Teacher Education and the Global Impact of Teach For All
Summary and Keywords
Over the past two decades, teacher education has been increasingly conceptualized as a policy problem in response to what school reformers, policy makers, and philanthropists have depicted as a global education crisis necessitating national and international solutions. Teach For All (TFAll), an organization that has sought to respond to global achievement disparities by recruiting elite university graduates to teach in underperforming schools has a presence in more than 45 countries and is a key player in education reform worldwide. In enacting its vision of educational change, TFAll has reshaped notions of teaching at the classroom level by positioning teachers as saviors, leaders, and social engineers; reconfigured city school systems through promoting privatization and deregulation; and contributed to the rapid neoliberalization of education internationally by fundamentally altering educational policies and discourses on a global scale.
Over the past two decades, teacher education has been increasingly conceptualized as a policy problem (Mayer, 2014) in response to what school reformers, policy makers, and philanthropists have depicted as a global education crisis necessitating national and international solutions (Hargreaves, Earl, Moore, & Manning, 2001; Sahlberg, 2011). Persistent student underachievement and intractable achievement gaps have been recast as problems with teachers and thus, by extension, teacher education (Bates, 2004). As the field of teacher education faces intense scrutiny, alternative approaches to teacher preparation are gaining traction and presenting new challenges (Kumashiro, 2010; Labaree, 2010), even as the empirical data supporting such approaches remains inconsistent (Clark, Isenberg, Liu, Mkowsky, & Zukiewicz, 2017; Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, & Heilig, 2005; Decker, Mayer, & Glazerman, 2004; Grossman & McDonald, 2008; Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002; Xu, Hannaway, & Taylor, 2011).
One organization that has had a pervasive impact on the field of teacher education worldwide is Teach For All (TFAll), which coordinates programs in more than 45 countries. Under the motto “sharing solutions across borders” (Teach For All, 2017a), TFAll has sought to respond to global achievement disparities by recruiting elite university graduates—who typically have not completed prior studies in education—to teach for two years in underperforming rural and urban settings before transitioning to leadership roles within the field of education and beyond. Although TFAll operates in highly specific localized contexts with divergent needs and characteristics, the organization is propelled by the belief that “improving education means improving teachers” (Paine & Zeichner, 2012, pp. 571–572). Even as TFAll argues for the recruitment of high-quality teachers, their training model assumes, paradoxically, that anyone with good intentions and a high GPA can become an effective educator in a matter of weeks, especially those with previous leadership experience (Crawford-Garrett, 2013; Thomas, 2017; Zeichner, 2010).
As these conceptions of teachers and teaching expand in reach and scope, it is imperative that researchers interrogate the ways in which discourses of teaching quality are shifting our perspectives of schooling on both local and global levels. Specifically, Teach For All has impacted day-to-day classroom operations by constructing the teacher as savior, leader, and social engineer (Horn, 2016; Kavanagh & Dunn, 2013; Kopp, 2014; Price & McConney, 2013); reconfigured city school systems through drastic changes in the teaching force and disinvestment from public schools (Buras, 2011, 2015; White, 2016); and contributed to international change by fundamentally altering educational discourses and promoting standardized solutions to educational problems while leveraging global networks in the interest of homogenizing reform (Adhikary & Lingard, 2018; Ellis et al., 2016). This article seeks to document the multi-tiered impact of “Teach For. . .” programs worldwide by reviewing the relevant literature and posing the following questions: How has TFAll shifted the educational landscape at micro-, meso-, and macro-levels, and what are the potential implications for the field of teacher education?
Teach For All: Aiming to Rectify Educational Inequities on a Global Scale
Teach For All’s global expansion was predicated on the “success” of Teach For America, which has been shaping the educational milieu in the United States for more than 25 years. In the final year of her undergraduate degree at Princeton University, Wendy Kopp conceptualized in her senior thesis a “teacher corps” program that “would allow a select group of college graduates without undergraduate degrees in education to teach for a period of two years in the United States” (Kopp, 1989, p. 1). Later known as “Teacher For America,” the program was intended to “attract and select top graduates” and to prepare them through a multi-week Summer Institute before placing them in disadvantaged schools as a means to “address the teacher shortage” (Kopp, 1989, p. 1). Kopp was clear in her thesis that these teachers, who would become known as corps members, would “serve only in shortage areas” (Kopp, 1989, p. 48). After considerable fundraising and publicity (see Kopp, 2003), Teach For America launched in 1990 with 489 incoming corps members who were placed in six geographic regions in the United States (Teach For America, 2017). The program expanded rapidly in subsequent years, growing both in the numbers of regions and teachers as well as in its overall competitiveness. By 2005 there were 22 geographic regions, more than 7500 Teach For America alumni, and an acceptance rate below 15% (Teach For America, 2017).
Its relative success in attracting financial and political support as well as increased numbers of applicants enabled its continued expansion in the United States, and in 2007, the launch of its international parent organization, Teach For All. As Straubhaar and Friedrich (2015) note, TFAll “serves as an umbrella network that provides strategic support to social entrepreneurs that work to implement in their own countries the education reform ideals and organizational model popularized by the U.S.-based nonprofit Teach For America” (p. 1). TFAll was co-founded by Wendy Kopp and Brett Wigdortz, the CEO of Teach First in the United Kingdom, which had already launched in 2002 and was the “first so-called adaptation” of Teach For America (Rauschenberger, 2016, p. 10).
Other iterations of “Teach For. . .” soon followed. Inaugural cohorts were launched in Estonia and Latvia in 2008, and in several other countries in 2009 (e.g., Chile, China, India). Since this early epoch, at least three new programs have been added annually to the mushrooming constellation of TFAll network partners. In 2017 alone, for example, programs in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Vietnam placed their first cohorts of teachers. Moreover, the number of teachers in each of these “Teach For. . .” programs grows on average by 18% per year (Kwauk, Perlman Robinson, & Spilka, 2016). In sum, both the number and size of the “Teach For. . .” programs are expanding rapidly.
According to TFAll, these network partners have extensive autonomy in how they recruit, prepare, and place teachers. “Teach For. . .” programs are intended to be “independent, locally led and governed organisations that share a common vision, approach, and commitment to shared core values when working across borders” (Teach For All, 2017b). Although they operate in diverse national and sociocultural contexts, the network partners are guided by a series of programmatic principles, which include recruiting the “most promising future leaders,” “placing participants as teachers for an initial two year commitment,” and “accelerating the leadership of alumni,” among others (Teach For All, 2017b).
These commitments and other organizational design elements have implications for more formal systems of teacher education. For example, “Teach For. . .” programs are expected to maintain “independence from the control of government and other external entities” as a means to “challenge traditional paradigms and sustain the approach in the face of external change” (Teach For All, 2017b). In essence, this independence highlights a significant departure from historic forms of teacher education that are rooted in government accountability and oversight. While many TFAll programs work with university partners to provide tertiary mentoring and, in some instances, teaching qualifications for the teachers, the depth and strength of these institutional connections varies across contexts (Cumsille & Fiszbein, 2015; Subramanian, 2018), with some examples of contentious relationships (cf. Carter, Amrein-Beardsley, & Hansen, 2011; Crawford-Garrett, 2013; Koerner, Lynch, & Martin, 2008; McNew-Birren, Hildebrand, & Belknap, 2017; Veltri, 2010). While the extent of separation from government entities varies across nation-states—some TFAll programs fall within formal systems and receive government funding—CEO Wendy Kopp (2014) has reiterated that “remaining independent of government control” is a core component of the organization’s theory of change (para. 7). Finally, the partners are also expected to ensure members of diverse populations are recruited into their programs, a recent focus of Teach For America that will be addressed later in the article, and one of the ways in which some TFAll programs have substantiated their continued existence.
Constructing the Teacher: Saviors, Leaders, and Social Engineers
As noted previously, Teach For America and its related programs within the TFAll network are rapidly reshaping global discourses of “teaching quality,” as well as the daily dimensions of what it means to be a teacher. These organizations not only recruit, train, and place teachers; they also maintain a strong media presence and foster relationships with key donors and government officials. Therefore, they have immense power to influence how teachers are constructed in and beyond schools, including how teachers are framed in public discourse. In this section we explore three positionings of teachers privileged by the TFAll enterprise: teacher as savior, teacher as leader, and teacher as social engineer.
Despite their “Teach For. . .” moniker, these organizations, perhaps ironically, may discourage participants from identifying as teachers. Teach For America, for example, was based on the Peace Corps (Kopp, 1989), and borrowed similar terminology in naming its TFA teachers “corps members.” In Ghana, Lebanon, Malaysia, and many other countries, the teachers are known as Fellows. In Australia, they are known as Associates, in New Zealand as Participants, and in South Africa as Ambassadors.1 This rebranding of teacher professional identity seems intentional, and positions participants of TFAll programs as members of an elite social organization with broad social capital that extends beyond the boundaries of individual nation-states. It also frames their roles as distinct from teaching, even though most of their daily duties are synonymous with educators.
For example, the website for the Teach First program in the United Kingdom clearly illustrates this attempt to construct its participants’ work as something more than, distinct from, and outside of, the teaching profession. One of its introductory pages frames the work of its participants in the following way:
Joining the Leadership Development Programme means more than just teaching. It means leading young minds, forging relationships and having an impact that lasts far beyond the last day of school. It means building better futures for children who are let down by society.
(Teach First, 2017a)
To many teacher educators and educational scholars, the three key responsibilities included in this description likely comprise standard components of teaching processes, namely: teaching, mentoring students, and bettering society. Yet this description distances the work of Teach First teachers from common notions of what teachers do. It also implies that traditionally trained teachers do not do these things, and separates Teach First participants from colleagues in their schools who entered the profession through more traditional pathways. The same site also implores future Fellows to join the “movement,” a phrase common to both Teach For America and TFAll affiliates. In sum, “Fellows” who join the “Leadership Development Programme” are privileged participants in a broader “movement” aimed at fighting a “systemic problem.” As Stern and Johnston (2013) note, it seems possible to engage in doing one of these programs without conceptualizing oneself as becoming a teacher.
Indeed, part of the success of TFAll programs is predicated on its model, wherein the teachers are not committed or expected to remain in the teaching profession for the long term. As Labaree suggests (2010), it is a win-win situation for these teachers: If they complete their two-year commitment, they are “doing good” as they engage in altruistic service to disadvantaged communities, and “doing well” as they graduate from an elite and highly selective program that advances their social capital and professional opportunities outside of teaching. Indeed, alumni of Teach For America and, inevitably, of other TFAll programs (cf. Nesje, Canrinus, & Strype, 2018; Subramanian, 2018), are able to “join teaching without derailing their careers,” meanwhile gaining valuable connections and distinguishing credentials in the process (Maier, 2012, p. 18). Conversely, if they opt to stay in teaching, as some do, they have not lost anything. This scenario is fundamentally different for teachers who enter the profession through traditional teacher education (Thomas & Mockler, 2018), and have neither degrees in other fields, nor the upward mobility associated with the TFAll program, should they choose to leave the profession (Labaree, 2010).
With these available benefits, recruitment of TFAll participants takes a different form than for traditional pre-service teachers. Friedrich (2014) aptly illustrates this phenomenon through the analysis of an ad placed in one of the primary newspapers of Argentina by Enseñá por Argentina, a subsidiary of TFAll: “We seek leaders. Give your career a different start. Transform children’s education. Become an agent of change in their lives. Give them a future with more possibilities. Work for social change. Join this challenge” (p. 308). The ad capitalizes on participants’ dual desires to work for social change and individual career advancement. In sum, the recruitment procedures utilized by TFAll programs often lie outside those utilized by more traditional teacher education programs.
Teachers As Saviors
In addition to being consistently depicted as better than and apart from veteran educators, who are associated with the symptoms of failing education systems, participants in Teach For. . . programs are commonly positioned as saviors at the classroom level capable of helping students transcend their life circumstances (Kavanagh & Dunn, 2013; Popkewitz, 1998; Price & McConney, 2013). This discursive framing begins with messaging about recruiting the “best and brightest” graduates into teaching (Blumenreich & Rogers, 2016; Vellanki, 2014), who are assumed implicitly to have the ability to place their students on a transformative trajectory. Kavanagh and Dunn (2013) note how teachers in Teach For America are “cast as ‘saviors,’ ‘missionaries,’ ‘volunteers,’ and ‘change agents’ throughout recruiting materials, testimonials, and the popular press” (p. 56). As the Teach First program in the United Kingdom suggests, “It only takes one brilliant teacher to change a child’s life” (Teach First, 2017b).
TFAll continues its framing of teachers by simplifying the complex problem of educational inequity into easy solutions that can be solved by external forces (Anderson, 2013), most notably by the heroic teachers in these programs (Crawford-Garrett, 2017; Price & McConney, 2013; Subramanian, 2018). Thus these teachers have the onus of improving educational equity placed squarely on their shoulders, with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that they are saving students from broken systems and from ineffective teaching, both of which require reform (Ellis et al., 2016). Without a deeper consideration of the contextual factors that also contribute to students’ underachievement, teachers in TFAll programs may be more inclined to leave teaching due to burnout (Brewer, 2014), or suffer from unhealthy behaviors because of the pressure placed upon them (Matsui, 2015; Thomas & Lefebvre, 2017). Nonetheless, these teachers are constructed as the key to students’ success, and therefore must rise to the expectations that TFAll organizations place upon them (La Londe, Brewer, & Lubienski, 2015).
Teachers As Leaders
To accomplish the broad goals of educational change, teachers in these programs are also positioned as leaders—the result of an organizational rebranding that occurred when Teach For America shifted its focus from preparing classroom teachers and addressing teacher shortages to creating leaders capable of effecting high-level societal change (Horn, 2016). This discourse has also been adopted by Teach For All and, as a result, the motif of leadership now runs throughout the entire TFAll cycle. First, the teachers are recruited based, in part, on their previous leadership experiences (Blumenreich & Gupta, 2015; Whitman, 2012). The implicit logic suggests that student leaders on university campuses possess the attributes necessary to be exemplary teachers. Second, leadership is deeply embedded in the discourse and theory of TFAll materials and preparation programs. Steve Farr’s (2010) Teaching as Leadership was for many years the Teach For America “manifesto” (Lefebvre & Thomas, 2017, p. 363). This focus on leadership extends far beyond Teach For America, as similar approaches and discourses are evident in in Chile (Gautreaux & Delgado, 2016), India (Blumenreich & Gupta, 2015; Subramanian, 2018), the United Kingdom (Blandford, 2014; Muijs, Chapman, & Armstrong, 2013), and New Zealand (Crawford-Garrett, 2017). In addition, many TFAll programs assign each teacher an experienced mentor or instructional coach to guide these novices as they develop as teachers, and presumably as leaders. Yet even these more experienced mentor teachers are provided titles that reflect the neoliberal emphasis on the nexus of teaching and leadership. For example, they are known as Teaching and Leadership Advisors in Australia and Managers of Teacher Leadership and Development in the United States.
Third and finally, teachers across the TFAll spectrum are encouraged to lead schools as educational administrators. Research on this area of the “Teach For. . .” phenomenon is largely underdeveloped, but one notable exception is found in the United States. In their sizable study of TFA alumni, Scott, Trujillo, and Rivera (2016) noted that the TFA website listed a number of leadership pathways, with school administration comprising one key option. They highlight that the website,
defined school leadership as school systems and charter management organizations taking on the pressing need for recruiting more qualified, committed educators to high-needs schools because, as former corps members, their deep understanding of educational inequity can help them become exceptional school leaders. (p. 355)
It is perhaps not surprising that charter management organizations are included in this description (see Kretchmar, 2014; Kretchmar, Sondel, & Ferrare, 2014), an issue explored later in this article. The key point to highlight here is the seeming urgency, and presumed effectiveness, of supporting alumni of TFAll programs to become school leaders. In India, for example, the India School Leadership Institute—a joint collaboration between Teach For India, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network, and the Central Square Foundation—offers fellowships for program participants to segue into school leadership positions (Vellanki, 2014). Similar programs exist elsewhere.
Teachers in TFAll programs are also expected to be leaders during and beyond their two-year commitments, which is now part and parcel of the TFAll logic. “At Teach For All we believe that leadership is the key to transforming schools, systems, and—ultimately—children’s futures” (Teach For All, 2017c). Yet in New Zealand, participants often felt the organizational emphasis on leadership ran counter to their desires to remain in schools and effect change as classroom teachers (Crawford-Garrett, 2017). While many TFAll alumni have elected to stay in the classroom longer term (75% of Teach First alumni in Israel, which launched in 2010, are still teaching, for example), TFAll continues to assert that broader, systemic change is more likely to occur at the policy level, outside of school and classroom contexts: “The point being that after you have done TFA and are out of the classroom, you can then go on to do more of TFA’s real work, which is to affect policy” (Stern & Johnston, 2013, p. 14).
Teachers As Social Engineers
This emphasis on the policy sector highlights the final framing of teachers: social engineers. Teachers from these programs are increasingly positioned as promising social entrepreneurs, policy makers, and politicians. For example, the CEOs of Teach For Armenia and Teach For Bangladesh are both former corps members who completed Teach For America, and a previous CEO of Teach First New Zealand completed Teach First in the United Kingdom. Moreover, several TFAll programs have associated programs that aim to position TFAll alumni in positions of power.
The Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) program in the United States has a concerted political mandate, aiming to place alumni of Teach For America in positions of political, economic, and social authority. This nonprofit “leadership development organization” was launched in 2007 and makes available free leadership coaching and networking to any Teach For America corps members or alumni interested in pursuing work as “policy makers, advocates, elected leaders and community organizers” (Leadership For Educational Equity, 2017a). In recent years LEE has proven successful in helping transition Teach For America teachers into politics, as at least 150 LEE members have become elected public officials and 500 have become “policy, organizing, and advocacy leaders” (Teach For All, 2017d). In addition, nine members of LEE made the 2017 Forbes “30 Under 30” list for the categories in education and social entrepreneurs (Leadership for Educational Equity, 2017b). Similarly, Teach For All was invited in 2014 to present their network approach to education reform to the Ministries of Education of the European Union (Teach For All, 2014b), an inclusion that demonstrates their power to influence policies at the highest level.
In sum, after years of justifying the legitimacy of Teach For America by citing statistics about the percentages of alumni who remain in education (note: in “education,” and not specifically in teaching, per se), TFAll CEO Wendy Kopp (2014) has become increasingly clear in suggesting that the role of TFAll teachers as social engineers is central to the success of the organization:
. . . our theory of change at Teach For All is not to grow to the point where the partnering organizations provide all—or even a substantial portion—of a nation’s teachers or leaders. Rather, the goal is for each national organization to reach a scale at which it produces enough leaders to ultimately transform the system. (para. 3)
As an umbrella organization with massive financial resources and political clout, TFAll is well positioned to catalyze the cadre of social engineers that it envisions changing educational systems around the world.
Shifting Priorities, Altering Cities: Privatization, Deregulation, and Leadership
In centering leadership and social entrepreneurship as the primary solutions to persistent inequities, TFAll implies that market-based reforms are foundational to generating change and innovating education, a message that has profoundly affected the types of reforms employed at local and national levels in the United States and abroad (Kamenetz, 2014; Kovacs, 2006; Simon, 2013; Wieder, 2012). In essence, “Teach For America has become less of an alternative pathway program to teaching children in poverty and more of an insulated training ground for corporate, media and philanthropic hierarchies to reform public education across the PK-16 landscape” (Horn, 2016, pp. 147–148). By advancing discourses of leadership and social entrepreneurship, Teach For America and TFAll have contributed to radical shifts within state and city contexts. Not only has TFA funneled significant numbers of teachers to specific city and state contexts at politically advantageous times (Buras, 2011; White, 2016), but they have furthered neoliberal reform agendas through the promotion of charter networks and the deregulation of teacher preparation (Lefebvre & Thomas, 2017; Mungal, 2016). As Kretchmar (2014) notes:
TFA shares resources and personnel with charter schools that subscribe to the ‘‘no excuses’’ model (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003), including The Knowledge is Power Program (K.I.P.P.), Rocketship, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. Many of these charter networks were founded by TFA alumni. Others have formal partnerships with TFA and are heavily staffed at all levels by TFA corps members and alumni.
(Stone & Tierney, 2010, p. 637).
Much of this reform in the United States has been funded through lucrative donations from wealthy philanthropists, as Teach For America “became the darling of the pro-market school reform crowd” (Strauss, 2016a).
In the past three decades, Teach For America has been responsible for contributing to significant shifts in the teaching force in particular U.S. cities. For example, in post-Katrina New Orleans, policy makers at the state level recognized an opportunity to dismantle the public school system and replace it with a network of charter schools aimed at promoting choice and privatization. In doing so, nearly 7000 veteran educators were fired (the majority of whom were African American) and replaced by Teach For America corps members and other alternatively certified teachers who had been recruited from outside Louisiana and cast as integral to efforts to revitalize education in New Orleans (Buras, 2011, 2015).
This phenomenon is not unique to New Orleans but has occurred across the United States. as Teach For America has influenced the contours of the teaching force. Facing criticism that it displaces teachers of color from the very communities in which their presence is vital, TFA has made substantial efforts to recruit teachers of color to the corps. These efforts have paid off. As recently as 2014, Teach For America could boast that 40% of its recruits were teachers of color (White, 2016), which is significantly higher than many traditional colleges of education as well as the profession as a whole. These numbers, however, conceal a troubling trend. Even as Teach For America touts its success on a range of diversity metrics, it has been responsible for the significant displacement of African American educators in New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia, cities where aggressive charter policies, districtwide layoffs, and school closures disproportionately affect teachers of color (White, 2016). Moreover, in addition to displacing teachers who possess intimate understandings of students and communities, Teach For America has been responsible for replacing experienced veteran educators with its own recruits who are both less prepared and less likely to stay in teaching for the long term. As Kretchmar and Sondel (2014) argue, “TFA has explicitly shifted its purpose from filling a teacher shortage to replacing experienced and more highly qualified teachers in city after city” (para. 5). For example, Seattle, a city with no teacher shortages and a significant budget deficit elected to maintain its relationship with Teach For America (amid unprecedented resistance) even as traditionally prepared teachers with several years of university-based education were unable to secure jobs (Hootnick, 2014).
As the value of veteran educators is continually called into question by Teach For America, teacher education, by extension, has been subjected to increased scrutiny as the “Teach For. . .” model seeks to reshape notions of educator preparation on local and global scales. One of the most insidious dimensions of the “Teach For. . .” preparation model is the privileging of market-based school reform approaches as the solutions to long-standing and persistent educational disparities. According to Kretchmar and Sondel (2014), “[TFA] has done an unparalleled job of recruiting recent college graduates, capitalizing on their passion for ending educational inequity, and training them to believe that market-based policies and pedagogy focused on standardized test scores are in service of social justice” (para. 3). In Washington, DC, for example, Michelle Rhee, a former TFA teacher in Baltimore, was hired as school chancellor with the idea that she would reinvent the district by firing teachers and instituting a high-stakes evaluation system based on student test scores (Ravitch, 2014). In the end, Rhee contributed little of substance to Washington, DC, schools; instead, her legacy includes the significant displacement of African American educators and the disenfranchisement of the Black community (Albert Shanker Institute, 2015). This trend of relying disproportionately on neoliberal solutions to educational problems is no longer solely a U.S. phenomenon. Australian researchers identified similar tendencies when asking participants within Teach For Australia what they identified as key problems within the educational context of Australia and what they would posit as solutions. The participants largely
attribute the poor performance of students in disadvantaged settings most strongly to the quality of the people who enter teaching to work in these schools, and suggest solutions that are in keeping with this belief—incentives to draw high performers into teaching, performance pay to hold onto them, and higher standards for entry into teacher education courses.
(Rice, Volkoff ,& Dulfer, 2015, p. 508)
This finding attributes educational failure to “contemporary teachers and their classroom performance” and also perpetuates “meritocratic assumptions” that assume that students and teachers are solely responsible for persistent inequities (Skourdoumbis, 2012, p. 310). Casting continual doubt on university pathways into teaching and the efficacy of traditionally prepared teachers has led to profound impacts on teacher education at the city and state levels. For example, the advent of the Relay Graduate School of Education has had a substantial impact on New York City. This program was co-designed by TFA and charter school leadership to provide a more “practical” preparation program that avoids the theoretical underpinnings of traditional colleges of education. In fact, there are now two distinct pathways through which to enter teaching in New York City: one for those entering traditional public schools and an entirely separate pathway for those seeking to work in the charter school sector (Mungal, 2016). In New Zealand, Teach First recently severed ties with the University of Auckland, an institution recognized nationally for the strength of its teacher education program, over differing beliefs regarding how best to prepare teachers (personal communication). Teach First will now partner with a different tertiary institution and will co-create a teacher preparation program to meet the unique needs of its participants. Similarly, both Teach For Australia and the regional office of Teach For America in the U.S. state of Minnesota have had three different institutional partners in a span of 10 years.
The instability of these partnerships and the ongoing efforts of TFAll organizations to create preparation programs outside of traditional colleges of education suggest divergent assumptions about what it means to prepare teachers to effectively address issues of educational inequity. As TFAll expands and deepens these initiatives, the organization will undoubtedly disrupt the field of teacher education in significant ways. By reshaping the teaching force at the state and city levels, disinvesting from traditional pathways of preparation and creating approaches to teacher education that divorce practices from their theoretical underpinnings, TFAll will continue to have a profound impact on our very understandings of what education is and what it is designed to do.
The Globalization of Teacher Education: Traveling Policies and Neoliberal Discourse
Even as TFAll and its subsidiaries have reshaped what it means to be a teacher and altered the educational landscape in particular state and city contexts, at a macro-level, TFAll has also contributed to profound shifts in how education is conceptualized, understood, and enacted globally. By introducing standardized approaches into divergent contexts and privileging data as the key indicator of success (even as the data to warrant its efficacy remains slim, e.g., Darling-Hammond et al., 2005; Heilig & Jez, 2014), TFAll has perpetuated the spread of neoliberal ideology, which affects not only beliefs and practices but also subjectivities.
By exporting the techniques and ideologies developed by Teach For America to disparate locations across the globe, Teach For All has wagered on the relative transferability of particular approaches without accounting for the complexities of local contexts. Terms like “reform, teacher, teaching, learning, and grassroots” are assumed to be universally understood across global settings as contrastive as Bangladesh, Chile, Estonia, and the United States, even as they exist in tension with local ways of being (Friedrich, 2014, p. 301). In fact, it is Teach For All’s ability to frame the problem of broken educational systems as monolithic across contexts—as well as the notion that the organization has the capacity to remedy educational failure using tools honed over the past several decades (specifically in the United States)—that accounts for its unprecedented growth (Ellis et al., 2016). Specifically, TFAll’s popularity implies a “context-neutral view of educational inequality” (LaLonde, Brewer, & Lubienski, 2015, p. 17), one in which cultural differences and nuanced contexts are elided: “Throughout the TFAll website one can observe instances wherein the organization honors difference and the ‘localness’ of its ‘social enterprises,’ yet all the while a focus on educational equality is achieved through normalization of difference and language of unification” (p. 13).
Although Teach For All may pay lip service to locally generated solutions, certain “tropes” are replicated with consistency across contexts, including (1) conceptualizing teaching as a short-term mission, (2) presenting education as a leadership endeavor, (3) recasting teacher education as leadership development, and (4) applying neoliberal solutions to long-standing inequities (Ellis et al., 2016, pp. 64–65). There are countless examples of reformers being imported from outside contexts (primarily American and British settings) to leverage change in particular countries and bringing these approaches and dispositions with them. In the case of Teach For Bangladesh, for example, the founder is an American Bangladeshi who completed Teach For America and resolved to bring her vision of addressing educational inequity back to her “home” country (Adhikary & Lingard, 2018). In a separate example, Teach First New Zealand was established by veterans of Teach First UK who relocated to New Zealand in order to create the program even as they struggled to garner investments from the communities they hoped to serve (personal communication). In Australia, one of the teaching and leadership advisors tasked with supporting associates in schools completed Teach For America in Phoenix and subsequently found Teach For Australia to be a natural fit for her expertise (Teach For Australia, 2017).
The stories of these “generic reformers” (Ahmann, 2015) come to function as tangible representations of the program’s impact. In a sense, the ways in which the stories connect “the transformation of self to the efficacy of a movement roots Teach For All’s legitimacy in each member’s journey through struggle, metamorphosis, and spectacular success” (p. 4). Part of this “spectacular success” is tied to notions of data; in particular, because the contexts in which Teach For. . . seeks to operate are so contrastive, the organization focuses on the universality and transferability of data as a means of calibrating the capacities of its participants worldwide. In doing so, TFAll is able to gloss over the messy and complex sociopolitical histories of specific countries in favor of a unifying metric of achievement (Friedrich, Walter, & Colmenares, 2015). Teach For India, for example, de-emphasizes “the influence of culture on education in exchange for assessment systems that measure academic success” (Blumenreich & Gupta, 2015, p. 95), a phenomenon that results in the uncritical application of American ideals that often prove problematic in particular settings (Friedrich, 2014).
As suggested above, individual educators who are imported into “struggling” contexts across the globe operate within a broader political and economic “reform” network in which agendas and priorities often remain hidden under the guise of advancing equity. This staffing suggests that not only are the proposed solutions less locally driven than they seem but that participants in these programs are part of a comprehensive global network comprised not only of individuals but corporations, philanthropies, government agencies, and venture capitalists who contribute to “an uncritical exchange of ideas and educational practices” that emerge in the West but are applied in a range of locales . . .” (Vellanki, 2014, p. 142).
While a powerful set of international donors support the program (La Londe, Brewer, & Lubienksi, 2015; Subramanian, 2018), the impact of the network is not merely financial. Rather, through the use of online platforms, specialized professional development conferences, and site visits, “the network shares pedagogical models, best practices, and common understandings about the values of education and the preferred methods for assessing the programs’ success” (Friedrich, 2014, p. 298). The network is also exclusive to those who are members. For example, for many years “TFA Net,” accessible only to Teach For America corps members and alumni, was the “go-to destination for lesson plans and professional networking” (Wheatley & Remy, 2015), though it was password protected and available only to those associated with the program. Because these events are closed to outsiders and serve as a venue through which to disseminate specific practices and ideologies, TFAll is able to ensure its replicability.
As educational practices are shaped and reshaped through these efforts, so are the subjectivities of those involved in TFAll’s enterprises. The vast network in which TFAll participants and personnel exist is central to how identities are formed:
Association is vital: the Teach First and wider Teach For All network actively seek to instil a strong (entrepreneurial) sense of identity and community, fostering that ‘group membership’ and affiliation that can be reciprocally converted into different kinds of credit.
(Olmedo, Bailey, & Ball, 2013, p. 507)
As noted in the examples above, Teach For America corps members not only possess political and economic advantages in the United States but can leverage the TFAll network to translate their social capital to high-level organizational positions across the globe.
While the interconnected web of TFAll can appear impervious to those who question its efficacy and seek to slow its expansion, the organization has encountered resistance in several notable instances. Research and media information on resistance to TFAll is in its infancy, yet a few examples are worthy of exploration. In the United States, San Francisco is one such exemplar; in 2016 the San Francisco United School District board opted not to vote on the annual TFA contract, in essence suspending its existing relationship with TFA (Strauss, 2016b). In the midst of a teacher shortage, some principals within the district still hired Teach For America teachers, to the dismay of the school board leadership (Tucker, 2016). While local perspectives on the role of Teach For America in San Francisco are mixed, it is clear that this particular city and some others around the United States (e.g., Pittsburgh, Minnesota) have posed varied levels of resistance for the program in recent years.
In Australia, efforts to stem the expansion of Teach For Australia have occurred in at least two states. The program placed its first cohort of “Associates” in Victoria in 2010 and has since sought to expand on a national scale. As reported in a 2013 evaluation submitted to the Australian Department of Education, expansion into two additional states in Australia remains unlikely due to qualification requirements in Queensland and “opposition to the placement of unqualified teachers” in New South Wales (Weldon, McKenzie, Kleinhenz, & Reid, 2013, p. 69). Indeed, New South Wales has the largest workforce of teachers, but has thus far resisted the introduction of Teach For Australia in spite of continued political and financial support at the federal level (Knott, 2016).
The final example can be found in Scotland. As noted above, Teach First was launched in the United Kingdom in 2002, but for more than a decade it has not operated in Scotland due, at least in part, to teacher qualification requirements outlined by the General Teaching Council of Scotland (Denholm, 2013). More recently, however, the Scottish government opened a tender for an alternative route to teaching (Seith, 2017), and Teach First “confirmed its interest” in operating its program there (Denholm, 2017, para. 1). At this moment the Educational Institute of Scotland (2018), the largest education union, is maintaining its resistance to Teach First: “The EIS believes the teaching responsibilities placed on these trainees would be premature and excessive, and would be to the detriment of the pupils” (para. 3). In the end, Teach First UK pulled out its bid to win the government tender just days before the deadline in late 2017. Yet given the increasing global spread of TFAll as well as its considerable economic, social, and political capital, it seems likely that expansion into new contexts, and perhaps Scotland, may occur with or without university support. Although we cannot predict the location of the next “Teach For. . .” program, perhaps it is valuable to pause, and wonder: “Is Teach For All knocking on your door?” (Price & McConney, 2013, p. 98).
Recommendations for Future Research
Given the tremendous impact of Teach For All on the global landscape of teacher education and the absence of robust empirical data on its subsidiaries, we offer five recommendations for increasing the research base:
1. Increase Empirical Studies: The current body of work on programs within the Teach For All network (or on the organization more broadly) tend to privilege network analyses and/or website analysis—a trend that could be indicative of the difficulty of gaining access to specific sites, and the documented instances of “Teach For. . .” organizations preparing critical responses to research prior to publication (see Scott, Trujillo, & Rivera, 2016). While these analyses are valuable, we call for an increase in empirical studies that examine the impact of the program on key stakeholders including students, participants, teacher educators, and TFAll personnel. Similarly, we recognize the importance of generating research that transcends evaluative reports that seek to assess the quality of teaching by Teach For All teachers using student outcomes on standardized metrics. Instead, we call for more nuanced, qualitative portraits of Teach For All programs that consider the ways in which particular discourses are taken up in divergent contexts, how participants understand their mission, how students and families interpret the intervention, and how thought leaders conceptualize their work to eradicate educational inequality on national and international scales. A significant number of Teach For All subsidiaries were created within the past five years. Although these programs are new and the research base supporting their efficacy remains slim, they are having a substantial impact on students and communities and, therefore, must be analyzed more closely.
2. Focus on Preparation: In addition to calling for an increase in qualitative studies on Teach For All programs generally, we specifically assert the need for research that focuses on how participants are prepared by “Teach For. . .” and their university partners to teach in high-poverty settings. This preparation, however abbreviated, frames understandings of students, schools, and communities, offers context on a nation’s sociopolitical and historical context, and presents constructions of teachers and teaching that undoubtedly impact participants’ perspectives. In-depth explorations of Teach For All preparation can offer critical insights into how participants navigate some of the key tensions related to teaching in high-poverty schools and in high-needs content areas, including working across various dimensions of difference, confronting privilege, and interpreting what it means to work for educational equity on a national scale.
3. Glean Student and Community Perspectives: While advocating for a focus on how Teach For All teachers are prepared to enter high-poverty contexts, we also assert the necessity of gleaning student and family perspectives on Teach For All teachers in an effort to understand how their presence impacts communities. Students from historically marginalized communities are often the targets of particular programs and interventions yet seldom have input into how these programs are enacted or conceptualized. We find it essential to consider how students and their families understand and interpret these interventions. Teach For All operates in countless post-colonial settings, places in which educational efforts are often tied to painful legacies of manipulation and oppression.
4. Mentor In-Country Doctoral Students as Program Researchers: Lastly, we acknowledge the need for insider research in Teach For All contexts. We propose that doctoral students in specific country locations receive the mentorship necessary to conduct meaningful research on Teach For All endeavors in an effort to build a research base that includes and foregrounds local perspectives. In many of the cases highlighted in this article, the research cited has been conducted by country outsiders who may provide valuable perspectives but who lack the insights necessary to produce research that reflects locally specific ways of knowing. Partner universities that have elected to collaborate with Teach For All should create, where possible, opportunities for research in conjunction with the partnership. This model has proven successful in the United States as significant research on Teach For America has been generated by doctoral students at institutions that partner with the organization (e.g., Anderson, 2014; Brewer, 2016; Crawford-Garrett, 2013; Maloney, 2015), and others are increasing around the world (Windsor, 2014).
5. Document Instances of Resistance: As specific city, state, and country contexts question the benefits of bringing TFAll subsidiaries into their communities, it is vital for researchers to document these instances with particular attention to the unique sociopolitical contexts in which they occur. Understanding how local communities interpret these programs and how they articulate their reasons for resistance are essential as scholars and practitioners aim to develop alternative approaches to school reform. Moreover, it is essential to document what modes of resistance are most effective in slowing the spread of TFAll or making it more responsive to specific settings. In New Zealand, for example, the secondary teacher’s union was not able to prevent Teach First from operating in the country but was able to advocate for veteran teacher mentors, reduced course loads for participants, and a hiring procedure that was fair to those prepared through the country’s traditional pathways (personal communication).
The global impact of the “Teach For. . .” programs is undeniable. On many levels these programs have reshaped how education is viewed and enacted—from conceptualizations of the teacher as savior, leader, and social engineer to the reconfiguration of state and city contexts to reflect neoliberal principles like choice and privatization, to how “solutions” to long-standing disparities are exported via networks to divergent contexts. While this is not intended to serve as an exhaustive review representing all of the literature that exists on these programs, we hope we have illustrated the multidimensional impact of TFAll on a global scale. Further, we hope this article will serve as a call for additional scholarship on aspects of these programs that, up to the present, have been under-researched. Specifically, there is a stark lack of information regarding how these programs shape constituents and communities. As objectives for attaining educational equity expand in reach and scope across the globe, it is imperative to understand how equity might be achieved in divergent contexts and what role education could play in these efforts. The “Teach For. . .” network is only gaining momentum even in the face of lingering questions about how its proposed practices and reforms have been applied across contexts and whether their efforts have, in fact, fostered more equitable conditions in schools and classrooms. As the organization seeks to extend its reach, it logically follows that educational researchers, who place a premium on social justice and equity, do the same.
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