Why does Teach for America (TFA) attract so much adulatory praise, so much vitriolic criticism, so much government and foundation money, and so much jealousy/resentment from other nonprofits? And did we mention so much money? Held up as the exemplar of social innovation and civic engagement, the TFA model merits closer attention as to what it really means for public education, to the nonprofit sector, and to society at large. TFA's positive press is so well known that this article focuses on the less-heard concerns and questions about the model:
It's hard to imagine a nonprofit entity that encapsulates the emerging definition of social innovation more than the Teach for America juggernaut. Founded in 1990 by young Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, TFA now needs no introduction; it has nearly the same brand recognition enjoyed by nonprofits like the United Way and American Red Cross.
But as the nation moves toward defining social innovation and handing over the federal Social Innovation Program to private foundations, it cannot hurt to recognize TFA and other vaunted models for what they are: real-life nonprofit organizations with lots of good things going for them, but not without limitations, controversies, and trade-offs in what they purport to achieve.
It takes only a few moments on the Internet to find lots of positive stories about TFA, countered by relatively few negative ones. The common theme is the enthusiasm and commitment of the TFA teachers. The stories attest to a common finding about stipended volunteer programs: that AmeriCorps-affiliated youth service programs like TFA take pretty highly engaged young people and make them even more community minded.
(For examples, see the Abt Associates study for the Corporation for National Service and the stories of TFA alums Chris Praedel of Kalamazoo who is running for the Michigan State Legislature and Brian Bordainick who is organizing support for the construction of a new high school stadium in New Orleans.
However, a recent study produced by a sociology professor from Stanford University (funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation) at the request of TFA suggests just the opposite: that TFA alums' dedication to improving society did not seem to extend past their TFA service, and in fact, "In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years." This disconcerting research finding has the TFA leadership nonplussed and hits at a core element of the program's self-described benefits to participants.
$100 million in federal grants and $100 million in foundation grants
Maybe at its heart, critics simply don't like TFA's ability to glom more and more from foundations and particularly government, while school districts trim full-time employment and other education-focused nonprofits can only look at TFA's fundraising with envy. Based on an analysis of data from USAspending.gov, TFA secured over $80 million in grants between FY2001 and FY2008, including $44 million through the Department of Education, $32 million from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and $4 million from NASA.
And while health care reform, cap-and-trade climate protection, and other legislation in front of Congress have been viewed as largely Democratic Party initiatives, Teach for America has been politically ambidextrous over the years. A good chunk of this funding was achieved by earmarks under the Bush Administration, but the Obama administration seems to share the same eagerness to fund TFA. The President's FY2010 budget targeted a $15 million earmark for TFA. That was less than the $25 million targeted by the House of Representatives for TFA.
TFA's political flexibility has also proven remarkably successful with foundations as well, particularly important since the federal Social Innovation Fund will be defined and administered by foundation regrant-makers (oh come on, we all know that! and if not, see Blue Avocado's recent article). Grants from the politically conservative Walton Family Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the F.M. Kirby Foundation sit alongside philanthropic support from the more left-leaning Atlantic Philanthropies, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. The Foundation Center's online database suggests that TFA national and its local affiliates received $43.875 million in foundation grants in 2007 and, with totals still far from complete for 2008, $33.17 million in that year.
With this kind of revenue, TFA hardly seems like a likely candidate for a federal Social Innovation Fund grant to help it "scale up." Whether or not TFA receives foundation re-granted SIF funds, it represents a model that foundations will be seeking to fund.
A brilliant cure or sending the least prepared to the most needy?
While successfully straddling ideological barriers in securing huge amounts in federal and foundation support, TFA has nonetheless encountered opponents in the course of its development, critics whose concerns cannot be dismissed as arising from jealousy over TFA's fundraising success.
One area of criticism centers on the premise that TFA teachers are better than credentialed, experienced teachers. [TFA teachers receive five weeks of training prior to classroom placement.] While an early goal of TFA was to meet teacher shortages, today credentialed, experienced teachers are being laid off in countless communities and newly credentialed teachers cannot find jobs, completing the TFA trajectory from one that fills gaps to one that claims to be better than the professionals currently on the job.
Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond is a high profile educator whose 2005 study compared TFA teachers in Houston with those coming to the profession with traditional training and credentials: "Uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers. TFA recruits who become certified after 2 or 3 years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years. Teachers' effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching."
Darling-Hammond is not alone in her concerns about the limited training of TFA teachers. Suggesting that the good intentions of TFA participants are only half the battle, a not-unsympathetic observer from Minnesota concluded, "It is ridiculous to think that anyone with a five-week summer course and a license waiver is ready to teach . . . To put untrained graduates barely four years older than their students in a class without proper training does a disservice to education in Minnesota. Teach for America members should not have control of a class. They are not well-enough trained. They should serve as assistants to licensed, experienced teachers and help them give students the education they deserve and that we as Minnesotans demand."
Carlton College's Deborah Appleman offers a trenchant critique about the program, describing the "problematic assumptions" behind TFA, such as:
- "[the assumption that] anybody who is smart can be a good teacher." (Appleman says there is no correlation)
- that teaching is more instinct than knowledge. (Appleman says it's a combination of both)
- that students who are most in need will do the best with the most underprepared teachers in the country. (Appleman thinks that idea is crazy).
TFA has also had to navigate some accountability road bumps. For example, a 2008 federal audit of monies granted for summer training sessions found that TFA couldn't properly account for more than half of the $1.5 million in expenditures.
TFA's political apparatus
TFA is quick to challenge critics, for example, pointing to studies that counter Darling-Hammond's, including a 2004 study by Mathematica that purportedly concluded "that Teach for America corps members outperform even the veteran and certified teachers in their schools in a statistically significant way."
And TFA goes beyond debating the principles to taking political action against those it sees as detractors. For instance, when Linda Darling-Hammond was selected for the Obama education transition team, TFA was fearful that she would end up with a high post. Through a mass e-mail in late 2008, TFA alerted its network to the possibility of TFA critics emerging in the Obama White House, directing them to Leadership for Educational Equity, a 501(c)(4) TFA affiliate. Created in 2008 ostensibly "to support [TFA] alumni in the later stages of readiness for political activity" the Leadership for Educational Equity has become a fierce political defender of all things TFA.
This political arm of TFA struck out at Darling-Hammond with an article on its website titled "Education Secretary Fight Could Affect Teach for America's Mission." As one TFA blogger and board member of an "education reform" PAC commented about Darling-Hammond: "She's influential, clever and (while she does her best to hide it) an enemy of genuine reform." The result was that Arne Duncan, generally supportive of TFA, got the top job at Education over Darling-Hammond.
Unions vs. TFA
Part of conservatives' attraction to Teach for America, much like their love affair with charter schools, is TFA's existence largely outside of the control of unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The union reactions to TFA seem to have steadily become more pointed over the years: witness sharply worded critiques on TFA from the Boston Teachers Union and Education Minnesota this year from unions hardly comparable to the scandalously obstructive teachers unions in Washington DC and Miami.
In some localities, the unions have a solid argument. School districts are laying off credentialed -- and more senior, higher paid -- teachers and replacing them with TFA short-termers (usually signed up for two-year stints). [Contrary to the commonly-held view that TFA teachers are volunteers or are paid stipends by TFA, TFA teachers are often paid by school districts at the same rates as beginning credentialed teachers.] Such situations have been reported in New Orleans, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and elsewhere.
In individual schools, it appears that teacher opposition to TFA does not prevent good relationships from forming between TFA newbies and the teachers already there. But to union leaders such as John Wilson of the NEA, Teach for America is less an experiment in education than an effort to become a "political force" aimed at undoing traditional, that is, unionized, educational systems. With TFA's 501(c)(4) arm aiming to connect TFA alumni to the political world (29 alumni listed as holding public office and 4 more running for election), this does begin to feel like the political movement that Wilson fears.
Why is TFA so irritating?
But there are many nonprofits that neither compete with TFA nor participate in debates about public education that nonetheless find themselves annoyed with the vaunted TFA. Their concerns are not with TFA, but with the model that TFA represents. For example, one reason for annoyance may be because the praise of TFA's young teachers-for-two-years echoes the notion expounded elsewhere in the nonprofit sector that volunteers and near-volunteers can substitute for trained staff who earn professional-level salaries. Just as credentialed, experienced teachers with union-level pay resent the notion that they can be replaced by TFA'ers, nonprofit staff resent the idea that their work does not require much training, or pay, for that matter.
Another reason for nonprofit resentment may be due to the praise of TFA centering on the benefits for the young TFA participants, rather than the benefits for low-income students or schools. In a similar way, service learning is touted for its beneficial impact on the service-learner volunteers often without statistical evidence showing much tangible effect on K-12 students or, perhaps more importantly, on those that these volunteers are enlisted to help. At a time when the nonprofit and public agency host organizations often find themselves burdened with volunteerism that uses nonprofit resources for the benefit of the volunteer, nonprofits are suspicious of programs such as TFA that trumpet the positive effects on volunteers and stay relatively silent on the effects on the ostensible beneficiaries.
Perhaps it's because for many, a TFA stint has become just exactly the right thing to have on one's resume (for graduate school or political office) rather than the beginning of a lifetime commitment to teaching.
Or perhaps, like Appleman, what gets the nonprofit goat is the "overbearingly noble tone" in TFA's pronouncements. But the noble cause stuff is exactly what is so enthusiastically devoured by the mainstream press, the epitome being this encomium from the U.S. News and World Report: "Sooner or later change is coming to education and when it does Teach For America will have played an instrumental role in fueling it."
Questions raised by TFA's success
TFA in many ways epitomizes the type of social innovation that has attracted former President Bush and his successor: building on the enthusiasm of its stipended volunteer participants to address the deficiencies of public school systems and their entrenched teacher unions. But despite its champions in the press and philanthropy, TFA's model merits examination by nonprofit and government agencies without its critics being demonized. Is social innovation that relies on large government and foundation subsidies really cost effective? Can two-year service terms by young Americans do more for low-income students than increased teacher pay and smaller class sizes? Is TFA a model for universal two-year service stints? Should we build TFA-like organizations in healthcare and higher education? Would a TFA model work to revitalize another industry with retrograde ideas and entrenched unions: the auto industry?
The overall, unfolding story of TFA is not contained in its funding, its political prowess, the odd negative audit finding, or even the stories -- some inspiring, some disillusioning -- from its participants. It will be played out as the nation defines social innovation and how socially innovative nonprofits supplement, revolutionize, subvert, or instigate social change.
P.S. As a follow-up to Rick Cohen's earlier story on the Social Innovation Fund, note that the Obama Administration has released its draft Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the Social Innovation Fund.
Rick Cohen is Blue Avocado's newest columnist; his columns appear in every other issue. Rick's background includes community organizing, municipal government, executive positions at LISC, Jersey City government, and the Enterprise Foundation, and eight years as Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He is National Correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly, and lives in Washington, D.C. where he never has a shortage of things to be grumpy about.