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Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That? | The Nation

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Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That?

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Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder, has called it a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization.” (Photo by Sebastian Derungs, courtesy World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

TFA underscores the importance of its recruits’ success as teachers, frequently touting positive new statistics and research. But its corps members’ impact on low-income students is only the short-term, experiential part of the organization’s more important long-term mission: to build a force of leaders who will go on to influential public and private sector careers supporting TFA’s education reform initiatives.

In 2011, TFA founder Wendy Kopp spoke on a Seattle radio station, saying that people often misunderstand the function of TFA. “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization,” she said. “I think if you don’t understand that, of course it’s easy to tear the whole thing apart.”

Whether or not TFA ever considered itself a teaching organization, it does much more these days than send teachers to educate children. Although TFA initially maintained a safe distance from the political fray, the organization’s lobbying data indicate that it has spent nearly as much on lobbying since 2010 as it did in the previous decade: $1.8 million versus $1.9 million, respectively. According to TFA’s data, 63 percent of its alumni stay in education, although roughly just 30 percent remain in the classroom—and the attrition increases significantly after the fifth year. Where the organization has been most successful is in meeting its ambitious alumni leadership goals. It has increasingly prioritized helping alumni find jobs once they leave the classroom, with its most robust efforts set on influential careers in politics. More than seventy alumni currently hold public office, including two state senators. Within the federal government, their ranks include two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller.

Despite its efforts to set up alumni for successful careers inside and outside education, some of the organization’s most vocal critics are disenchanted former recruits. Last summer, a group of TFA alumni and corps members in Chicago held a public summit titled “Organizing Resistance Against Teach for America and Its Role in Privatization.” More and more current and former members are publicly voicing their feelings about the organization in blogs and major publications. On college campuses, the organization Students United for Public Education is campaigning against TFA at its source: recruitment on college campuses.

With pressure ramping up, TFA recently announced a pilot initiative to begin training 2,000 recruits during their senior year of college—a year of preparation versus a five-week crash course—as well as extending classroom support to teachers after their two-year commitment ends. Last year, the organization’s co-CEOs pledged to “tailor our scale to the needs of each individual community.”

Although TFA hasn’t backed down on its overall expansion plans, Lindsay Hill, the Seattle director, has made adjustments to her program that indicate that the organization may be open to incremental change. This year, TFA’s third in Seattle, she eliminated all district fees, which means she will have to raise more money, cut back on the number of recruits, and partner with more rural school districts that need teachers.

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“We have to make sure that our vision and our strategy meet our context,” Hill says, crediting meetings with recruits, students and community members in her decision.

Of the first thirteen Seattle recruits whose two-year commitment is now over, Maldonado and ten others remain in their classrooms. While he thinks TFA should have done a better job before bringing his cohort to the city, Maldonado says he still believes strongly in the organization and worked at its summer institute in New York City last year.

Maldonado enjoyed the experience so much, he says, that he’s considering a path he never would have imagined two years earlier: leaving the classroom for a full-time gig with TFA.

Read Next: Michelle Chen asks, “Why Are Teachers and Students Opting Out of Standardized Testing?

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