Academic journal article Education Next

Still Teaching for America: Common Vision Creates Forward Momentum

Academic journal article Education Next

Still Teaching for America: Common Vision Creates Forward Momentum

Article excerpt

Within days of taking on their new roles as co-chief executives of Teach For America (TFA), Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer planned to take off on a 100-day tour of the 46 cities and rural areas where TFA works, "leaving our agenda behind," Kramer said. "I expect it will lead to changes in things," he told me.

The project that Wendy Kopp launched with a 1989 college thesis placed 10,400 teachers in 2012, with plans to expand to 15,000 teachers and 60 sites by 2015. To hit that target, Beard told me, TFA will need revenues of a half billion dollars a year, up from $320 million in 2012. Overseas, entrepreneurs in 26 countries have launched TFA projects under a sister organization called Teach For All; projects in another 18 countries are in the pipeline.

And more changes are ahead?

Kramer, previously TFA's president, portrays the leadership shift as little more than a change in business cards, formalizing Kopp's evolution out of TFA's day-to-day activities and reassigning some of her public duties to himself and Beard, who previously was chief operating officer. The new arrangement puts Kramer in charge of recruiting, training, fundraising, marketing, and administration, while Beard will run the regional operations and become TFA's public face.

Kopp becomes TFA's board chair and remains chief executive of Teach For All.

Kramer sees TFA as, yes, a pipeline of teachers into poor and neglected neighborhoods. Its teachers were in 3,200 public schools in 2013 (nationwide, two-thirds of those were district schools), and 57,000 college students applied to become corps members. But Kramer also paints a vision of TFA as an instigator of change, producing alumni that TFA expects--just expects--will become the sort of shake-up-the-beast leaders who will "do something radically different" for the schools.

The beast shaking seems well under way. TFA says 550 alumni are school principals, 100 are system leaders, and 70 hold elective office. Charter operators, education entrepreneurs, and philanthropists increasingly follow TFA into its new neighborhoods, "magnetizing talent," Kopp calls it. (Indeed, several education entrepreneurs told me they wouldn't expand their projects into cities where there isn't a TFA presence because they couldn't be sure of attracting the talent they need.)

A study by Harvard professor Monica Higgins and coauthors Wendy Robison, Jennie Weiner, and Frederick Hess ("Creating a Corps of Change Agents," features, Summer 2011) found that of the 49 leading entrepreneurial organizations in education, 14 had at least one top manager who was a TFA alumnus. And Weiner contends that TFA alumni are driving the curriculum at education schools. "They come here wanting to know more about solutions" like charters, school choice, and teacher evaluation, she said. "The [TFA] commitment may end after two years, but there's a forward momentum" that goes on and on.

I wondered how TFA has managed to keep that forward momentum after almost 24 years. After all, there are plenty of start-ups--in education and everywhere else--that have been slowed by middle-aged paunch. There probably are a lot of reasons, researchers, funders, and TFA's fellow entrepreneurs told me, but here are four:

Common Vision, Regional Innovation

Josh Anderson is the executive director of the Chicago Teach For America project, which has 500 corps members dispersed in 187 schools and a staff of 64 to support them. Like all TFA executive directors, Anderson must raise his entire operating budget (the schools pay the corps members' salaries), which is $12.8 million this year. The state and city put up $2.2 million of that, but the biggest share, almost $7 million, comes from individual donors and family foundations.

The Chicago project's growth is on pace to meet its 2015 goals, he told me, so he has begun setting 2017 targets: 1,000 corps members and a budget "north of $20 million. …

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