February 5, 2015

What Can Scaling Organizations Learn From Teach For America? It All Starts With Your Theory of Change

By Bellwether

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Earlier this week, Bellwether released a new report on the history of Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years and the lessons for other scaling organizations. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing some of those lessons here on the blog.
The first lesson scaling organizations should take from Teach For America’s experience: Know Your Theory of Change.
Teach for America has a very clear Theory of Change: The organization is designed to bring exceptional talent into education and to cultivate and develop that talent to create lifelong leaders working to drive change for low-income kids. As such, Teach For America has both near term impact through its corps members in the classroom and long-term systemic impact through its alumni. Both piece of this Theory of Change are designed to advance Teach For America’s famous vision that “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” It’s hard to overstate the impact this Theory of Change has had on Teach For America’s growth: It’s enabled the organization to make a compelling case for its work to funders, policymakers, and prospective corps members. It’s enabled Teach For America to keep a clear focus. And it’s informed key decisions at every stage of Teach For America’s growth.
The takeaway for new or scaling education organizations: Before you grow (ideally before you start) get clear about the ultimate outcomes you want to achieve, the role or work that you will undertake to advance those outcomes or goals, how those activities translate into your intended goals, and how your activities fit into a broader landscape of things that need to happen in the world to achieve your desired outcomes.
This may seem obvious. But I’m constantly surprised to discover how many education organizations cannot clearly explain the Theory of Change behind their work. They can tell you they work on a specific issue, or with a specific population, but aren’t able to clearly articulate how their specific activities translate over time into their ultimate goals or vision for education or for the population they serve.
Two additional points from Teach For America’s experience:
First, although Teach For America has articulated a clear, compelling Theory of Change internally and to its funders, that Theory of Change hasn’t always been well understood by a broader public and set of stakeholders. For example, media coverage or discussion of Teach For America often focuses solely on the impact of corps members in the classroom and how long corps members stay in the classroom after their 2-year commitment. But this focus reflects and incomplete understanding of Teach For America’s holistic Theory of Change.
The second lesson for scaling organizations here: It’s not enough for YOU to know your Theory of Change. You also need to be able to communicate it clearly to key stakeholders and audiences.
Second, Teach For America’s Theory of Change impacts how it will respond to both current recruitment and public affairs challenges and an evolving external landscape. In our work with Teach For America, we’ve learned that the organization is constantly questioning, evaluating, refining, and making changes to its programming and operations. A new pilot program to provide a year of intensive training for college students who apply to Teach For America as juniors offers an example of this type of change and iteration. But all this questioning, changing, and refining occurs within the context of Teach For America’s Theory of Change. What Teach For America is not likely to do is to make changes that fundamentally alter or depart from its established Theory of Change.  Critics, supporters, and others watching Teach For America will better understand its actions if they understand its Theory of Change.
Slightly tangential side note: A few years ago, I acquired a book about how to write mysteries (to be clear, I never actually followed through on writing a mystery novel). The author said that the primary mistake that most mystery writers make is by starting with their hero or detective. Instead, the author explained, mystery novelists need to start with a “resource base”–something the villain desires that motivates his or her crime–which then informs the character of the villain, and then move on to the victim, detective, and other characters. I think something similar happens with a lot of education organizations: Educators or reformers start out with an image of the kind of things they want to do (or the hero they want to be), but don’t always have a clear picture of the goal (or resource base) they’re trying to attain, or the specific activities required to achieve that. As a result, they get tripped up.

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