I wasn’t at the big TFA 25th anniversary shindig last weekend (Cub Scout overnight, instead), but I ended up in a Twitter conversation with some right-leaning edupundits about why there were hardly any (visible) Republicans in the lineup at the event, to which I rather flippantly said that there wasn’t much of a supply (if you’re talking about educators rather than politicians), but that isn’t very fair (perhaps around 30 percent of teachers are Republicans) and in any case isn’t really what I meant.
Look, the most important story about Teach for America is the one that everyone knows- that it was started by a white girl at Princeton for her undergraduate senior thesis. Everything in Teach for America- at least for its first decade and a half, when I saw it up close- had the stamp of being the work of a workaholic twenty-something-year-old woman who gets up at 4 in the morning to run five miles before working a sixteen hour day. Not that Wendy Kopp was doing it all- just that she gathered like-minded and like-efforted people to her, and even as the organization gradually became more diverse in its leadership, it kept her imprimatur. The word “relentless” was everywhere.
That work ethic was obviously key to why Teach for America didn’t crash and burn in its first few years- the fact that she got around five hundred corps members and multiple placement sites in the very first year is alone quite impressive- and still more key to why Teach for America thrived so much in the Age of Reform and why it became the the reform organization par excellence. Kopp was the “entrepreneur of the decade,” and at any rate was a master at raising money and keeping the numbers in the black, as the organization’s half-a-billion in saved assets and ~$200 million in yearly operating expenses would show. The largest of the federal grants to education nonprofits- the $50 million i3 grant– was used by Teach for America as justification for a new rapid expansion, but it’s not Ike they actually needed the money.
Perhaps just as revealing as what Kopp was good at was what she was bad at. She had never been a classroom teacher, and it showed, even ten years in- she was wooden and uncharismatic in front of large groups, unable to tell a compelling personal story, and generally less good at connecting with the teachers in the corps or with staff than with corporate donors. Those would all make not much difference- Teach for America’s selection model tended to choose people with a fair amount of charisma, and pretty soon the place was bursting with people who were born to speak in front of groups and tell their personal story- or at least much better at it than she was.
The bigger issue was probably ideological- not political, but the ideology of “relentlessness.” Teaching is just different from the jobs with which Teach for America competes for high-flying college graduates- banking or consulting or law; it is even very different from working at an intense non-profit like Teach for America itself. The simple fact is that burnout is an issue not just on a year-to-year basis, but on a minute-to-minute. You’re dealing with children- often infuriating as well as endearing children- for day after day, hour after hour, and your ability to keep yourself in balance- to be kind as well as stern, to listen as well as bark- is pretty critical to whether you are doing a good job, putting aside whether you are going to keep doing it for more than a year. You have to find a way of enjoying your time in the classroom, and putting before yourself constantly the gap between ideal and reality, as Teach for America does, and seeing yourself as the sole means for mending that gap, is a recipe for depression and defeat. The twinge of guilt I feel almost every time Teach for America calls for alumni events or donations comes not because I feel guilty for not participating (I don’t), but because I feel guilty that my second year teaching out of ten went so terribly.
There are, to say the least, many Teach for America teachers and alumni for whom the organization isn’t such an unwelcome guest at any party, and for whom the ideology of relentlessness was an easier fit. My guess is that an inordinate sufficiency of self is helpful in these matters.
Anyways, back to why there weren’t that many Republicans at the 25th Anniversary Summit. All that “entrepreneur of the decade,” $500 million in the bank stuff wasn’t just about Kopp, of course. Kopp just had perfect timing to benefit from the emerging edreform alliance between big city Dems and Reps- between progressive illusion and conservative glee at cutting teachers’ unions down to size.
It helped, of course, that she started the organization during the 90s, not too long before the general labor market was taking off and a big wave of teacher retirements began (as one of the old-timers told me my first year, it was this or ‘Nam, and I chose this.) My first interview for a teaching job- at the height of the dotcom bubble- lasted less than five minutes before they said, “yeah, sure.” Given this confluence of political alignments and labor market conditions, when schools were struggling to fill classrooms with someone with a college degree, let alone who had jumped through all the hoops to get a real teaching license, Teach for America had all too easy a time getting districts to sign on.
Times change, of course. The reform movement that Teach for America exemplified- and which its alumni became the most prominent avatars for- triumphed more than anyone could have guessed, until it is hard to know what else (apart from ever more charters, of course) most of its advocates would agree on. In spite of several years of recovery, the teacher labor market is still slack, and any additional TFA corps members are likely to be pushing out experienced teachers more often than long term subs.
In the meantime, of course, the growling and rumbling beast of the Democratic Party has redirected its bulk away from education as its key avenue for helping the less fortunate. It has also made racial consciousness perhaps the key element of its constitutive ideology, as central to what it means to be a Democrat as opposition to abortion was (for a long time) for Republicans. Within this race-first ideology, the “Mighty Whitey” aspects of how Teach for America originally sold itself are hard to overlook. “Before you go to Harvard Med or Stanford Law, go to a school that’s really hard,” the recruitment posters used to say, and the inherent presumption in Wendy Kopp’s original pitch- that the right, bright- (and perhaps blue-) eyed Dartmouth field hockey player would get these poor inner city kids ready for college, was always a bit, as they say, problematic.
Teach for America, no slouch, has done its best to change with the changing times. After a period in which a white guy and a Latina woman were co-CEOs, the white guy is out ; the organization has ramped up its recruiting in HBCUs and increased the non-white percentage of its corps to over 40 percent. In its communications and events, it has often played up its alignment with Black Lives Matters and racial protest, along with the hoary old line that education is the civil rights issue for this generation.
This isn’t to say that that is sufficient to ward off attacks from the left. The policies that Teach for America has favored-sometimes explicitly, as when Wendy Kopp impoliticly suggested that teaching should adopt the “up or out” model of law firms, but more often implicitly and through the actions of its alumni- unsurprisingly tend to replace older black teachers with younger and white teachers, as the teaching profession becomes a little more Koppified. A recent left-wing critique of Deray McKeson, the Teach for America alum and reform-minded educrat-turned Black Lives Matters activist who is running for mayor of Baltimore, shows the ways the organization can’t shed its image as the embodiment of neoliberal evil so easily. More lefty alumni are also ill at ease with the organization’s past ideology.
Democrats are trying to woo teachers- most of whom think disdainfully of education reform, if they think of it all- this election season, after all, and Teach for America has to pull Democrats close if they don’t want to be left out in the cold.
From a cool-hearted, neoliberal perspective, it is harder to say how much more Teach for America has to offer to teaching in America. The teaching profession has been Koppified in more than looks- the almost universal adoption of more stringent teacher evaluations has meant that teachers in general are under the thumb of “relentlessness.” Teach for America has been the subject of three independent large-scale randomized trials, two of which found significant positive effects on student achievement. Stated as such, it seems like a success by Iron Law standards. But it was the most recent evaluation (of the scale-up in response to the i3 grant) that found null effects, and the second trial found effects on math achievement (.07 standard deviations) smaller than the estimates from the first (.15). Moreover, the trial of the TFA spinoff the New Teacher Project (targeting older career changers rather than recent college grads, initially) found null effects as well. It may be that six weeks of training doesn’t get you what you used to, at least if the counterfactual condition- the teacher a kid gets if he doesn’t get the freshfaced face of TFA- is getting more like TFA all the time.
Teach for America is full of relentless people. Unlike service organizations that target a less elite group of participants, virtually every Teach for America alum is someone who could plausibly work for the organization in a managerial capacity later on, and I have little doubt that the organization will continue to pull in the dollars and operate in the black, move the wheels forward and place its several thousand new teachers in classrooms where they will, generally, not do much harm. But whether it will continue to exert much force over the direction of education policy in general- other than providing general support for an approach to education that blends a faith in data and technique as the solution to vast social problems with a bow to the unarguable importance of poverty and race- is hard to know.
Kopp was smart to step out while she was still on top.