A Horror Comedy: Teach For America Rises to Power

Gremlins was a “horror comedy” movie that came out in the early 1980s. Wikipedia:

The film is about a young man who receives a strange creature called a Mogwai as a pet, which then spawns other creatures who transform into small, destructive, evil monsters.

What does it take for the Gremlins to spawn and replicate into mini monsters in the movie? Water.

In TFA’s case, it’s money.

What Stephanie Simon reported on today at Politico has been well-known to policymakers for awhile— TFA is working behind the the scenes with millions of dollars at its disposal. Republicans and Democrats have bought in to their very simple “reform”— sending inexperienced (about 12-20 hours of teaching before they hit the classroom) teachers to teach poor white and minority kids for a two year commitment.

I get it. It is very difficult to counter TFA folks in conversation. They have hired the best and brightest, and they are typically very loqatious in person— even convicting. They are also very convincing to policymakers because Simon reports that they have raised their goal for public appropriations to $350 million this year from $150 million last year.

To engage the very charming TFA corp members, alumni, and/or supporters you have to do your homework. TFA will come at you from all directions, but most of their argument is predictable. Let’s peel back their rhetoric.  What are their favorite approaches?

They will argue they they are about Civil Rights. How can your reform be about Civil Rights when you are perpetuating the problem with a revolving door of rookie teachers for poor white and minority students? See my New York Times piece that discusses their temp agency approach. They will respond with anecdotal data about in Rhode Island or somewhere else— they have this percent still in the classroom or that percent in the broader field of education. However, note that they don’t support their retention claims with publicly available data. (See also The Teat: Teach For America— Expensive & Convincing Inequity)

They will try to trot out research studies  in conversation that says TFA “works”. We have taken a look at every peer-reviewed research study that examines TFA and student achievement. TFA is NOT a slam dunk— see Teach For America: A review of the evidence (The research that TFA loves to hate…) They will respond to our brief by saying that Mathematica recently released an “independent” study that show TFA is effective. They are correct in saying that Mathematica released a study, but the part about TFA writ large being shown to be effective is highly suspect. See the post New Mathematica TFA Study is Irrational Exuberance and for a more technical review see “Does Not Compute”: Teach For America Mathematica Study is Deceptive?.

Even if you were to believe TFA’s .07 standard deviations and 2.6 months claim of effect reported in the Mathematica study, it needs context. Here is another snippet from our upcoming 2013 TFA NEPC brief that is currently under peer-review:

While 2.6 months sounds impressive from an educational policy perspective, it may be more appropriate to compare this impact to the impact of other educational reforms. For example, class size reduction was found— in the most conservative meta-analysis to date— to have an impact of 0.20 standard deviations, which Dr. Eric Hanushek has described as being “relatively small.”[i] In other words, class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA. A recent meta-analysis of Pre-K published in Teachers College Record demonstrated an effect size of .85, which is 1214% more impact than the TFA effect reported by Mathematica.[ii]

[ii] Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S. & Barnett, W.S. (2010). A meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3), 579-620.

So even if we were to believe that TFA is effective at the minuscule size reported in the Mathematica study, we already have evidence from meta-analyses (studies of many studies) that class size and Pre-K— reforms already at our disposal— show ginormous effects relative to TFA.

What I have found very interesting is the alumni that are increasingly speaking out against TFA. This is a recent phenomenon. Their critiques as insiders to the organization are some of the most convincing evidence yet. Here are few that I have posted on Cloaking Inequity prior:

If attrition, efficacy, and TFA alumni critiques weren’t convincing enough, Stephanie Simon…

reported today on TFA’s political activities that they are undertaking to ensure their way of thinking is replicated everywhere (This also includes the world. In 2013, Wendy Kopp left TFA to work on replicating her teacher placement model in other countries via the Teach For All network. Teach For All’s global reach is now more than 11,000 teachers that are impacting nearly 800,000 students across the world.[i])

TFA is spending millions of dollars lobbying, manuevering and cajoling behind the scenes. Thus, it is really not unbelievable that both Democrats and Republicans are on board because of TFA immense network and pressure behind the scenes. Here are a few snippets from Simon’s piece Teach for America rises as political powerhouse:

With a $100 million endowment and annual revenues approaching $300 million, TFA is flush with cash and ambition. Its clout on Capitol Hill was demonstrated last week when a bipartisan group of lawmakers made time during the frenzied budget negotiations to secure the nonprofit its top legislative priority — the renewal of a controversial provision defining teachers still in training, including TFA recruits, as “highly qualified” to take charge of classrooms.

It was a huge victory that flattened a coalition of big-name opponents, including the NAACP, the National PTA and the National Education Association. But it barely hints at TFA’s growing leverage.

See the Cloaking Inequity post The Republicans didn’t get what they wanted from Shutdown, but TFA did

TFA argues they are about “Civil Rights”, but Stephanie Simon reports they they have different goals:

TFA has already produced an astounding number of alumni who have transformed the education landscape in states from Tennessee to Texas by opening public schools to competition from private entrepreneurs; rating teachers in part on their ability to raise student test scores; and pressing to eliminate tenure and seniority-based job protections…

Their alumni do tend to share common goals, such as expanding charter schools and holding teachers accountable for student test score gains.

How is TFA seeking to do this? Their alumni leave the classroom after two year commitments  (20-30% stay 3-5 years— Donaldson and Moore Johnson found that only 5% still teaching in their initial TFA placement by the 7th year) and head out to replicate like Gremlins. Don’t get them wet!!


Simon reported how TFA is seeking to influence discussions about education policy by positioning their short-term teachers (gremlins) in positions of political power:

Convinced that quicker, bolder change is needed, TFA executives are mining their network of 32,000 alumni to identify promising leaders and help them advance.

TFA is now embedding select alumni in congressional offices and in high-ranking jobs in major school districts, including New York City and D.C. It’s providing start-up cash to alumni to launch “game-changing” advocacy groups and business ventures. Its political arm, meanwhile, is recruiting veteran tacticians to identify key levers of power in cities such as Houston — then help alumni seize them.

“We don’t have a choice” but to raise up more alumni as leaders, or “in 20 years, we’ll just wake up and find… we have made only incremental progress,” said Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach for America. “We’ve got to be aggressive.”

That prospect alarms Arnold Fege, an advocate for low-income children. When TFA alumni gain political clout, they often push to expand TFA’s role in their communities, a cycle that has fueled TFA’s rapid growth in recent years. “To have this financial juggernaut trying to place more people in positions of power… it’s a concern,” said Fege, president of Public Advocacy for Kids. “They’re a special interest. And their interest is in making sure of the survival of their organization.”

TFA’s most ambitious initiative is a $750,000 fellowship aimed at grooming alumni for posts as state cabinet secretaries or superintendents. Earlier this year, TFA selected 12 alumni to participate. A few already held top education policy jobs in major school districts; TFA helped the rest land senior positions in districts from D.C. to Garland, Tex. TFA pays for each fellow to work with a personal executive coach and sends them on regular leadership retreats.

Simon also reports that TFA has access to millions of dollars and the legislative process to directly influence Capitol Hill by paying for “education” staffers for congresspeople on the Education and Workforce committee:

TFA also selected seven alumni this year to work for senators, representatives and the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The Capitol Hill Fellows do the work of regular congressional staffers. But in an arrangement that Hill ethics experts call highly unusual – though not illegal – they are paid by a private individual.

The entire $500,000 cost is picked up by Arthur Rock, a wealthy venture capitalist in San Francisco.

Rock, who sits on TFA’s board, has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.

Rock declined to answer questions about whether the TFA fellows share his policy goals. He funds the program, he said, “to give bright and energized young people the chance to experience government first-hand and give back to the country.”

The fellows declined requests for interviews, citing office policies against staff talking to the press.

As for the Capitol Hill initiative, job posts touting the program to alumni promise a chance to “accelerate your impact on federal policy,” and do “direct and substantive work on education policy.”

The line, however, isn’t always clear. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said his TFA fellow, Alex Payne, recently took the initiative to write “really good memo” about “whether we should be paying more attention” to the federal Education Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. That office gives out Investing in Innovation grants – and TFA was one of the biggest recipients in 2010, winning a $50 million grant.

Holt said Payne’s memo, prompted by a question he asked about the innovation office, was more an “explanatory paper” than a piece of advocacy. He said he saw no conflict of interest.

The congressman has had fellows in his office for years; he said he benefits from their perspectives and enjoys teaching them new skills. Most, however, are funded by professional associations and nonprofits. Holt said he was not aware a private individual paid Payne’s salary until POLITICO explained the arrangement.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I don’t necessarily see a problem with it.”

He considered. “I will think about that.”

Another key part of the TFA political network is an organization call Leadership for Educational Equity. See the post The Teat: Is Leadership for Educational Equity getting TFA’s dirty work done? Simon wrote:

TFA’s political arm, Leadership for Educational Equality, has also been ramping up its activity. The group recruits and trains TFA alumni to run for elected office – and helps them out financially with donations from the LEE treasury, which is stocked by both TFA and by private donors.

LEE contributed nearly $20,000 last fall to help elect two TFA alumni to the board of education in Nevada, a state where TFA has been seeking to expand its presence, despite legislative resistance. This fall, LEE has advised four TFA alumni running for school board in Atlanta.

A LEE spokesman wouldn’t disclose the group’s budget for the year, but it more than doubled its spending last year, to $3.5 million, boasts a staff of 60 and is still growing.

LEE’s internal job postings hint at its ambitious goals. It’s seeking seasoned tacticians with “excellent political instincts,” including regional directors who can “help members understand where the power lies and what opportunities must be seized.”

Among the skills required for one open position: “Deep passion for changing [the] educational policy landscape.”


But there is building policymaker resistance to TFA (gremlins). Simon reports:

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, this summer vetoed $1.5 million in funding to expand TFA’s presence. In Nevada, the legislature defeated the governor’s request for $2 million to bring more TFA teachers to the state. The new superintendent in Kansas City, Mo., greatly scaled back TFA’s presence in his district. And in California, state officials imposed new restrictions on TFA and other novice teachers working with students who speak limited English.

A more formal resistance movement is also growing. Disillusioned TFA alumni have begun pressuring school districts not to hire TFA. Students United for Public Education has begun handing out anti-TFA fliers on college campuses in hopes of persuading seniors not to apply.

The conclusion of the film Gremlins is also a perfect metaphor for TFA. Wikipedia:

Billy, Kate, and Gizmo discover that the gremlins have temporarily stopped their rampage and have assembled in the local movie theater to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The three set off an explosion that kills the gremlins and destroys the theater, but their celebrations are cut short when Kate spots Stripe in the window of a nearby Montgomery Ward store. Billy follows and battles Stripe, who leaps into a water fountain intending to multiply again. Before he can multiply, Gizmo opens a set of window blinds, causing sunlight to pour into the store, killing Stripe.


So I am not suggesting they we make all TFA recruits and alumni watch Snow White in 3D. However, what I am suggesting is that we shine light on what is really happening at TFA— it’s not Civil Rights.

Sadly, more horror than comedy.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on TFA click here.

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Please blame Siri for any typos.


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