by Clare McLeod
ITHACA, NY — Teach for America. Teach for America. I first heard of the program three years ago when my brother applied in his senior year of college. This past month, my attention was brought to the program once more when my older sister learned she would be joining the corps next year. An English major, with a second major in environmental science and three years of summer camp counseling experience, she applied to TFA last fall. She recently received her acceptance email and plans to spend the next two years in the middle of Idaho teaching students science.
When I tell my peers about my sister’s plans, I feel the odd need to justify her decision to join TFA. My desire to do so stems from my own conflicting perception of the program. On the one hand, I think it inspires people to join, or at least sample, the teaching profession. On the other, I empathize with those who critique it for a variety of reasons.
Veteran TFA teacher, present teacher, and public critic Gary Rubenstein criticizes the program: “They [Teach for America] believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.” However, Rubenstein’s perception of TFA as a program that unduly labels older teachers as “unaccountable” is not necessarily aligned with studies measuring teaching performance.
Regardless of teaching experience, both veteran teachers (averaging 13.6 years of teaching experience) and newer TFA teachers (averaging 1.5 years of teaching experience) were shown to be similarly effective across schools, according to a study by Mathematica Policy Research. Though insider TFA teachers may view the program as anti-veteran teachers based on their personal experience, this study highlights the comparable effectiveness of both veteran and TFA teachers. Still, the fact that a veteran TFA teacher questions the basis of the organization reflects a deeper disconnect between the organization and its fellows.
Other critics point to the lack of training provided to the young, bright-eyed TFA fellows. Peter Greene highlights this perspective in his piece for The Progressive. “TFA was giving just a few weeks of training to its teachers, believing that if TFA recruited ‘A’ students from the nation’s top schools, they would be naturally equipped to teach poor, urban students,” he writes. This critique is perhaps the most cited in online opinion pieces, though the training now lasts five weeks not just “a few.”
Called “Institute,” TFA hosts several training programs across the country during the summer before corps members begin teaching. At Institute, they learn about their local communities, are connected with members of that community, and ultimately are trained in teaching instruction. Still, given the fact that a masters in teaching typically lasts two years, TFA’s training is clearly heavily shortened, even if drastically accelerated, when compared to masters programs. This difference in length of training begs the question: are TFA teachers as well prepared as teachers who obtain a masters degree?
Meanwhile, even college students have come out against the organization. In 2016, Daniel Bergerson, a then-Columbia University senior published his opinion, “Don’t Teach for America, teach for real,” in the Columbia Spectator. In it, he bashed the organization, arguing that TFA was “shortchanging students in need of real teachers and deprofessionalizing teaching profession.” Bergerson’s complaints echo Greene’s commentary on the shortened length of training within the corps. If TFA teachers can be placed in schools having spent almost 5 percent as much time spent in training as “real teachers,” the assumption that they can perform just as well with less training certainly suggests a deprofessionalization of the profession. By providing reduced training, TFA’s model suggests that teaching is a job that requires less prior education than presently prescribed by teaching masters programs.
These critiques and perspectives, some studies in support of TFA and other opinions against it, have made me question: why is it that I, and others, struggle to accept an organization as well-meaning in its intentions as TFA? For me and most I spoke to, it seemed that the disconnect between TFA teachers and the communities of students they worked with was one of the most pressing concerns. How could college graduates who had likely experienced some amount of educational equity be able to teach a group of students with whom they may share little?
When Nonprofits Lack Community Connection
My wandering opinions on TFA fit into a larger thought experiment on nonprofit work in general, a thought process that I had been entertaining since high school. I have always been skeptical of “service,” which often involves one arguably better-off group “servicing” an entirely different group. Much of my skepticism stems from my personal service experiences.
In high school, I “founded” a nonprofit organization. When I was accepted to the then-fledgling organization’s Board of Directors, filing the paperwork to become an official 501(c)3 nonprofit seemed like the natural first step.
I spent the next two and half years pouring 20 or more hours into the organization’s efforts each week. I loved every minute of it. I surely did not love the feeling of hopelessness I felt when my mom, friends, or teachers sent me articles about human trafficking in Portland, the U.S., and worldwide. But I loved believing that we were making a difference, even if small. I loved persuading people to change their purchasing habits. I loved standing in front of my state legislators and urging them to care. I loved convincing my friends to come out to a lecture or protest. The connection I felt to my local community and the greater awareness I had for global issues kept me going during the moments I dreaded.
I dreaded when news broadcasters reached out to run a story about the “people behind the organization.” I felt like it became more about us (then a group of white girls enrolled in a private, college-prep high school) than those affected by the issue we were trying to fight. I hated when state legislators spent fifteen minutes after my testimony applauding our efforts, rather than caring about passing the bill we had told them to consider passing. These moments made it “about us” and not about the issue.
Once I got to college and learned more about the importance of community engagement and more about labor exploitation through my coursework, I realized how little I had known during high school. Sure, we were doing objectively “good” things and performing some semblance of service. But we were also disconnected from the issue we fought, just as some teachers at TFA are critiqued as being distanced from the communities they serve.
Even the name of the organization, Youth Ending Slavery, makes my stomach turn. “Youth” sits well; it inclusively captures an age group with the energy, motivation, and desire to make a difference. “Ending,” though, does not sit well, especially in combination with “slavery.” The phrasing implies exploitation can be ended. It detracts from past systems of exploitation that have been ended, to an extent, even if replaced with other forms of discrimination and injustice.
These internal conflicts—over news broadcasters and legislators elevating us rather than the issue, over the title of our organization, and over our capacity as relatively well-off students to fight an issue we had not experienced—fuels my present skepticism towards TFA. I can easily translate my feelings of being an impostor during that work to my assumptions and snap judgements that TFA teachers are similar impostors, people disconnected from the issue they aim to combat.
How to Reconcile Community Divisions
When Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, graduated from Princeton University in 1989, she decided to do something different. Instead of entering a recruitment process for corporate America, pursuing graduate school, or taking a gap year, she extended her senior thesis and proposed the creation of a national teaching corps to be placed in underserved schools. Though she had never been educationally disadvantaged, she dreamt of creating educational equity.
In an interview with Guy Raz on the national NPR podcast “How I Built This,” Kopp admits, “I grew up in a community in Dallas, Texas that literally was referred to as the bubble… Somehow I really managed to grow up without understanding the extreme disparity in this country.” Despite her lack of experience, Kopp established TFA after scouring the country for early-round funders and obtaining the finances necessary to launch the program. Almost 30 years later, Teach for America has 50,000 alumni and a budget of nearly $300 million. That growth, however, does not come without the criticism previously extolled in a variety of publications, including Business Insider, the Columbia Spectator, and The Progressive among others.
Despite the critics and her lack of personal experience with educational inequity, Kopp embraces a growth mindset when faced with the negative views of TFA. In response to the critiques, Kopp states: “We’re working very hard to get better… The world isn’t going to be better if we shut down TFA, so there’s only one option—to get better.”
When I heard Kopp’s response, focused on improvement rather than degradation, I realized that critiques of nonprofit work could be remedied with the same mindset. Though it can be easy, and sometimes fruitful, to spend time highlighting the flaws of an organization, it can be more fruitful, though often harder, to come up with examples of better approaches. In the past few years, I have been exposed to several non-profits that I believe have come up with solutions to be connected to their communities in ways that TFA has struggled to be in the past.
I spoke to The Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement from Mysore, India, Rahab’s Sisters in Portland, Oregon, and the Stadsmissionen in Stockholm, Sweden. Although these organizations do not operate in the same sphere as TFA or do they have the same two-year fellowship program, these organizations’ basic premise is to uplift marginalized or vulnerable communities. Their approaches to social service work can thus be applied to other nonprofits who are influenced by the same ethos, even those that focus on a wholly separate social issue. At their core, all three non-profits prioritize communication, participation, and inclusion of their respective communities at decision-making tables.
Dr. Ramaswami Balasubramaniam founded the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) at the age of 19. After thirty years spearheading development work across India, he offers a unique perspective on the best methods for engagement. SVYM focuses on several different initiatives throughout rural communities across southern India, including healthcare, economic opportunity, and education.
In two of his reflective books – “I, the Citizen” and “Voices from the Grassroots” – Dr. Balu cites communication—both speaking and listening—as the foremost method of connecting with constituents. Early on, Dr. Balu recalls that the organization primarily understood the needs of stakeholders in one-on-one personal conversations. By traveling to the areas they served, organizational representatives collected voices and perspectives. Yet in the past five years, the nonprofit has reached more than 3 million individuals. In turn, SVYM has had to develop new methods of communication.
SVYM now employs several methods of communication. Through a locally-distributed newsletter, a two-way communication stream exists between SVYM and the folks they reach. Communities are informed of SVYM’s services while community members can advocate for their needs through submitted columns.
For those who cannot read, Dr. Balu finds that mobile communication has been equally fruitful. Whether it’s a mobile phone conversation, an open forum on Facebook or Whatsapp, or a video file shared across email, technology has improved the ability to communicate with communities remotely. Most recently, SVYM has developed an app called Science Titbits, available on Android to those with mobile access. The app provides videos and tips that users can access anytime to conduct at-home remedies.
In addition to the newsletter circular and technology, SVYM hosts a local radio station at a hospital they run in Sargur, India. The station provides communities with direct access to programs that share information about the hospital’s offerings and about remaining healthy, while also offering airtime to community members. Dr. Balu believes the multiple modes of communication (especially as the organization has expanded, technology has improved, and more communities are reached) has ensured that communities’ needs remain at the heart of SVYM’s efforts. At the same time, Dr. Balu notes that the earliest methods of outreach – in-person conversations and community forums – are as valuable as ever: “I love for them to exchange emotion, so invigorating, so personal… That really inspires my work more and more.”
Beyond communication, Dr. Balu emphasized SVYM’s focus on ensuring participation and instilling responsibility within the communities SVYM serves. Perhaps a revolutionary sentiment from a nonprofit leader, “I don’t think any NGO should give anything out for free because it’s disrespectful to the poor. It takes away their dignity,” Dr. Balu said. In his view, as those served by nonprofits better their economic situation and become able to afford the services, they should begin to pay, even in small ways, for those services. He theorizes that this not only creates more buy-in from those communities and instills a sense of participation, development, and growth but also holds the nonprofit accountable for the quality of their services. “I’m held more accountable when communities pay for my services,” he said.
Halfway across the world, another nonprofit instills the same sense of participation and engagement to remain in touch with the communities they serve. Rahab’s Sisters began in Portland, Oregon in December 2003 when “the founding mothers of Rahab’s Sisters gathered on SE 82nd Avenue to offer hot coffee to women they met on the streets” (Rahab’s). 16 years later, the organization has expanded its operations to include a weekly meal on Friday nights and an evening of camaraderie for women marginalized by homelessness, domestic violence, addiction, or any other situations—made complete by donated clothing, toiletries, movie nights, free haircuts, and counseling services.
The organization operates on the basis that hospitality should be “radical.” The lines between those coming to Rahab’s for a warm meal and those providing one are blurred. Volunteers are expected to dine with guests, guests are invited to join in the volunteers’ pre-night team meeting, and the two groups mingle throughout the evening.
Crystal Kordowski, a past President and longtime volunteer, reflects that this integrative space makes Rahab’s Sisters special. She emphasizes the importance of participation, though in a different manner than Dr. Balu. At Rahab’s, several longtime guests now volunteer for the organization. Arriving early on Friday nights, they help roll silverware, set tables, or complete any other task they can. Crystal believes their participation allows these guests to feel more connected to the community. Outside of the hospitality nights, Crystal shares that guests also help fundraise for the nonprofit. By participating in benefit concerts, sharing stories at fundraising luncheons, or otherwise, guests directly support the organization’s growth.
In addition to encouraging participation, Rahab’s Sisters has also echoed SVYM by spearheading several methods of communication within communities. On Friday nights, volunteers hand out surveys with wide margins for extra comments. One-on-one conversations raise guests’ personal desires for future offerings. Kordowski highlights the impact that guests’ feedback has had on Rahab’s strategic direction. When guests came back with desires for more mental health services, the nonprofit raised and allocated the money to offer group therapy sessions. They also provided options for one-on-one counseling during Friday evenings.
The nonprofit’s legislative advocacy efforts further exemplifies the impact of open communication streams. Instead of traveling to Oregon’s state capitol and lobbying on the issues they deemed most important, Rahab’s team members first solicited community members’ feedback via large Post-its during a Friday night. After seeking this feedback, team members revised their advocacy platform to better inform their statewide legislative work.
Stadsmissionen, one of the largest nonprofits in Stockholm, Sweden operates slightly differently than both SVYM and Rahab’s Sisters. Nevertheless, participation is at the heart of their operations. Stadsmissionen has been around since 1853, and its longstanding history affords it the opportunity to be “well established and well-known for supporting people who are socially excluded.” Since anyone living in Stockholm today has grown up knowing about the nonprofit, the organization has been able to primarily operate on a word-of mouth basis, rather than having to launch the many lanes of communication that SVYM and Rahab’s have instilled.
While Rahab’s Sisters chooses to offer “radical hospitality,” Stadmissionen bases their operations on “värdegrund,” or the ethos that all people are of equal worth regardless of circumstances and background. Anna Johansson, a social outreach coordinator for the nonprofit said that guests directly feel the ethos of värdegrund. Referring to a survey of guests, she noted that “93% of the people visiting our services for rough sleepers last year said that the members of staff met them with respect.”
In a similar way to SVYM and Rahab’s Sisters, Stadsmissionen extols the importance of participation. While SVYM’s community members eventually begin to pay for services and members of Rahab’s Sisters help prepare for the evening, Stadsmissionen offers employment to their community members. The nonprofit operates several cafes, stores, and shops in Stockholm. There, those who receive Stadsmissionen’s services can also find jobs. Johansson reflects, “Last year, we ran a night hostel during the winter, where some of the service user group was asked to work (of course this was paid work). This was very successful.”
The above nonprofits from different parts of the world showcase the importance of both communication and participation. In contrast (and what I believe has inspired many of TFA’s harshest critics), TFA has historically lacked a similar emphasis on communication with and participation by communities. That being said, TFA has recently made considerable efforts to prioritize communication and opportunities for community members to participate within the non-profit. TFA’s online “Stories” page offers almost 500 posts written by staff, teachers, administrators, and alumni who have some perspective to share on TFA. This page is accessible to all who linger on the TFA website and allows anyone to submit story ideas.
Being connected to communities, however, extends beyond only blog posts. While TFA may have made improvements in the areas of communication and encouraging greater participation, I believe they have work yet to do in the realm of inclusion – the third and final characteristic that Rahab’s, SVYM, and Stadsmissionen also all have in common.
At SVYM in India, Dr. Balu created “Institutional Management Committees” (IMCs) for each institution (hospital, school, etc). Each IMC has an organizational employee while the rest of the committee is made up of outsiders. Half are locals getting the services and half are experts in the area. For the schools under SVYM’s umbrella operations, specifically, this means that parents, experts and school administrators come to the same table. These groups’ conversation and collaboration ensures that the school operates in the best interest of parents while employing the most recent research to inform operations.
At Rahab’s Sisters, current President Anneliese Davis shares more about their long-term goal of beginning a guest-based advisory committee. They plan to provide a more formal method for guests to guide the nonprofit’s strategic direction. Because they want to do this the right way, they are taking their time to come up with a model that will be sustainable. In our interview, Davis highlights that the “community” they serve is anything but homogenous. Guests come from diverse backgrounds and have a variety of needs and desires. Therefore, the board wants to ensure that the committee is as inclusive of guests’ different backgrounds as possible.
Travelling back to Sweden, Stadsmissionen’s long standing existence has perhaps given them a head start on tuning into the needs of the community. Similar to the IMCs at SVYM, Johansson mentions, “We also have involved service users in formally evaluating other services and now have a “service user council” (brukarråd) that gives strategic advice on policy issues.” In this way, Stadsmissionen is able to formally include the voices of the guests in their operational direction.
Approaching changes on a local level can be extremely impactful but incredibly difficult. Cross-national exchanges can better inform local nonprofits’ operations. Past efforts that yielded success in one place can be adapted and applied in another to assuage any disparities between those serving and those receiving.
Though the work I conducted during my time at Youth Ending Slavery involved a community, it may not have involved the communities that could have best informed our efforts. If we had spoken more with survivors of human trafficking or with people who had ancestral ties to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the events and initiatives we organized could have been more impactful and intentional.
In a similar vein, I believe the critiques of TFA come from the organization’s inability to fully capitalize on the above three points. Though many have pointed out how TFA has fallen short, the organization emits a tremendous amount of self-awareness and is clearly improving.
In a blog post on their website from May 2018 titled “Engaging with Critiques of Teach for America,” the organization responds to the assortment of the critiques it has received over the past three decades. In this post, TFA defends the teachers’ certification process, the teachers’ effectiveness, their alumni’s future pursuits in education, the diversity of the corps, and the organization’s stance on the privatization of education.
Still, instead of focusing so much on the teachers and the larger educational system those teachers operate within, I believe the organization can shift greater attention to connecting with communities they serve via communication, participation, and inclusion. Launching student-based advisory committees, hosting more forums with parents, and involving school districts more directly in their strategic direction could positively benefit the national organization. With a sister set to join the corps in less than a year, I am hopeful for the organization’s future and curious to learn from her experiences.
For all that Wendy Kopp and TFA may be criticized for, Kopp was onto something when she stated: “The world isn’t going to be better if we shut down TFA, so there’s only one option – to get better.” Her statement can be applied to any nonprofit in any community where their shutting down would do little. Instead, I hope the above case studies allow nonprofits to do just what Kopp advises: to get better.