Last month, Teach for America celebrated its 25th anniversary during a fanfare-filled “epic weekend” in D.C. that included a televised message from President Barack Obama. This month, we learn that the controversial teaching corps—which recruits fresh-faced college grads, schools them in teaching during a five-week boot camp, and then places them in some of the most challenging classrooms in the country—is making big staff cuts for the second time in a year. The organization is eliminating 250 jobs and adding 100, so it’ll be down a net of 150 staffers.* In the latest shake-up a year ago, TFA cut 200 jobs.
So what’s behind these layoffs? TFA is presenting the move as a simple reorganization: Its announcement letter says that the changes are “orienting Teach for America to better support our regions,” and it’s true that the organization has been in the process of shifting more responsibilities, like fundraising, from the national office to its more than 50 regional offices. But it’s also widely known that, after a fairly consistent record of growth, TFA has struggled to recruit enough teachers over the past two years.
Defender of public education—and vocal critic of Teach for America—Diane Ravitch, who first reported the shake-up on her blog Monday, offers some other intriguing explanations in the anonymous dispatch from a TFA employee she posted:
It’s not just the rank and file staff employees who are getting the ax, like they did in Spring 2015. This year it goes all the way up to the C-suite.
Sources say several senior leaders are “voluntarily” resigning amid alleged rumors of mismanagement and questionable business practices by the nonprofit organization.
Ravitch’s informer provides no details on what these questionable practices might entail, but we get a roundup of some staffers bowing out, whether voluntarily or under coercion, including its chief marketing officer, its executive vice president of public affairs, and perhaps most interestingly, its newly created chief diversity officer. As the press release puts it, “we determined that the essential work of diversity and inclusiveness should sit squarely with those closest to and supporting the people who are most directly impacted” instead of in one central office.
Diversity is one of many flashpoints that characterizes the conversation around TFA. Defenders point out that TFA has done well placing teachers of color in classrooms filled with kids that look like them—a noteworthy accomplishment given that, as Slate has reported, America’s teachers are notoriously undiverse, unlike the majority-minority students they serve. But for critics, like Terrenda White, a former TFA corps member and current education policy professor interviewed in the Washington Post on Tuesday, TFA’s diversity gains have “coincided with a drastic decline in the number of teachers of color and black teachers in particular in the very cities where TFA has expanded.”* Some of the policies that have benefited TFA—the closure of high-poverty schools, the expansion of charters—might have hurt longer-serving teachers in those communities.
It remains to be seen whether the new lean-mean-and-local TFA can reverse some of the setbacks it’s undergone these past few years. Whatever happens, it will remain one of those organizations whose merits education-watchers will forever agree to disagree on.
Correction, March 22, 2016: This post originally misstated that TFA had shed a total of 100 jobs. The correct number is 150. It also mispelled Terrenda White's first name.