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Teach for America and Sister Program, Ensina!: How Recruit Thinking Changes from Before to After

May 21, 2019

Rolf Straubhaar is an assistant professor of ed leadership and school improvement at Texas State University. He is also a Teach for America (TFA) alum.

Rolf Straubhaar

Rolf Straubhaar

Straubhaar’s research agenda includes alternative certification initiatives, like TFA and its global version, Teach for All.

On April 29, 2019, Straubhaar published a research article entitled, “Teaching for America Across Two Hemispheres: Comparing the Ideological Appeal of the Teach for All Teacher Education Model in the United States and Brazil,” in the peer-reviewed Journal of Teacher Education. He was kind enough to send me a copy of the full article for personal review and to allow me to generously quote from his work in this post.

In sum, Straubhaar examined perceptions of TFAers and their Brazilian counterparts in Ensina! both before and after the actual TFA/Ensina! experience. As he notes in his abstract, “many left their 2-year commitment questioning the underlying theories of change driving it.”

Below is the abstract, in full:

The last several decades have seen significant growth among private options in alternative teacher education and certification. In this article, I draw on two parallel ethnographic studies of the experiences of participants in variants of one particular alternative teacher education model, developed by Teach For America in the United States and spread internationally by Teach For All. Through analysis of interviews with recruits from Teach For America and its Brazilian sister organization Ensina!, I explore the thinking processes that leads young people to join these organizations, as well as how that thinking changes after 2 years of teaching in the classroom. I find that while participants in these studies joined because they admired the Teach For All teacher education model, many left their 2-year commitment questioning the underlying theories of change driving it.

From the opening of the article, including research questions (citations removed for ease of reading):

Teach For America (hereafter called TFA) and a Rio de Janeiro–based organization known as Ensina! are both alternative teacher education organizations that began recruiting teacher candidates with purposefully similar pitches. …

While such recruits wouldn’t necessarily have the training of an undergraduate degree in education, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp has argued that this can be overcome through the recruitment of hard-working, competitive candidates whose relative inexperience also comes with optimistic idealism: “The world needs your inexperience. It needs you before you accept the status quo, before you are plagued by the knowledge of what is impossible.” …

Maíra Pimentel, the first Executive Director of Ensina!, has articulated a very similar recruitment strategy for that organization. …

Why are recruits joining these types of organizations?

Another important question that has remained largely unanswered is how the attitudes of these teacher recruits toward their programs, and toward alternative forms of teacher education more generally, change as a result of their experience teaching and going through the teacher education programs of TFA, Ensina!, or other similar Teach For All affiliates. …

These are the two questions which orient this article, drawing on comparative ethnographies of TFA in Los Angeles and Ensina! in Rio de Janeiro: Why do potential recruits choose to join these alternative teacher education programs, and how does the thinking that informs that choice change over the course of a candidate’s 2-year commitment in the classroom?

Straubhaar then offers details on both TFA and Ensina! history, which I will leave readers to pursue if they so choose via the full article. However, regarding Ensina!, I will offer this: Ensina! was a short-lived program; as Straubhaar notes, “It began to be organized in 2009, brought in its first cohort of teachers in 2011, and suspended operations at the end of 2012.”

Straubhaar then builds on his previous work regarding what he calls the “currently dominant education project. I found this construct both intriguing and on-point regarding market-based ed-reform orgs like TFA. Some excerpts (citations removed for ease of reading):

Elsewhere, I have created a theoretical construct that accounts for the spread of market-based reform models like that created in TFA and franchised through Teach For All, which I call the currently dominant educational project. This construct draws upon Lesley Bartlett’s notion of educational projects, which she defines as “durable (but not permanent) constellations of institutions, financial resources, social actors, ideologies, discourses, pedagogies, and theories of knowledge and learning that shape the way people think about schooling and its purpose.” My construct of the currently dominant educational project expands this model in two primary directions: a heavier emphasis on the role of power in the spread of particular educational projects and a recognition of such projects’ temporal dimension.

First, I argue that the role of power plays a significant role in the development and spread of commonly accepted educational ideas, policies, and best practices. Particular individuals and institutions (e.g., the World Bank or the U.S. Department of Education) have an outsized impact on what is considered “good” educational practice that is worthy of replication. Indeed, these actors are primarily responsible for both the initial development of the ideas behind an educational project and the spread of those ideas through the exercise of their power and influence. …

I will here argue that the currently dominant educational project in the United States and Brazil is a market-oriented project in which the status quo consists of business-derived accountability policies focused on improvement of the “bottom line,” which in most cases today is defined as standardized test scores. …

…I focus on the ideological discourses undergirding Teach For All as a global phenomenon. In these studies, one such discourse is manifest in the way TFA and Ensina! recruits talk about their decision to join, which reflects how they think about teacher education and the teaching profession more generally. I refer to this way of thinking about teacher education (and schooling as a whole) as market logic: that is, the presumption that private industry is inherently more effective, efficient, and innovative in the provision of educational services and ideas than the public sector, due to the competition that is assumed to be inherent to the free market. … As I will show in the following, subscription to market logic was a primary reason that recruits in these studies joined TFA and Ensina!, although their experiences within these respective programs would lead many to begin to question that same logic over the course of their 2-year commitment.

And continuing with the market focus and the influence of market logic on TFA and Ensina! recruits:

Given the dominance of this market-oriented project for the last several decades of education policy in the United States and Brazil, the people who are becoming of age to be ripe candidates for TFA and Ensina! are individuals who have seen market logic reflected in public policy throughout their lives—as such, it is understandable to see such logic influence their career decisions upon finishing their undergraduate degrees. …

…Among the 30 TFA teachers I interviewed, 13 specifically expressed in passing the belief that traditional public school teaching is insufficient, or as TFA has argued on its website, “not enough to close the achievement gap”….

Similar to what was apparent in my interviews with TFA teachers in Los Angeles, Ensina! participants in Rio de Janeiro also expressed that a large part of what convinced them to join the organization was a commonly held understanding, based on the rhetoric of Ensina! staff and recruiters, that the Teach For All model represented a business-savvy, numbers-driven “proven” teacher education formula that was ready to be franchised outside the United States. …

However, I also argue that part of the ideological appeal of the TFA/Ensina! model corresponds to the selective and elite branding….

And for information regarding the “cognitive shift” post-classroom-stint:

In interviews that typically took place near the end of their 2-year classroom commitment or shortly thereafter, it was interesting to note the shift in perspective and ideological orientation demonstrated by the interviewees in these two programs. While 10 TFA and eight Ensina! teachers made statements of support for their respective programs and their parallel theories of change regarding how teachers should be recruited and trained, most (14 in TFA and 26 in Ensina!) made comments that showed they had come to question some portion of their previously held beliefs. At least, these 14 TFA and 26 Ensina! teachers expressed some cognitive dissonance relative to their earlier trust in these programs in the face of contrasting personal experiences.

Straubhaar then details his TFA and Ensina! results using numerous quotes from research participants, all of which makes for captivating reading and which I leave my readers to pursue on their own.

For the sake of length (and being mindful of the liberty I have already taken in directly quoting from Straubhaar’s work), I now conclude my direct quotes with this, from the section, “discussion and conclusion”:

These parallel ethnographic studies of recruits who joined TFA in Los Angeles and Ensina! in Rio de Janeiro are fascinating examples of the role of market-influenced thinking in influencing young peoples’ decisions to seek teacher training through these organizations. In both cases, recruits saw the business-minded structure of TFA and Ensina! as evidence of well-organized efficiency and a theory of change through which they could really make a differences as teachers of disadvantaged youth in their respective countries.

And yet, perhaps the most interesting legacy of being trained as a teacher through TFA and Ensina!, at least for participants in these two studies, is the effect that training has had on the career plans and ideological perspectives of these teachers. Around half of the TFA teachers interviewed and the vast majority of interviewed Ensina! teachers had come to question the efficacy of the Teach For All model, both as a teacher education program and an education reform initiative intended to address educational inequality. …

…As the participant pushback on display in this article shows, the market-oriented currently dominant project is not uncontested.

For access to the full article via Sage Publications, click here.

To contact Rolf Straubhaar, email him at


Interested in scheduling Mercedes Schneider for a speaking engagement? Click here.


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

From → Guest Posts, TFA

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