Is TFA Undermining the Chicago Public Schools?

An internal TFA document shows plans for a dramatic charter expansion in the Windy City

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.]

Backwards planning
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.

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  1. I almost threw up a little when Anderson said, “Thanks for reaching out.” The phrase “reaching out” is part of the cult-speak of both TFA and TNTP. People who use it have no idea how brainwashed they sound.

    1. Thank you for reaching out with your comment! You might enjoy this piece about the origins of one of our most odious expressions. Be sure to circle back and let me know what you thought 🙂

    2. LOL — yes, I thought the same thing. “Reaching out” is passive aggressive TFA-speak for “I want to strangle you for that question, but I’m going to act polite and mildly enthusiastic instead.”

      Another thing that TFA does is refer to students as ‘kids’.

  2. Hi, I’m “Anderson’s wife, a TFA alum” and your article is ridden with inaccuracies – not the least of which is that NACSA has no partnership (formal or informal) with TFA. Nor do we work closely with the Office of New Schools in Chicago (and it’s no longer called that). I appreciate your efforts at journalism but next time, check your facts.

      1. Mr. Shyster –

        Something appears to be up here. I don’t know what but the Louisiana Board of Ed severed its relationship with NACSA recently, in that NACSA was contracted to advise for or against authorization by BESE of new charters. It has begun to be the habit of BESE to disregard the NACSA recommendations both for and against recommendation. I will see what else I can dig up.

        1. Oh I know, but I’m sure when the press gets bad or worse she has a hissy and makes a call. I got my facts, but thanks for the scabby hint.

    1. Look who Josh’s dad works for…..what a coincidence….all in the family to destroy public schools:

      Mr. Anderson, 30, is the executive director of Teach for America-Chicago. He graduated from Princeton.

      He is the son of Joan Bradbury and Jo Anderson Jr. of Chicago. The bridegroom’s mother retired as a third-grade teacher at Francis W. Parker School, a private school in Chicago. His father works in Washington as a senior adviser to Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.

    1. Color me embarrassed, but I don’t totally understand what you mean. It’s probably because I’m a scab and we all know scabs are a little behind the learning curve….will you scaffold your point for me just a little more?

      I guess I’m not clear on what a “scab” is. I’ve always read “scab” as “someone who crosses a picket line during a strike OR someone who takes the place of a worker on strike.” But it kind of seems like you’re defining “scab” as an alt-cert teacher? Are these TFAers actually taking jobs from veteran teachers? What major urban district isn’t following “first in last out?”

      Or are you saying that because some of these alt-certs work in charter schools, and charters are taking students (and thus jobs) from traditional public schools, that alt-certs are scabs because they supply charters? If that’s the case, is every teacher who works in a charter school a scab?

      And what about alt-certs who are pay union dues and work in public schools? Are they undercover scabs? Scars? Again, I’m slower than the average bear, so please ELI5.

  3. “KIPP, of course, is run and staffed by TFA alum.” Yes, and CEO of TFA, Wendy Kopp, is married to the head of KIPP, Richard Barth.

    This is all deeply disturbing. One ray of hope, at least in Seattle, is that TFA has tried its darnest to get a foothold here and barely has a toehold. Their program, thru the University of Washington, is running in the red (and has been since it started 3 years ago). They have topped out at around 18 TFA teachers for the whole Puget Sound region.

    How did that happen? Well, many of us investigated them BEFORE they got here, exposed how Seattle Schools was given the full-court press by TFA but unfortunately did not have their candidates full-qualified. Additionally, promises of more diversity of teachers via TFA did not materialized as most of the candidates were white. And, using public disclosure documents between TFA, UW and Seattle Schools, we could should some pretty troubling conversations about “helping” TFA.

    To this day, Seattle Schools has never paid the TFA fee and made outside groups/foundations do it. I don’t believe parents would ever support paying extra for a new teacher.

    The trend continues this school year with perhaps 6 TFA teachers in all of Seattle Schools (we have site-based hiring and they went through the same process as all the other fully-qualified teachers and I guess were found lacking). We do have a lot of ex-TFAs in leadership and management, though.

    It was funny because Tom Stritikus, the dean of the college of Education at UW (and an ex-TFA guy himself) boasted to a UW Vice-Provost that TFA always meets their quotas and he would bet on it.

    He would have lost that bet. TFA hasn’t done well in the Puget Sound region and is struggling. I hope to see them pushed out entirely soon.

  4. “Thanks for reaching out.” I knew I had heard that before. It is a favorite phrase of our infamous state Commissioner of Education in TN, a TFA drone – Kevin Huffman. He uses it in e mails. Translation: Who cares what you think, you idiot!

    1. Oh yes, their cultish language is just so uplifting. We are called “critical friends”. I guess that’s better than honest enemies.

  5. “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.”

    What does this mean? Before they closed the public schools they planned on opening more charter schools, but now they plan on opening fewer?
    What would indicate “improved conditions”? Parents are unhappy with the (now) crowded and underfunded public “welcoming schools” and thus demand that more charters open?

    I have an idea. Why doesn’t TFA Chicago voluntarily reveal all communications on the city’s public schools to Chicago parents and residents, say for the year prior to the school closures, given what those people have “been through”?

  6. How many words can I come up with that sound like collusion? illusion, allusion, solution, revulsion, hallucination. These are bad people.

  7. Hey, EduShyster, thanks for looking out for us in Chicago! We’re trying to keep tabs on so much nonsense that sometimes we miss some of the more….obvious….shenanigans. (Maybe it’s all those Sage Passage signs. I just can’t see the forest for the trees.) Keep it up.

  8. Umm since when did he invent the phrase “thanks for reaching out”? I swear people find the dumbest things to latch on to and pick apart. What did you want him to say? It’s a pretty standard phrase that isn’t code for anything other than “thank you for contacting me”. Of all the things to focus on, you all pick that? I think they have lives for sale down at the Big Lots. Perhaps you should pick up one or a few.

  9. In Minneapolis a clandestine deal has been struck between the University of MN’s dean Jean Quam from the College of Education & Human Development and TFA against the input of many at the U, community members, alumni, and graduate students. Meanwhile dean Quam (a social worker by trade) sits on the board of directors for a Minneapolis charter school ( that is staffed nearly exclusively with TFA members and who has a CEO of questionable background: for some reason this whole scam is not seen as corruption or a conflict of interest due to the minnsanity of Minnesota’s corporate edreform movement. We are following in the dirty footsteps of the Chicago, who needs corrupt mayoral control when Minneapolis Public Schools is run by TFA and McKinsey already, and TFA is secretly welcomed to the U of MN? Stay strong Chicago! Thanks for your work Ed! Also that TFA wife speaking up for and incolusion with her husband could happen easily here, since our TFA royality, Matt and Eli Kramer both have TFA alum wives involved in the local reform movement, as you well know. Thick as thieves!

  10. I love you, Ed! Will you marry me?
    Each time I read your post, more pieces of the puzzle fit together.

    Josh Edelman is the
    Executive Officer, Office of New Schools, Chicago Public Schools
    and here’s an interesting tidbit:

    And, oh yes, he’s Jonah (Stand on Children)’s brother.
    (As an parent, I’m worried – you raise your kids right – as I have no doubt Marian Wright Edelman did – and they turn out to be vipers!)

    These rheephormy folks all seem to be related, like the medieval rulers of Europe (i.e. Juana la Loca). Perhaps this is why they believe the rest of us are serfs.

  11. I think one of the biggest problems in all these critiques about Teach for America is no one is talking about the core of the problem, which is that schools in wealthy, and often white neighborhoods do better, way better, than schools iin Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. Obviously, there are many reasons for this, but within the last 20 years a single classroom has defied the odds, even Hollywood loves to make movies about these single classroom true stories. Within the last 10 years, there have been entire urban schools, both charter and traditional, popping up that have actually been well running schools that could compete with far wealthier districts. Before you criticize Teach for America it would be imperative to go sit in a classroom and meet high school students who make it to senior year and cannot read. I worked in Chicago public schools (a charter and a traditional), and because of a lack of education these kids cannot compete in the world. Education in the neighborhoods perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Chicago public schools does have some excellent teachers and some excellent schools. However, they still have schools where the bathrooms don’t have toilet paper, the kids don’t have books, teachers teach 30+ kids at a time and all those other horror stories. It is the responsibility of Chicago public schools to be innovative and fix their schools. They have handled this task in the least effective way, as demonstrated by the school closings. Teach for America and high performing charters are just a bandaid on a huge problem. My husband works at a high performing charter and it’s run like one of those private tuition schools that parents in Lincoln Park and Downtown send their kids to but it’s in the south side of Chicago. Kids who would HAVE to go to one of these horrific schools with less that a 40% graduation rate can at least have access to a school that will work to catch them up academically and help prepare them for college. With a staff of young bright eyed Teach for America corps members who will work at the school from 6-6 to make sure these kids have a future is commendable not something to criticize. I really am a believer in public education and traditional schools but CPS has put up so much red tape and turned an abbhort blind eye to their maintaining of the status quo in urban education. Yes, this charter document exists but I think after seeing kids receieve a horrible education you start to think outside the box, you see the problem is so big and so vast that you buy into a solution. I think thats whats happening here. I dont think of it as a conspiracy to end public education, its a response to how awful things are for kids in schools. We need to all come together thoughtfully, parents, teachers, charters, chicago teaching fellows, grow your own, college teacher prep programs and students to solve this problem together. Perhaps instead of critiquing TFA we should be pointing at CPS, who in a state with some of the best school districts in America, has been failing to provide a good education at their schools for low income students for a century. That’s been going on way before Teach For America came into the picture

    1. But the schools were reformed by Paul Vallas and then they were reformed by Arne Duncan…that’s his big claim to fame and now they are being reformed by Rahm. So we have a circle of reformers reforming each others reforms. When are they held accountable for all their failures? TFA is not the solution. It is just another parasite sucking up the $$$$ while feigning concern or the poor city child.

      1. Agreed on all those things for sure! However, in Chicago there are thousands of non-profits that fund-raise millions of dollars using connections to people and capital. They make 5-year plans, and set goals around policies. Most of them even have policy divisions. That is just how non-profits are inherently run. Some of these non-profits work directly with the Children of Chicago too, some of them are religious and really are looking to use public funding to bring private school options to poor parents. These organizations are all working hard within their scope to bring some change to a terrible problem. There are other programs in cities across America who provide short-term training and place teachers in urban schools . Yes Teach For America should be accountable, and they really are working very hard to change their model to better fit education today but the real accountability and the real criticism should go to the appointed school board and elected officials who are not being held accountable. To attack the Executive Director of a non-profit, who I have seen countless times go to bat for children and actually do a lot of good things, takes the shift off the problem. This article criticized Teach For America without ever once talking about poverty – we should get fired-up about the inequality of education in this country. Getting fired-up against Josh Anderson, who has in reality very little power over influencing Chicago Public Schools seems off the mark. Josh is a very open and reasonable person, I think if all of us who care about this issue unite together (putting our differences aside and aligning on our commonalities) we will actually see some change. These debates about charters, or who we are allied with should really be think-tanks rather than finger pointing. The best strategy is to listen…chances are there are Teach For America Teachers in your region, visit a classroom, talk to parents, meet with the ED in your region and then you will have a more accurate look into the pros and cons of teach for america, and there are definitely both just like any other organization working with poverty.

        1. Let’s talk once they stop taking the jobs of certified, experience, laid off teachers. They’re scabs and nothing more.

          1. You are a teacher in a Connecticut school? I think 1) “certified” is a relative term, I took my IL certification K-12 tests very hung over and got a perfect score. So certification means nothing in IL
            2) I’ve seen horrible teachers, some TFA some traditional. I’ve met outstanding teachers of both kinds and calling an organization that recruits talented people into teaching in low income schools is not war rented of being called a scab? I care so deeply about fixing this problem of urban education that I’d come visit your classroom, talk to you about how you survive in the craziness and figure out some common ground. The fact that TFA could be a resource in your own backyard but you refuse to investigate for yourself but base your opinions off blogs is troubling. Do you really think that there is no one at TFA who actually cares about kids? Maybe since they have money, power and influence you could find ways to have them listen to concerns and change course in these troubling areas. Often when people are under fire they fire back and keep doing the things they do. However, if constructively pushed who knows what could happen?

          2. @ Anonymous,

            You “care so deeply about fixing this problem” that you decided to get sloshed the night before your certification tests? Wow, that is dedication!

            Were you playing “take a drink every time you think about how much you care about fixing this issue?”

    2. Thanks for getting to the heart of the matter. Social class matters, a lot. And schools are largely boring clones with their one size fits all mentality – talk about an industry that is risk-averse, in-bred and corrupt. Another 30,000 students in charter schools staffed by lots of TFA members should be no big deal, especially in a city the size of Chicago. Yet if charters simply mimic the regular schools, there’s really not much choice that will matter to parents.

      The high school, especially, needs a makeover. Following are links to articles that propose a prototype or template for phasing out the traditional industrial era high school with a design more aligned with recent brain research on learning and employer/college requirements for entrants who can think, solve problems, collaborate and create.
      ACT Study Shows Little Progress in Preparing High School Graduates for College and Careers

  12. This whole culture of money, power, and influence, with overlapping roles and loyalties, is fundamentally problematic when public spending is at stake, which in education (in either charter or traditional public schools), it certainly is. Anthropologist Janine Wedel explains it well here — in reference to defense contracting and pension investments, but it applies to education as well:

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