After Two Years in Teach For America, What’s Next? (Part 2 of 2)

Last week I wrote about the impact Teach For America corps members have on student learning, noting that the evidence is largely positive. The second part of Teach For America’s theory of change—which states that alumni will become leaders in the movement to end educational inequity—is equally important. Teach For America has always thought about this two-part theory of change as a balancing act, investing in measuring immediate progress within the classroom alongside how many alumni are active as education leaders. But this second metric is much more difficult to measure.

In light of how quickly Teach For America has grown, understanding how the organization measures alumni impact takes on even greater importance. As of 2014 there were over 37,000 alumni, or more than three times the number of corps members.

Source: Teach For America internal data via 2014 Bellwether Education report

Teach For America currently measures its longer-term impact by setting goals for and tracking the number of alumni working in three areas: school and district leadership, public policy, and social entrepreneurship.

  1. School and district leadership: For alumni who want to continue working directly in education while taking on a management role, becoming a school or district leader is often the natural next step. Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, both Rio Grande Valley corps members in the late 1990s, co-founded the charter school network IDEA Public Schools, which has produced remarkable college matriculation and graduation rates (disclosure: IDEA is a Bellwether client). And Teach For America alumni aren’t only leading charter schools. City-level data indicate they represent 10 percent of all principals in Denver and one in five principals in D.C. In total, nearly 1,000 alumni are school or system leaders across the country.
  1. Public policy: Teach For America also seeks to increase the number of alumni holding leadership positions in public policy by becoming advocacy leaders, advising elected officials, or becoming elected officials themselves. In 2009 Mike Johnston (Mississippi Delta, ’97) joined the Colorado State Senate as a Democrat and authored the state’s new teacher evaluation law. And Teach For America alumni have politically diverse views. Rob Bryan (Los Angeles, ’93) now serves as a Republican member of the North Carolina House of Representatives. According to Teach For America, over 400 alumni currently work in public policy.
  1. Social entrepreneurship: As more alumni developed innovative approaches for the education sector—and even launched their own ventures—Teach For America began tracking the number of alumni in social entrepreneurship in the mid-2000s. After Hurricane Katrina, Sarah Usdin (South Louisiana, ’92) founded New Schools for New Orleans, which seeks to improve the city’s education outcomes by focusing on charter sector investments and human capital strategies (disclosure: NSNO is a former Bellwether client).

More recently, Dan Carroll (Colorado, ‘09) co-founded Clever, an edtech organization that streamlines the process for schools to access digital learning content from multiple software programs. Today, more than one in five schools in the country are using Clever.

However, the number of alumni taking positions in these three areas provides an incomplete picture of Teach For America’s alumni impact. For one thing, numbers alone do not provide clear insight into how alumni are influencing change. Much of the evidence on how alumni act as leaders is anecdotal, making it difficult to gather this information in a fair and objective manner.

Second, these numbers do not capture the impact of Teach For America alumni who take on other leadership roles in education—as teacher leaders or guidance counselors, for instance—or those who leave education but continue to work in low-income communities in other sectors, such as medicine or public interest law. It’s even harder to measure the impact of alumni who leave the social sector completely—what from their two-year corps experience do they carry with them? Do they remain lifelong advocates for change in public education, perhaps through individual giving or volunteer work, or simply by having the mindset that eliminating educational inequity is possible?

These challenges are not isolated to Teach For America, but highlight how difficult it is for any organization to measure the impact of any social justice movement. We don’t have clear answers on what Teach For America can do to better measure alumni leadership and contribution toward eliminating educational inequity. However, during the course of our engagement with Teach For America to write our case study, we came to an important conclusion: Don’t undermine the value of setting a “North Star” goal—it can help to develop a common vision throughout the organization and inspire stakeholders. But because long-term aspirational goals for transformational change are not easily measured, they must be balanced with short-term goals that are more quantifiable. This makes rigorous evaluations of corps members’ instructional impact as well as proxies for alumni impact—such as the ones Teach For America has chosen—hugely important. Learn more about this and Bellwether’s other conclusions in our report.