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Report Analyzes Teach For America's Growing Pains

Teach For America is struggling with the fallout of recent growing pains, including recruitment challenges, apparently partly caused by a barrage of negative press it wasn't truly prepared for, according to a comprehensive analysis of the group's evolution over the last decade or so.

The group's current leaders are trying to respond by giving the organization flexiblity to improve corps members' satisfaction and customize preparation and professional development. And those changes may lead TFA in a new direction, concludes the report, issued Feb. 3 by Bellwhether Education Partners, an education consulting group.

"Over the past 15 years, Teach For America's efforts to expand its impact have focused on three strategic areas: growing in scale, increasing corps member impact, and deepening alumni impact. While all three of these strategies have been crucial, growing in scale has been a powerful force driving both staff goals and funding over the past decade. In the future, the balance of those strategies may change," the analysis states.

Bellwhether bills the report as offering lessons to other education groups that are dealing with issues of growth and scaling. But from a news perspective, it goes a long way to explain the "hows" and "whys" behind the famously tight-lipped group's recent changes. Those include its two CEOs' recent "listening tour," its announcement of pilot programs on teacher preparation and mentoring, and some decentralization of its structure. 

Bellwether analysts were given what TFA says is "complete" access to its files and financial records, and conducted interviews with key players. (Bellwether is independent, but several of its leaders have historically been very supportive of TFA.) 

Much of the analysis is fairly inside-baseball stuff about TFA's internal structure and how it responded to huge growth (an average of 18 percent a year between 2000 and 2013) while trying to maintain quality. But it's also quite helpful for understanding the organization's trajectory over the past four to five years. Here are a few things that stood out for me: 

  • The kerfuffle over the "highly qualified" teacher requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (see this Alexander Russo piece) was one of the triggers that led the organization to assume its greater (and much criticized) presence on Capitol Hill. 
  • The rise of so-called "education reform" groups helped propel TFA's growth over the last seven or so years, but also led to a backlash from people who saw the group "as a force driving an agenda that they opposed." 
  • TFA's decision to expand during the Great Recession led to more pushback, even though the group was mainly placing candidates in shortage areas during that time. As the report states: "This sometimes created political challenges, as critics accused Teach For America corps members of taking veteran teachers' jobs." 
  • TFA acknowledges that negative portrayals of its work became more common from 2011 onward and that they have begun to affect the morale of its teachers and to hamper its recruitment efforts. (This is notable because a few months ago, TFA attributed that decline more to the overall polarizing dialogue on teaching.)  
  • Fewer alumni today said they'd recommend TFA to a friend than in 2010, another sign of this general malaise among corps members. 
  • The group is now working to improve regional corps culture, partly by giving regions more autonomy to customize training and supports for corps members. 

It should probably go without saying that nothing in here is likely to change your opinion about TFA; some readers, I expect, will applaud TFA's attempt to figure out their next move, and some will be gleeful at the organization's struggles.

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