Love 'Em or Hate 'Em, Here's What You Should Learn From Teach For America's Success

Love 'Em or Hate 'Em, Here's What You Should Learn From Teach For America's Success
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In this June 25, 2013 photograph released by the Teach for America Delta Institute, TFA corps member MaryMac Thielman enters her students' daily exit ticket percentages onto the data tracking wall at O.M. McNair Upper Elementary School school in Belzoni, Miss.

RCEd Commentary

If you follow education -- and maybe if you don’t -- you know that Teach For America is big and controversial. If you’ve been following education for a while, you know it’s gotten bigger and more controversial over time. But while most folks know Teach For America has grown -- and have strong opinions about it -- relatively few people grasp the true magnitude of Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years. Even fewer recognize how unusual this growth is or its implications for other education organizations.

Over the past 15 years, Teach For America has grown to a scale, and at a pace, that is virtually unprecedented in not only education, but also the domestic nonprofit sector more broadly. The number of Teach for America corps members rose nearly ten-fold from 2000 to 2014. Over the same period, the number of alumni increased even more rapidly, and the organization expanded from a handful of communities to 50 cities and rural areas nationwide. In the process, it became both the nation’s largest source of new teachers and the largest single recipient of philanthropic funding for K-12 education. At the same time, Teach For America improved the quality of its corps member recruitment, selection, preparation, and support, as well as its approach to helping alumni build careers in education.

Teach For America has achieved great success, but it’s also made mistakes, and currently faces challenges with recruitment and public engagement. But it’s learned from its mistakes—and so can others.

Whatever you think of Teach For America, its growth offers tremendous lessons for anyone seeking to expand the reach of education models or practices, as well as for non-education nonprofits seeking to extend their impact.

Over the past nine months, my Bellwether colleagues Carolyn Chuong, Caroline Goodson, and I engaged in an exhaustive analysis of Teach For America’s history and growth over the past 15 years. We received unprecedented access to Teach For America internal documents, data, and staff. Combined with our experience advising other growing educational organizations, this access enabled us to produce a comprehensive picture of the strategies Teach For America has used to grow in both scale and quality, the challenges and opportunities it has faced, and what other organizations can learn from this history.

These lessons include specific tactical lessons for organizations seeking to increase their impact in schools and students, as well as broader lessons for funders and public policymakers. Three lessons are particularly salient:

- Growth doesn’t have to mean a sacrifice in quality. Conventional wisdom holds that scaling an educational model or organization necessarily leads to loss of quality. Teach For America’s experience contradicts that assumption. Not only has Teach For America maintained corps member quality and impacts while growing; available data suggests that it has actually improved quality on some key metrics. In fact, growth enabled Teach For America to improve its programs by attracting additional resources and talent and building internal systems and capacity.

- Strengthening quality while growing requires a relentless focus on improvement. Even with evidence of its corps members’ positive impact on student learning, Teach For America has consistently sought to further improve its quality and impact -- and has prioritized improvement and growth equally. This focus on improving quality -- coupled with a strong emphasis on data-driven continuous improvement -- allowed Teach For America to maintain and improve quality while growth.

- Focus on people and culture while growing. The urgency to improve education for disadvantaged children can make focusing on issues like staff culture or lifestyle sustainability feel self-indulgent. But Teach For America’s experience shows that achieving lasting impact at scale requires concerted attention to both organizational culture and staff well-being. As Teach For America grew, it developed strategies to cultivate talent and sustain staff culture. But when Teach For America took its eye off culture, growth took a toll.

- Know your Theory of Change. Nothing has been more important to Teach For America’s growth than the power and stability of its Theory of Change. Having a clear, powerful Theory of Change kept Teach For America focused, enabled it to make the case for its work to funders and partners, and informed major decisions at every step in its growth. 

As Teach For America moves into the next phase of its growth, it faces both new challenges and new opportunities. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in Teach For America’s 37,000-member alumni base, many of whom have founded or lead other education organizations -- from early childhood programs, to school districts, to charter management organizations. As these alumni seek to increase their organizations’ impact on children’s learning, they can learn from Teach For America’s experience -- as can other education and non-profit leaders from many backgrounds and perspectives. 

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