When news broke this summer that Teach for America was expanding its presence in Chicago amid the largest school closings in that city’s history and the layoffs of thousands of teachers and school staff, the reaction was swift, furious and extended well beyond the usual chorus of TFA detractors. At the time, I argued that the heated-back-and-forth, while welcome, missed the point. In city after city, TFA has largely abandoned its earlier mission of staffing hard-to-fill positions in public schools, serving instead as a placement agency for urban charters. In Chicago, however, TFA’s role appears to go far beyond providing labor for the fast-growing charter sector. An internal TFA document indicates that the organization has a plan to dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the city.
The document, a slide from Chicago TFA’s January 2013 Board of Directors meeting, is reproduced below. (You can view the original here or here). The five year charter management organization or CMO growth plan forecasts a dramatic expansion of privately-run charters in the city. The 52 new schools projected below would serve more than 30,000 students.
TFA Chicago’s response
I shared the document with TFA Chicago’s executive director, Josh Anderson, both to ensure that it is authentic (it is) and to give him an opportunity to respond. Here’s what I asked Anderson:
This information raises some serious questions about the nature of TFA’s role in the growth of the charter sector in Chicago at the expense of traditional public schools, especially as TFA has contracts to provide corps members to teach in some of the same schools that are expanding. As you no doubt know, the opening of 52 additional charters will certainly mean more school closures. Can you explain TFA’s specific role in the push to open these charters? What I find most troubling about this is that TFA appears to have a “seat at the table” in determining the future shape of Chicago’s schools, yet parents don’t.
And here is how Anderson responded:
Thanks for reaching out. As an organization, we’re strong advocates of high quality schools of all types, and, nationally more of our corps members work in traditional schools than in charters. We work hard to tailor our growth to community needs and are always looking into ways with our partners to expand great educational opportunities for our kids. This slide is a set of outdated projections from various high-quality charter networks in the city about their potential to grow if all the necessary conditions were present. Those conditions include, first and foremost, parent demand, and, then, things like authorization, access to affordable building space, sustainable public funding, access to private capital to assist with growth costs, etc., none of which Teach For America has any direct control over. We are a partner in providing them with one source of diverse teaching and school leadership talent for open positions. Given the recent school closures and all our education community has gone through since January, these projections would no doubt need to be significantly adjusted by the CMOs. Moving forward, we hope the conditions improve, so that high-quality schools of all types can expand and better meet the needs of our kids and families.
Connecting the dots
But this blandly legalistic statement doesn’t quite convey just how wired in Chicago TFA is to the very processes that Anderson describes. TFA has close relationships with the charter organizations listed—KIPP, of course, is run and staffed by TFA alum. Locally, TFA’s supply of corps members to staff schools like UNO and Noble at salaries far below what teachers in the Chicago Public Schools earn has been key to enabling the schools’ expansion. Then there is the charter authorization process to which Anderson refers. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is headquartered in Chicago and works closely with the Office of New Schools, the division of the Chicago Public Schools that oversees the application process for opening new charters in the city. While Anderson is correct that his organization has “no direct control” over the nuts and bolts of charter expansion, TFA does enjoy a unique connection. You see, Anderson’s wife, a TFA alum, just happens to be the chief of staff for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. [Update: Ms. Anderson says that NACSA no longer has a relationship with the Chicago Public Schools.]
Whether the document reflects an “outdated” fantasy projection as Anderson contends or something far more concrete seems to hinge on the definition of the word “plan.” Interestingly, “planning” within the TFA universe conveys something very specific. What’s known as “backwards planning” or “purposeful planning” lies at the core of TFA’s pedagogical training and leadership philosophy. According to this approach, any plan, large or small, is comprised of three sequential principles: 1) develop a vision from which you can plan “backwards”; 2) develop an assessment to determine whether you’ve reached that vision; 3) design your plan. Here’s how TFA describes ‘how to get from there to here’:
Before taking any action, strong leaders ‐ be they in a board room, an operating room, or a classroom ‐ define the ultimate result they want, make clear how they will know they have succeeded and only then choose and design strategies to that end.
The “strong leaders” who met in the board room of Chicago TFA on January 13, 2013 defined their ultimate result: 52 new charter schools serving more than 30,000 students. Whether they get from “there to here” remains to be seen.
Read more from Jennifer C. Berkshire.
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