TFA Staff Cut Coverage: Anonymous Potshots, One-Sided Speculation, Lack Of Context

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Used to be, news outlets seemed to tends towards credulity when it came to education coverage — so much so that I used to put out a regular Hype Index making fun of unproven approaches and models that were being touted in the media. 

These days, the pendulum has swung pretty hard in the other direction. (Maybe it’s time for a Hysteria Index?)

Today’s example is coverage of TFA’s 150- person national staff layoffs.

As the Washington Post, EdWeek, Slate, Politico Pro and The Atlantic have all noted, the nonprofit giant told staff about 150 jobs being cut a couple of weeks ago, the second round of cuts to national staff in the last couple of years.

To be fair, most of these are nothing more than blog posts, quick reaction pieces. The story first became public via Diane Ravitch, rather than from a mainstream site, which sometimes seems to cause folks to jump in harder than they might otherwise.  And of course, TFA is a lighting rod (whipping post?) for reform critics, and has done some incredibly tone deaf things in the past. 

And yet, one could hope for a little more measure and calm — or at least more balance — from folks who are all full-time professional journalists (on staff or freelance). 

The Atlantic’s Emily Duruy called the elimination of the chief diversity position “a particularly surprising turn for an organization that has prided itself on recruiting people of color to become teachers” but neglects to note progress on staff diversity (in addition to corps members) that’s so dramatic it’s being turned into a grad school case study.

[Duruy also goes for a double play by delivering some anonymous one-sided speculation about the potential impact of the staff cuts: “Several people associated with the organization who did not want to be identified worried that the shakeup could undermine the real progress TFA has made on the diversity front, particularly in an area where traditional teaching colleges still struggle.” It’s unclear if Duruy spoke with TFA about these claims.]

Over at Slate, Laura Moser passes along “rumors of mismanagement and questionable business practices” from Diane Ravitch that would seem to warrant some journalistic restraint, skepticism, or at least giving TFA an opportunity to respond. [TFA says there was no call.]

Some other things left out of the coverage I’ve seen so far (or worth more than a passing mention): The growth of TFA’s in-house Alumni of Color organization, called The Collective, or the staffing levels and diversity of other comparable nonprofits (in education or more generally). Is this kind of trimming pretty standard for 25 year-old nonprofits, or something unusual? There’s someone out there who could tell us, I’m sure. What about Matt Kramer or Aimee Aimee Eubanks Davis’ departures?

Not all of the reporting was problematic. While the layoffs aren’t entirely a surprise, “the optics here aren’t great,” writes EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuk, which is fair enough (though the consultant-speak is lamentable). The Washington Post’s version, by Emma Brown, gives readers some helpful context on the numbers, for example, noting that “The two shake-ups will leave Teach for America with approximately 930 national staff members in fiscal year 2017, 410 fewer than it employed in fiscal year 2015, according to the organization.”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.