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Curmudgucation: Teach for America Is Rebranding Again (Again)

Teach For America is announcing its new "brand identity," and it's...well, not great. 

The announcement, nominally by TFA honchos Elisa Villaneueva Beard, is a word salad with a dressing of corporate argle bargle:

This view is moving and remarkable, and it has called us to launch a new way of presenting ourselves to the world: a new brand identity to embody the work of this moment and the enduring values of equity, excellence, and leadership that underlie it. This includes a new look, a new logo (for the first time in 25 years), and a new tagline that concisely states what animates our work at its core: “Illuminate every learner.”

Illuminate every learner?

Our hope is that out in the world, our new brand identity will illuminate our work and ignite a spark in others, inspiring them to share our vision for the future. It’s rooted in hope, grounded in reality, and accountable to our kids and communities. While a brand is more than just a look, a logo, a color palette, or a tagline, those things are one way we shine a light on who we are today and who we aspire to be.

Illuminate every learner??

TFA has changed its corporate identity multiple times over the past twenty-five years (see herehere, and here, for a few). It is an exercise that only makes sense if one assumes that TFA, like any other corporate institution, considers its primary goal to be its own preservation. If I start WidgetCorp to make widgets, and it turns out that either widgets become obsolete or WidgetCorp is bad at making them, then I have two choices. I can A) say "Well, that's that" and go get into another business or B) decide that keeping WidgetCorp alive, so I'll rebrand it as a lemonade manufacturer.

TFA has steadily moved away from "teaching" and toward the creation of an alternate universe of education separate from the public education system. Over time, its cavalier idea that the Right Kind of People can learn to teach in five weeks (and do it better than the so-called professionals) has turned out to be far less damaging than its steady production of clueless amateurs who use their two year vacation in the classroom to slap "former teacher" in their CV as they head off into leadership or edupreneurial roles (ka-ching). Some very fine actual teachers with actual teaching careers have come out of TFA, but I can't think of a single TFA-trained "education leader" who has helped make public schools work better. Nor do they even pretend that teaching is their main focus. Under "What we do" on their website:

Teach For America is a diverse network of leaders who confront educational inequity by teaching for at least two years and then working with unwavering commitment from every sector of society to create a nation free from this injustice.

As educators, advocates, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community members, we fight for the aspirations of students and families.

TFA is a corporate producer of education-flavored products and resumes. An expressed concern about teaching provides cover for the rest of its work. And this rebranding is such a corporate exercise. There's a whole FAQ about the rebranding with explanations like:

Early research and testing validated that our current logo is not providing lift or recognition. Our current logo, which is simply a type treatment of our name, was created more than 25 years ago, at a moment when we were an emerging nonprofit. Although the logo was not hurting the organization, testing validated that it also was not providing brand lift or differentiation in the marketplace. Importantly, it was not designed for the type of digital landscapes in which people today consume information and content—so a thoughtful evaluation and refresh were clearly needed.

They added the symbol "to add deeper meaning and support brand clarity by adding a symbol that would speak to our mission and purpose." And if you're wondering what the hell that thing is "It's a spark! It's a sun!! It represents the light and potential that lives in all our students." In other words, they don't really know, either (Actually, by their own account, folks made guesses all over the map until they were told what the logo was for.) It's purple because "the vast majority of similar organizations primarily use blues and/or greens in their logos." Also, for what it's worth, it's much like a logo for Pharmaceutical Bank and Religion in Society.

Illuminate every learner.

I'm still stuck on that part. Illuminating something usually means reveal parts of it, make parts of it visible (e.g.illuminate the solution). Or we illuminate something so we can find our way, like turning the lights on in a room. So why are we illuminating learners? Aren't we, as some of their material suggests, illuminating paths for learners? I'm sorry, but whoever workshopped this slogan for them did not workshop it enough. 

The old logo, just in case you were wondering


Who knows. TFA has been shrinking for a while now, and have decided to try to recruit and retain through the time-worn technique of throwing money at people. Beard writes that it is clear that "more of the same in education isn't working," but in 2023 "more of the same" means the same old reformster policies that TFA and its edu-adjacent grads have been pushing for two decades.

Back in April she was making noise about how they were changing the way they operate, noting they needed to do things like "leveraging a digital approach to delivering our program to corps members and alumni"-- so, more TFA training via Zoom meeting? They built a tutoring program. They doubled down on recruitment efforts. And they intend to "double the number of children who are on a pathway to economic mobility and improved outcomes," which would be a really neat trick, as nobody really knows for sure how to tell if you've done all that for a child (or maybe that makes it a simple trick.)

So definitely a logo change is needed. And a new slogan that doesn't actually make sense. 

The breathless announcement highlights one other long-standing feature of TFA. They have always, always understood that it is at least as important to look like you're doing the work as it is to actually do the work. They depend on lots and lots of contributors who don't think much more deeply than "Helping teach poor kids! Well, that's a good thing, right?" or even just "Well, it has 'teach' and 'America' in the title so it must be good." 

Oh well. Making an overthought logo change and a misses-the-mark slogan may be the least damaging thing that TFA has done in the last 25 years. It's hard for me to take these folks seriously, but I respect the amount of damage they've done to education, under any logo. I can believe that once upon a time they meant well, but even with a cool new logo, I'm not sure what the heck they mean today. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...