Teach For America in 2013: The Unofficial Year in Review


December 24, 2013 by juicefong

I’m reluctant to write this post because the real stories of Teach For America belong to the thousands of teachers, educators, students and parents who make up our community. Alongside many others, they have worked hard in 2013 to advance educational opportunity. Most of these stories are so vivid to the people who know them, but may not make the national headlines. Nevertheless, I will attempt to bring you the biggest stories of 2013 for TFA.

Standard disclaimer: Yes, I work for Teach For America. No, blogging is not part of my job and no one edits or approves this blog.

• Let’s start with TFA’s regions: Teach For America added two new regions for its 2013 corps—San Diego and Arkansas. This brought the total number of regions to 48. TFA has had teachers in Arkansas for a long time as part of its Mississippi Delta region, but as the region grew, it became wiser to split it into Mississippi and Arkansas.

• The 2013 teaching corps was the largest and most diverse ever. A total of 5,900 teachers joined; 39% of whom identified as people of color, 39% Pell Grant recipients, 26% first in their family to graduate college, 26% grad students or professionals, 19% majored in a STEM field, and TFA welcomed 80 military veterans. Together, they come from 835 colleges and universities. More stats here.

• In February, Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp stepped aside to become chairwoman of the board. In her place, then-President Matt Kramer and then-COO Elisa Villanueva Beard took over as co-CEOs. In addition to serving on the board, Wendy maintains her role as CEO of Teach For All and is still very active in the media. Matt and Elisa spent their first several months on a nationwide listening tour, and wrote about their reflections and commitments here. See also: press release of the transition announcement.

• In the classroom, culturally responsive teaching took the spotlight around the organization—that study and implementation will be ongoing. The S.A.F.E. Project was another important push as TFA looked to spread awareness about the issues that many LGBTQ students face. Here’s more on that partnership and TFA’s “It Gets Better” video.

• As the Supreme Court considered the Defense of Marriage Act, TFA took a public stand for equality on its Facebook page. As you can see from the comments, most people were thrilled to see it, though a few dissented or otherwise wondered whether TFA should be taking a stand on such issues. That wouldn’t be the only stance the organization would take in 2013.

• As momentum was building for the DREAM Act and immigration reform, TFA leadership decided to speak up. Co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote in the Huffington Post this very personal story about why she and TFA support the DREAM Act. This video was also produced: “Teach For America Dares to DREAM.”

• Late in the year, TFA took a stand to support DACA recipients (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in their desire to become classroom teachers. Vice President of Latino Community Outreach Amanda Fernandez wrote this in the Huffington Post.

• Just a week ago, TFA’s Co-CEOs stood behind Common Core State Standards, stating “Common Core helps all schools raise their bars to help children succeed” in this blog post.

• Two TFA alumnae spent 2013 as Teachers of the Year—I’Asha Warfield, a 13-year veteran in Oakland, represented California and Julia King, a 6-year veteran, represented Washington DC.

• Marielle Emet, a veteran math teacher and another TFA alumna, became the Rhode Island winner of the Milken Educator Award. She took home $25,000 in prize money.

• In Detroit over the summer, TFA hosted its first Annual Alumni Awards and Educators Conference, honoring alumni and bringing practitioners together. I had the pleasure of interviewing all eight of the teaching award winners. The social innovation award winners included Kelly Amis of TEACHED Films and Zeke Cohen of The Intersection, a student community organizing program in Baltimore. A full list of social innovation award winners is here.

• Two TFA alumni-led systems, DC Public Schools (Chancellor Kaya Henderson) and Tennessee (Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman), were named among the three school systems to demonstrate “significant growth” across all four tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Read the TFA press release here.

• TFA also launched the School Systems Leaders Fellowship which, in addition to being another mouthful of a name, helps prepare alumni for school district leadership. Read more about the fellowship and meet the 2013 fellows.

• In yet another examination of TFA teachers’ effectiveness, a new study by Mathematica Policy Research showed TFA math teachers to produce an additional 2.6 months of learning for their students when compared to peers. There is a closet full of such studies, of course, all of which basically state that TFA teachers are about comparable to teachers from other preparation programs when it comes to student learning outcomes. I’m sure the debate will continue.

• For the third year in a row, Fortune Magazine named the TFA organization one of the 100 best places to work. The staff of over 2,000 that helps to recruit, train and develop its teaching and alumni force has risen from #82 to #60 on the annual list. The organization was also named to the Latina Style 50 Report and Working Mother’s 100 best companies.

• TFA teamed up with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to support the U.S. Department of Education’s TEACH campaign which is aiming to attract a new generation of classroom teachers as the surge in retirement from Baby Boomers approaches.

• Teach For America got a nod of formal support for its work in South Dakota, from the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council and Rosebud Sioux Tribe. (This remains one of my favorite regions to visit. Once the subzero temperatures depart, I look forward to visiting my college buddy who taught via TFA in South Dakota and is now a doctor returning to work at a local branch of Indian Health Services.)

• Looking ahead to 2014, TFA established local partnerships with Richmond (VA) Public Schools and Buffalo (NY) Public Schools. More work is required before TFA will officially bring teachers to those regions, but the groundwork is being laid.

And of course, unless you’ve been under a rock all year, you know that it was not all good news for Teach For America in 2013:

• The outgoing school board in Pittsburgh, PA approved a partnership with TFA in November. Weeks later, after the new board was in place, that contract was cancelled.

• It was a tense summer in Chicago. In a controversial move that infuriated many, Chicago Public Schools continued with its plans to close dozens of schools and cut hundreds of jobs. TFA Chicago’s large presence in the city met criticism and resistance against this backdrop. Free Minds Free People hosted its second biennial conference in Chicago, which included a summit organizing resistance to TFA. (I attended part of the conference and wrote about it here.)

• A wave of vocal opposition to Teach For America would ensue, adding to the established work of TFA’s most famous alumni critic, Gary Rubinstein. A couple well-known pieces included “I Quit Teach For America” in The Atlantic and this one from a professor who stopped writing TFA recommendation letters in Slate. (I wrote a response to her on this blog.) There is no shortage of criticism these days—EduShyster is always on the case and education historian Diane Ravitch dedicated a whole chapter to her critique of Teach For America in her new book, Reign of Error.

• Tragically, a newlywed TFA couple was killed in a car accident near Philadelphia. Husband and wife, Will (26) and Jamie Reid (25), both alumni of TFA, were riding in the back of a town car when the driver lost control of the car. May they rest in peace.

• Another young alumna, Elaine Dang, was injured badly in the Nairobi, Kenya terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall. Learn about her story and support Elaine here.

That’s my wrap up of the major news at Teach For America in 2013. If you feel I’ve missed something, let me know.

And now, a little more of my editorializing: I hope to see continued improvement from Teach For America in 2014. I’d like to see us be a more collaborative partner in the broader education community. I’d like more of our people to understand that staying in the classroom and your community is important to the change we’re trying to make. I’d like us to be a bit more expansive in thinking through how this huge problem can be solved. We tend to look three or five years ahead, but our thinking would change if we looked 30 or 50 years ahead.

I’d also like to see TFA stay more focused, keep our eyes on the prize. Our mission is about education, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the other issues that affect our work. Let’s stay on track here. We’re about preparing great classroom teachers for kids who need them most and working with others who want to create big time change in our education system.

As for all the criticism: People will disagree with us, even our own people—let’s ensure this discourse is productive. Some of the critiques are quite valid and offer ways for us to improve. And some of it is just political, vitriolic, protectionist nonsense that should be ignored. At times, I have not held myself to the standard of civility that this dialogue deserves. Looking to 2014, I will be working to improve in this area as well as many others.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Follow me on Twitter: @jgfong.

3 thoughts on “Teach For America in 2013: The Unofficial Year in Review

  1. joe Nathan says:

    Nicely done. Open, thoughtful. Crystal Brakke in Minneapolis is a great rep of TFA.

  2. Cathy Huang says:

    Hi Justin,

    Thanks for writing this. As an incoming corps member (RI), I’ve struggled to reconcile my reservations about TFA National with its amazing work I’ve been fortunate to witness firsthand on a series of visits to Providence schools. At Yale, people are obsessed with the brand, and it’s hard to remember that even the brand is doing big things that have real results with respect to civil rights.

    I will continue to follow you! I plan to launch my own blog soon, assuming I have time to breathe during the lead-up to institute and afterwards.

  3. […] seemed to like my “Unofficial Year in Review”, so I thought I’d try to keep this up on a monthly basis. Here are the major stories from the […]

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