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Is Teach for America Becoming 'Too Big to Fail?'

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When it comes to reforming America's schools, is bigger always better?

I've been wondering about that question since watching a recent episode of Treme, the HBO series set in post-Katrina New Orleans that chronicles the struggles of a diverse group of residents on the slow path toward rebuilding their beloved city.

In the episode, an aspiring local musician named Davis McAlary raps about changes in the school system:

Four years at Radcliffe, that's all you know
A desire to do good and a four point oh
You're here to save us from our plight
You got the answer 'cause you're rich and white
On a two-year sojourn here to stay
Teach for America all the way
Got no idea what you're facin'
No clue just who you're displacin'
Old lady taught fathers, old lady taught sons
Old lady bought books for the little ones
Old lady put in 30 years
Sweat and toil, time and tears
Was that really your sad intention?
Help the state of Louisiana deny her pension?

It's worth noting that Davis is rich and white himself, and that a friend of his quickly questions Davis's logic. And yet when one considers the omnipresent discussion these days of "taking ideas to scale," the core critique deserves some consideration.

The target in this example, Teach for America (TFA), must be used to the controversy by now. Since emerging from Wendy Kopp's undergraduate thesis at Princeton in the early 1990s, TFA has grown to a network of more than 28,000 individuals. Its alumni fill high-profile educational leadership positions across the country. And it was one of just four organizations to receive $50 million in "scale-up" funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation, or i3, fund.

When you experience that sort of success, you're bound to attract your share of scrutiny. And TFA has become one of the most polarizing entities in modern education reform. Some hail it as the solution to our need for highly qualified teachers in every classroom. Others define it as a stopgap measure based on a model so transitory to make it dangerous at best, and racist at worst.

Which is it? How important is it that change efforts be led by people who have deep roots in the communities they wish to change? And to what extent should "scaling up" be a goal in modern education reform anyway?

For Kopp, the answers are clear: placing increasing numbers of corps members in communities of need, and growing to scale, are TFA's top priorities. "We feel an imperative to grow given the enormity of the problem we're addressing," she explains. "Every additional recruit is another corps member who has the potential to have a life-changing impact in the lives of children growing up today and another alumna/us who can be a lifelong leader for fundamental change."

It's a powerful vision, and it's impossible to deny the enormity, and the urgency, of the problem programs like TFA are built to address. Equally clear is that the strategic decision to scale up comes with certain trade-offs and sacrifices -- chief among them the reduced capacity to be deeply rooted in the communities in which you work.

In the book Small Giants, Inc. Magazine editor Bo Burlingham profiles fourteen companies that chose to buck the conventional wisdom and stay small. "The companies I was looking at all operated on what you might call human scale, that is, a size at which it's still possible for an individual to be acquainted with everyone else ... and in order to create a sense of community and common purpose between the companies, their suppliers, and their customers -- the kind of intimacy that is difficult for large companies to achieve, if only because of their size."

Burlingham's point is not simply that big is bad: sometimes, growing to scale does make sense. What matters, he contends, is having a clear understanding of the implications for doing so.

This makes me wonder: How does Teach for America interpret the costs and benefits of its own reform and growth strategy? Does Wendy Kopp agree that deep and lasting change in a community is impossible without the support and engagement of a diverse constituency of its members? Or does she believe, given the choices available, that bigger is better; that the meaning of "community" is fungible; and that the people who make up a school system need not develop deep and lasting roots to ensure its long-term success?

When you're talking about operating at a human scale, says Ari Weinzweig, a successful food retailer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, "You're talking about something like what the French call terroir. It has to do with the way that the soil and climate in a given region contribute to the flavor of the food. That's because the soil's mineral content, the amount of sun and rain it gets, the local vegetation, and so on -- all that is different in each region. It's the same with some businesses. Every community has its own character, which is sort of a spiritual terroir. If you're really rooted in that community, it's going to have a big impact on the way you are."

That lack of terroir is precisely what Davis McAlary raps about in Treme. It's precisely what TFA's chief critics -- both fairly and unfairly - use to justify their attacks. And it's what makes me wonder if, in the end, more non-profits should heed another piece of business advice when it comes to school improvement:

Think globally. Act locally.