits are landing.
A powerful accounting of this “diversity” shell game is Jennifer Berkshire’s (“EduShyster”) March 21, 2016, post entitled, “TFA’s Diversity Paradox.” In this post, Berkshire interviews TFA alumnus Terrenda White. The interview was also featured in the March 22, 2016, Washington Post. Here is an excerpt:
EduShyster: You have a new paper out examining TFA’s initiative to become more diverse. You use the word *paradox,* but don’t you mean ‘success’? I just read this TFA tweet that *The TFA corps more closely reflects the public-school population than any other large teacher-provider.* What’s paradoxical about that?
Terrenda White: 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 that teachers of color have taken as a result of policies to which TFA is connected: school closures where teachers of color disproportionately work, charter school expansion, teacher layoffs as schools are turned around. We have to talk about whether and how those policies have benefited TFA to expand in a way that they’re not ready to publicly acknowledge.
EduShyster: You argue that even as TFA may be bringing some teachers of color into urban areas through the *front door* of its recruiting and PR operation, the organization’s advocacy for specific reform policies is pushing teachers of color out the *back door.* Can you talk about how this is playing out in some specific cities?
White: What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by TFA’s expansion in that region. I’ve never heard TFA talk about or address that issue. Or take Chicago, where the number of Black teachers has been cut in half as schools have been closed or turned around. In the lawsuits that teachers filed against the Chicago Board of Education, they used a lot of social science research and tracked that if a school was low performing and was located on the north or the west side and had a higher percentage of white teachers, that school was less likely to be closed. As the teachers pointed out, this wasn’t just about closing low-performing schools, but closing low-performing schools in communities of color, and particularly those schools that had a higher percentage of teachers of color. What bothers me is that we have a national rhetoric about wanting diversity when at the same time we’re actually manufacturing the lack of diversity in the way in which we craft our policies. And we mete them out in a racially discriminatory way. So in many ways we’re creating the problem we say we want to fix.
What White describes above is not addressed in the Bellwether report, just as addressing legitimate TFA alumni concerns is not addressed.
What is addressed is the drop in alumni promoting TFA. As the Bellwether report notes:
Teach For America uses several measures to track corps member and alumni satisfaction. The Corps Strength Index, a set of questions that assess corps members’ attitudes, perceptions, and feelings about their experience with Teach For America, is administered before and after Summer Institute and twice during each year a corps member serves. Teach For America also collects data on net promoter score—a commonly used metric, across a range of industries, that assesses satisfaction based on whether the respondent would recommend an organization to someone else. Both indicators reflect declines in corps member and alumni satisfaction over the past five years.
Since Teach For America implemented the Corps Satisfaction Index, in 2008, Net Corps Strength, a figure that summarizes corps members’ response to the index questions, has declined every year. During the same period, Teach For America’s net promoter scores for both corps members and alumni have also fallen. In 2010, Teach For America had an alumni net promoter score of 50—meaning that the percentage of alumni who would strongly recommend Teach For America to a friend was 50 percentage points higher than the percentage who would not recommend Teach For America. Today, Teach For America’s net promoter score stands at 8—still positive, and therefore better than the net promoter scores of many organizations—but significantly down from just a few years ago.
Teach For America leaders were understandably troubled by these trends, and have invested considerable effort in understanding the forces that are driving them. By comparing corps strength and satisfaction data across regions, Teach For America has identified a number of factors, at a regional level, that can appear to lead to a stronger or weaker corps culture. A strong regional vision, the quality of relationships between corps members and staff who support them, and clear expectations all contribute to stronger corps culture at a regional level. But while these factors explain the variation in corps satisfaction across regions, they do not explain the trend of declining corps satisfaction over time, nor has Teach For America been able to establish any correlation between corps strength and regional pace of growth or the age of a region.
Note that according to TFA’s strategic direction report, TFA’s net promoter score had dropped to 4 percent– which means that the percentage of TFA alumni likely to recommend TFA to a friend is only four percent greater than the percentage not likely to recommend TFA to a friend.
To raise its net promoter score up to 30 over the next few years, TFA uses fluffy language about relationships and feeling connected– but it does not note the need to actually listen to alumni concerns, such as those about TFA’s displacing community-rooted teachers of color with its in-and-out, manufactured “diverse” temp corps:
Movements are all about people and relationships, and our people are at the heart of everything we do. Our community must feel far more connected, supported, and part of something that is bigger than them, particularly given the strains we’ve felt in recent years. To do this, we must dramatically improve the culture and connectedness of our community of corps members, alumni, and staff.
Now, back to Terrenda White’s words in the Berkshire interview:
What bothers me is that we have a national rhetoric about wanting diversity when at the same time we’re actually manufacturing the lack of diversity in the way in which we craft our policies. And we mete them out in a racially discriminatory way. So in many ways we’re creating the problem we say we want to fix.
TFA has a problem, and it is one that image polish, a gentle Bellwether report, and a “leaner, more agile central structure” cannot fix. A growing number of former TFAers are voicing their discontent with the damage TFA inflicts upon community-rooted education, discontent that will likely only increase over time.
Watch out, Goliath. You might not make it past this one.
Coming June 2016 from TC Press:
Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.
She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.
Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.