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Teach for America: A Model for Attracting and Developing Talent

Bob Lavigna

Many ASPA members probably know about the nonprofit organization Teach for America. If not, you should. Not just because of the great work that TFA does, but also because of how it attracts and develops talent. I believe the Teach for America approach can be a model for government.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I have a personal connection to TFA. Our younger daughter is a first-year TFA teacher, working at a charter school in one of the poorest sections of Washington, DC. Erin’s experience at Teach for America has continually struck me as an experience government should model to recruit, assess, develop and engage talent.

Before I explain, though, I know many of you might wonder why I’m talking about recruiting, given the current grim economic situation in government, particularly in states and municipalities.

When I mention recruiting these days, I often get one of these two responses: “You must be crazy talking about recruiting when we don’t have enough money to hang on to the people we already have;” or “Why should we recruit? We’re flooded with applications from people who have realized that government offers more security and stability than the private sector.”

Well, I’m a bit of a contrarian when it comes to recruiting. That is, I think recruiting is something organizations must commit to, in good times and bad. A college placement director recently told me that these are the times that show them who their real friends are. That is, which organizations are going to stick with them even in hard times.

I also recently learned about a study of private sector employers which did indeed show that many firms were cutting back, or eliminating, recruiting. However, this survey also revealed that 14 percent were expanding recruiting–at colleges where, in the past, they didn’t think they could compete. These are the organizations that will be successful five or ten years from now. And I think the same goes for government.

As for the “I don’t need to recruit because I have tons of applications” argument, I’m a contrarian here too. That’s because it’s not just about numbers–it’s about whether government is attracting the right talent–the best talent. If you’re measuring recruiting success by just looking at quantity and not quality, you’re off base.

But back to Teach for America. Founded 20 years ago, TFA annually places 4,000 or more teachers in 35 urban and rural areas across the country–all low-income and underserved. Its founder, Wendy Kopp, has executed on her belief that teachers, by going above and beyond traditional expectations, can enable students in low-income communities to achieve at high levels. As a result, TFA is showing that educational inequity is a solvable problem.

The result is a corps of highly-motivated teachers, many drawn from elite colleges and universities, committed to reforming how America educates our children.

In just two decades, TFA has created a “brand” that the best and brightest want to be a part of, despite the enormous challenge of trying to educate children in the nation’s toughest environments. The organization has become one of our country’s premiere employers of choice.  In 2009, Teach for America received 35,178 applicants, many from top universities. According to the Boston Globe, 14 percent of the Harvard class of 2009 applied for TFA.

The Teach for America Approach
How has Teach for America built such a strong brand? Here’s how I see it, based on observations as both someone who knows a little about HR and as a dad who has seen how his daughter has been recruited, assessed, trained and developed.

• A clear and compelling mission;
• Aggressive, strategic and coordinated recruiting;
• A rigorous, yet timely, assessment process;
• A comprehensive onboarding process and a commitment to continuous training and development;
• A focus on results; and
• Long-term career support.

The mission. TFA has clearly defined a mission that is direct, actionable and compelling: “Our mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort. We recruit outstanding recent college graduates from all backgrounds and career interests to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. We provide the training and ongoing support necessary to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities.”

This mission–to solve one of our nation’s most vexing problems–is exciting. No wonder TFA has been able to attract the best graduates, from all fields and demographic groups, and from the nation’s top colleges and universities.

Aggressive, strategic and coordinated recruiting. Teach for America has built its strong brand in large part by recruiting aggressively. Each year, TFA recruiters, who are often former TFA corps members, meet one-on-one with up to 30,000 students at hundreds of colleges. “We are not in the business of just going after anybody,” said Elissa Clapp, who oversees recruiting. “We are looking for a very specific person.” TFA doesn’t just put its opportunities on its Web site (“post and pray”). It understands that inspiring the best and brightest young people to devote two years to a tough job requires marketing, communicating and building relationships.

Trained recruiters develop and implement marketing plans; cultivate high-potential students on campus; and build relationships with student leaders, faculty members, administrators, corps members and alumni.

A rigorous, yet timely, assessment process. TFA efficiently and effectively handles thousands of applications each year. The overall process from application to offer usually takes eight weeks. When it does take longer, TFA lets candidates know why. The organization’s Web site clearly and specifically outlines the entire hiring process, from online application, through a phone interview, to the day-long interview/assessment center. The Web site also lays out specific dates, not just for the application deadline but also when each of the subsequent steps will take place.

For example, the current calendar shows the application deadline, the date candidates can go online to find out if they’re going to get an interview, the dates for the phone interviews, and when candidates can go online to find out if they’ve been invited to an in-person final interview. The site also includes projected dates for final offers and candidate decisions. In other words, applicants know–in advance–exactly what’s going to happen, and when.

Onboarding and continuous training and development. Because TFA hires recent grads who were not education majors, the onboarding process is crucial to preparing new hires for the enormous challenges they will face. Just recruiting top talent isn’t enough to ensure success.

Onboarding starts when a new corps member accepts the TFA job offer. The day after my daughter accepted her offer, a TFA recruiter called her to discuss her new job and answer questions. The next week, a local TFA rep arranged a conference call with the parents of the new DC corps members, to explain what their sons and daughters were getting into and answer questions. Very coordinated, very efficient, and very impressive.

Onboarding continues when each incoming corps member attends a rigorous five-week summer training institute at one of eight locations across the nation. Through practice, observation, coaching, and study–as well as careful planning and thoughtful reflection– corps members develop the foundational knowledge, skills, and mindsets they need to be highly effective beginning teachers.

During the institute, TFA corps members teach summer school, under the supervision of veteran educators and Teach for America staff. Corps members also participate in interactive courses and clinics to develop content knowledge and build an arsenal of skills and best practices by observing and working alongside staff members and other veteran teachers.

Corps members, my daughter included, describe the summer training institute as intense, challenging and rewarding. And some corps members quit or wash out during institute. But better to find this out during training than in the classroom. The institute is followed by a week-long induction in the city where each TFA teacher is assigned.

Teach for America’s regional support network then provides ongoing professional development throughout each new teacher’s two-year commitment. Each corps member is assigned a regional program director who provides support, guidance, and feedback. Every month or so, my daughter joins other DC corps members in a day-long professional development session. Although she complains about having to do this on a Saturday, it again demonstrates TFA’s commitment to its new teachers’ development.

TFA corps members also must become certified as teachers in their jurisdictions. In the DC region, TFA has arranged with local universities to enable corps members to earn Master’s degrees, funded in large part by AmeriCorps grants. Again, a coordinated and seamless approach to making sure that corps members get the development they need. 

Teach for America also makes extensive use of feedback to assess its development programs. After each phase–institute, induction, professional development Saturdays, plus at mid-year–TFA teachers are surveyed. According to Erin, these surveys “are long and they’re mandatory.”

Focus on impact. The Teach for America model–putting talented new grads in classrooms even though they didn‘t major in education–is still controversial. But a growing body of research shows that corps members have a positive impact on student achievement. TFA welcomes and even seeks out rigorous independent evaluations of its impact. Research like this, which provides a direct line of sight between the work TFA teachers do and the achievement of the TFA mission to eliminate educational inequality, is a powerful driver of recruiting success and employee engagement.  

Commitment to long-term career support. A key Teach for America goal is not only attracting talent to education, but also retaining that talent. But TFA also understands that many of its corps members will go on to other careers after the initial two-year teaching commitment. But no matter where alumni wind up, TFA tries to lay the foundation for a lifetime of advocacy and civic leadership. Instead of fighting the inclination of millennials to move on to other things, TFA embraces this new reality with a set of programs designed to help alumni make transitions and also create a strong alumni network:

• A career and leadership center that provides corps members and alumni with job search and career development resources.
• Partnerships with more than 200 graduate schools, including top-ranked programs in education, law, medicine, public policy, business, the sciences and engineering, that offer a range of benefits for corps members and alumni. These include two-year deferrals to work for Teach for America, course credits for the corps experience, waived application fees, and special scholarships and awards.
• Employer and leadership development partnerships that enable hundreds of leading employers to recruit TFA alums. These employer partners include Accenture, GE, Goldman Sachs, Google, J.P. Morgan, McKinsey and The White House Project.
• Regional alumni affairs teams that support corps members and alumni with career and civic opportunities to network with fellow alumni.
• Leadership programs in school/teacher leadership, political leadership, social entrepreneurship, and policy and advocacy, to help alumni build their skills and networks.
• Alumni summits across the nation to help alumni reconnect with each other, learn from national and community leaders, and explore career and job opportunities.
• An alumni magazine which feature alumni profiles and perspectives.

A Model for Government
I believe many aspects of the TFA approach to acquiring and managing talent are transferable to government. But I’m not a one-size-fits-all kind of guy. And I know it takes money and resources to do what TFA does.

But the fundamentals–aggressive recruiting, rigorous but timely assessment, solid and thoughtful onboarding, continuous training and development, and a focus on measuring results–apply to government.

Wouldn’t it be great if government agencies, at all levels, were:

• Aggressively and successfully recruiting the right talent;
• Assessing candidates in a way that is timely and transparent;
• Onboarding and training new talent to fully prepare them for their jobs;
• Creating lifelong public service ambassadors, even when employees leave government; and
• Clearly showing the link between what employees do and the success of the agency?

It sure would be great. And if Teach for America can do it, so can government.

ASPA?member Bob Lavigna is vice president of research for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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