03-28-07 Learning from Teach for America

I said I was going to write about leadership and management books this week, but something more interesting intervened. I spent some time in the Teach for America offices, and it really got me thinking.

As most of you know, TFA has been remarkably successful doing what many in education predicted was impossible: placing graduates of the country’s most prestigious universities in our highest-need classrooms. TFA’s ambition, drive, and discipline are legendary, and their results speak for themselves. In 1990, TFA started with a corps of 500. Since then, 17,000 have joined TFA nationwide. About 1,000 TFA teachers are currently teaching at the DOE, and many TFA alumni have moved into DOE leadership roles. (In fact, sixty-five percent of TFA alumni in the New York region stay in education.) TFA continues to grow like crazy, and to attract far more applicants than it can accept. In 2006, 10 percent of the graduating classes from Amherst and Yale, 7 percent from Caltech, and 6 percent from Columbia, Northwestern and Rice applied to TFA. Outcome-based research studies differ to some extent, but on balance, I’m willing to conclude that TFA teachers are on average at least as effective as traditionally prepared teachers, and some studies have found them to be more effective, especially in math.

I think there is a lot to learn from TFA’s extraordinary organizational accomplishments in the face of obstacles many thought were insurmountable. It looks to me like they excel in three important domains:

They are relentlessly clear about what they believe. TFA proclaims that the achievement gap in this country is shameful and intolerable; that it cannot be blamed on poor children and their families; and that it can and must be changed. Here’s an excerpt from the TFA website:

“Each year, a Gallup poll asks the general public why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities. Out of 20 options, the public answers that the top factors are lack of student motivation, lack of parental involvement, and home-life issues. In answer to the same question with the same 20 options, our corps members respond at the end of their two-year teaching commitments that the top factors are teacher quality, school leadership, and expectations of students. Based on their experiences working with students and families, corps members believe we have an achievement gap in our country not because kids lack motivation or families don't care, but rather because of the choices we're making as a society…..Teach For America alumni are working from all sectors to challenge the prevailing notions about educational inequity, and in turn to inform our priorities, policies, and practices in important ways.”

My bet is you wouldn’t hang around TFA long if you were willing to justify the status quo as out of educators’ control.

The culture is built around taking personal responsibility. This is clear from the TFA core values, which are prominently posted on the New York office wall, visible to employees, applicants, and visitors the minute they step off the elevator:

Relentless pursuit of results - We assume personal responsibility for achieving ambitious, measurable results in pursuit of our vision. We persevere in the face of challenges, seek resources to ensure the best outcomes, and work towards our goals with a sense of purpose and urgency.

Sense of possibility- We approach our work with optimism, think boldly, and greet new ideas openly.

Disciplined thought - We think critically and strategically in search of the best answers and approaches, reflect on past experiences and data to draw lessons for the future, and make choices that are deeply rooted in our mission.

Respect and humility- We value all who are engaged in this challenging work. We keep in mind the limitations of our own experiences and actively seek out diverse perspectives.

Integrity- We ensure alignment between our actions and our beliefs, engage in honest self-scrutiny, and do what's right for the broader good.

Imagine if you wrote an honest description of what the public education bureaucracy is seen as valuing in these domains. How would it contrast to the TFA values?

They live a concrete vision of service to others. This one gets at a key distinction we work on every day in DHR. TFA has made itself an important force in an entrenched national educational system that is known for being hostile to outsiders, and in which few other change agents have gained similar traction. I think that TFA’s success has something to do with the fact that they view educators as valued clients, whose trust and business they must earn. Nobody forces school systems to work with TFA. TFA listens closely to the needs of the schools, principals, and superintendents that they serve, and they design processes and structures that work for their clients, not that are convenient for them. To put it in “DOE terms”, it’s a culture built for performance, not compliance. The leaders at TFA know that they will not accomplish their larger goal of serving kids if they cannot offer great service to the schools they work with.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to build a culture when you have to earn your clients from Day 1….you get it right or the organization ceases to exist. But it’s worth asking: what would happen if schools got to choose whether to do business with DHR? As we redesign HR processes, make the hard transitions to bring HRConnect to fruition, support reorganizations, and continue the work of transforming DHR, I hope we keep asking: what would happen if we had to compete for the right to serve kids? Would we earn it?