May 21 2011

What happened to my TFA?

Some readers of my blog, particularly the TFAers who  are about to begin their training, are probably a bit confused about who I am and why I’m so cranky.

Originally, I was just a guy who had a very tough first year of teaching followed by three very good years in Houston.  I wrote a bunch of essays pointing out the humor in my learning experience of the first year.  Then I worked at the 1996 institute and began presenting a workshop about classroom management, which I presented for about ten summers.  And now I’m an alumni blogger first writing advice for new TFAers, often counter to the advice they were receiving at training.  In the past year, however, I’ve gotten pretty critical of TFA and other members of the new education reform movement.  The question is:  Why did I join TFA in the first place if I differed so much with their ideology?

The answer is that back when I joined in 1991, TFA was a very different organization with a very different mission.  The premise back then was that throughout the country there were many school districts that were desperate for teachers.  I was told that in Houston many students would not get a regular teacher — instead, they’d have a rotating group of temporary substitutes.  By joining TFA, I could be a stable presence for a group of kids who would otherwise be reminded every few days that nobody wants to teach them.

Veteran teachers, for me, were not people to disdain since they were just ‘regular’ teachers, but they were my mentors and the people who got me through that first year.  Unions were not described to me as organizations that had the interests of adults ahead of the interests of children.  They were the people who helped me figure out how to set up my credit union account and how to fill out my insurance forms.

Over the years I’ve seen TFA stray from the initial goal to fill voids where they were desperately needed.  TFA has always been good at PR.  As a struggling non-profit in the mid-90s they were wise to spotlight the success stories.  This included successes of individual teachers and then of schools that were run by TFA alumni, generally charter schools.

But I’ve seen more recently what started as PR and taking care of the organizations self-interests turn into something that I honestly believe is dangerous.

By exaggerating their success, they have gotten the public to believe that kids would be a lot better off if we got rid of all the old lazy teachers and replaced them with these TFA dynamos — not admitting that most TFA corps members are not very effective, especially in their first year.

TFA has spawned so many charter schools each with their own PR machines and has fueled a movement that actually threatens public schools.  Many of these charter schools kick out the hardest-to-educate kids so they can get their statistics up.  In doing so, the self interest of growing a charter network is completely contrary to the TFA goal that one day ALL children …

Then, on a larger scale, we have the notable alum and ex-chancellor of D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee.  Rhee’s strategy to improve schools by firing people, rather than help them has been hailed in the media as a great success, despite any real proof of it.  Now Rhee leads the fight to break teacher’s unions with her ‘Children First’ organization.  Job security is one of her biggest targets.  If her movement continues to pick up momentum, people would have to be out of their minds to want to become career teachers.  The side effect of these strategies is that there won’t be enough people wiling to become teachers to meet the need of those children.  How can that be good for kids?  She doesn’t seem to realize that there can be solutions that are good for the children and for the adults.  It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In New York City, where 4,000 teachers are about to get laid off, TFA will still manage, somehow to place 100 new teachers here next year.  That is completely against the original mission to go where we are needed.  The early 1990s TFA would never do that.  They would just relocate the new people to a region that was suffering teacher shortages.

And just today I learned about a TFA alum who taught for two years and is now on staff at TFA as a talent recruiter publicly bashing the person who knows more about the U.S. education system than any other person alive, Dr. Diane Ravitch.  He implied that she was somehow getting paid by unions to defend their interests.  Her main purpose, though, is to point out that most of the ideas in the reform movement have been proved, by research and by history, to backfire.  She warns us, before we invest billions of dollars into ‘magic beans.’  Here’s an example of her writing about the lack of logic behind closing schools, read it and decide for yourself what you think.

If you are a new corps member, reading this, you are probably confused about what side you’re supposed to take.  Is TFA ‘anti-union’?  They don’t say it directly, but they imply it.  Whose ideas do you trust more?  Rhee or Ravitch?  TFA doesn’t tell you what to think, but by not exposing you to all different viewpoints you don’t even know you have options.

I’d be interested in getting some comments from new CMs about whether or not you feel you have to choose a side or if one has been chosen for you.

Incidentally, I don’t think that it’s too late for TFA to reclaim its soul.  The state that the organization is in right now is not something that happened deliberately.  There was no master plan to get to this place set in motion 21 years ago.  It just kind of happened.  But getting back to a place that has the values that I joined TFA to pursue, twenty years ago, almost to the day, will not just happen.  It will require, first, that TFA acknowledges their role in this current ‘blame the teachers’ political mentality.  Whether it was because others used TFA’s exaggerated successes for their own benefit or, in the case of the staff member slandering a respected scholar, just arrogance and refusal to listen to criticism, TFA has played, and continues to play a role.  That means that if they feel that it is a worthwhile cause, they can work to actively counter what has happened.  I hope they have the guts to do it.  They’ve been given, deservedly or not, a huge responsibility as leaders in the reform movement.  It’s not about PR anymore.  It’s about truly working toward a system in which ‘one day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.’

61 Responses

  1. forthesprings

    I am a 2009 CM who just finished her 2nd year. I find your blog to be insightful and thought provoking. It is very true that TFA has a biased stance against unions that is extremely implicit. However, every Corp Member comes in with rosy glasses and an idealistic perspective of TFA and how they are going to change the world. Once they stop drinking the Kool-Aid (about a semester in at the latest), they start to critically analyze the organization a bit more. Because of this experience, I have learned that even the best and the brightest can become sheep who follow the party line. Only after a year or two of being submerged in the messy concoction that is education reform do you realize that there are many different opinions and attempts to “solve the problem.” How could only one be right?

  2. Caitlin

    Gary,
    I’m so glad your blog is out there. I’m a 2011 CM and, personally, I don’t think a side has been chosen for me because I expose myself to different viewpoints. For instance, I read some great stuff by Ravitch about Waiting for Superman. It probably helps that my mom was a teacher for 30 years, so I see the other side there as well. Even as I write that I realize that, unfortunately, TFA helps continue the idea that there are “sides” in this issue. I think some CMs do go in with more of an open mind and less Kool-Aid in their cup. I hope so, at least. Thanks again.
    Caitlin

  3. I’m not a TFA, CM teacher. I am a second-career teacher though. I started in the classroom at age 32. That gave me some time after college to experience life outside the protective walls of the school house.

    I notice two things: a) teachers who enter the field in a traditional manner have been criticized by anti-teacher organizations and their leaders, and b) TFA/CM teachers are being criticized by pro-teacher organizations and their leaders.

    Regardless of the route one has taken to enter the classroom, it is the teacher who is being criticized for either being “lazy & status quo” or being “unqualified & unprepared.” Truth is, it is hard to be a teacher, remain a teacher, and make a difference when it is the person on the front lines, with the students who are being “shot at” and wounded by people who have either lost touch with the classroom experience, or never had the experience to begin with.

    I’m beginning to think that teachers are not the problem, never were the problem, but because they are so busy working they did not have the time to defend themselves from the current onslaught of public humiliation and attack. So we continue to do what we do, while those who have lost touch continue to argue. Sad, really.

  4. B

    Gary,

    I entered TFA in 2007 but was somewhat disillusioned with the program and left during institute. I worked in the private sector for a couple of years before pursuing traditional teaching certification. I am now completing my first year of teaching.

    I think we need people like you to fight against the myth of the first-year TFA savior. The public is starting to believe the lie that good teaching runs on energy and enthusiasm alone, that the first-year TFA teacher is going to “beat” the old, lazy vet by putting in twice the hours and working twice as hard.

    The truth is that new teachers HAVE TO put in twice the hours and work twice as hard just to be in the same ballpark of quality as an experienced vet. As an admitted first-year disaster teacher (and I fall into the “highly recruited Ivy Leaguer” TFA category), I watched my colleagues, many of “lesser” education backgrounds, effortlessly traverse the obstacles that nearly sunk me (how I ended up buying your book in the first place).

    The graph of teaching experience vs. teacher quality (assuming the teacher is committed and intelligent) is not linear–it’s exponential. The TFA approach breeds arrogance as well as contempt for teaching as a lifelong profession. It’s a shame that such a well-meaning organization has now been reduced to union-busting.

  5. Jessica Torelli

    As an incoming CM this year, I don’t feel pressed to “take sides.” I joined TFA to fight the achievement gap and hopefully we’re all on that side. While I know I am entering the field with rose colored glasses, I know I am not going to “change the world” in 2 years. You also have to remember that TFA’s mission is to eliminate the achievement gap- not fill teacher shortages. Research has shown that TFA teachers are equally effective, if not more so, than other teachers in the field. (http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411642_Teach_America.pdf and http://www.teachforamerica.org/about-us/research/) No one is saying we should get rid of highly effective veteran teachers, but I TFA does talk about the need to reevaluate the way we train and compensate teachers to make sure they are able to perform their jobs effectively. Education needs major reform, and of course there are many ways to accomplish it. While I don’t believe that TFA is the end all be all for education reform, they are getting leaders who are committed to closing the achievement gap into the industry. These leaders are taking a myriad of different routes to create educational change in their communities. How can that be a bad thing for education?

  6. adrilicious

    I’m an incoming 2011 CM who has actively been involved in the labor movement, who, through a strange combination of variables, has come to have a rather high level of disdain for teachers unions (but not for teachers). I think ‘good teacher’ if you want to think of it as an independent variable, is not necessarily dependent on ‘years of service’ after a particular threshold (research, in fact shows this assertion to be true). I don’t think anyone wants to get rid of great teachers, but I do in fact think it’s important to fire bad teachers. I do think ‘bad teachers’ are problem, just like ‘bad administration’ is a factor. I guess I wonder from you – what ARE teachers responsible for (and how can that be monitored?).

  7. Another great post Gary.

  8. Ph.D. in Literacy

    Jessica,
    You might want to do a little more research into the effectiveness of TFA teachers in reading. Math achievement is equal or better. Reading achievement is abysmal. Even TFA admits it (although it hides the info in footnotes and tiny, barely mentioned asides).

    I’ve personally worked with post-TFA teachers in other positions. They are eager, but most of them know absolutely nothing about teaching reading, and their students’ scores show it. Even an MA (let alone a BA) in English from Harvard doesn’t teach you anything about how to teach children how to read. And neither does TFA. Just one of TFA’s dirty little secrets.

    • Alohagirl

      hallelujah. thanks for the whole post above, an especially this little nugget about reading. I am a 2010 CM for whom “disillusionment” doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about TFA. I’m sticking with it, mainly because I was very intentionally entering education anyway, and I am teaching in the area where I want to live. My school is a hard-to-staff rural one, and I am a middle school English teacher for ELL students. From day one at Institute, I was astounded to read over the schedule and find not a single workshop, session, talk, presentation, ANYTHING on ELL. I mean, can I be the only ELL teacher in all of TFA? Isn’t this a common situation in classrooms across the country? It seemed an odd oversight. It went from oversight to disaster when I entered the classroom and realized I had NO IDEA how to teach secondary students how to read. No one in TFA has been able to support me in that, either. And yet, we (the other ELL reading teacher I work with, also TFA) have to face all those “shout-outs” and endless celebrations of math teachers experiencing “a year and a half of growth!” It is so damn frustrating. We have kids that are illiterate in English (and quite likely in their home language) and are desperately trying to help them – but spend so much time floundering with trial-and-error.
      Institute couldn’t have been more useless for me. If I had spent the entire 5 weeks learning how to teach secondary students how to read, it would have been great. Instead, we had sessions on how to work with your co-teacher that included gems like “Find out what their favorite Starbucks drink is and bring it to them!”
      Sorry, TFA has a long way to go before they can live up to their claims of dynamo teachers.

      • Megan

        Aloha girl- I feel the need to post because I felt your pain. Just finished my “commitment” to TFA as a PreK teacher. In the same way you say they did not prepare you to teach ELL, TFA was not concerned with developmentally appropriate practices in the PreK classroom and much more concerned with creating a “rigorous tracker” (read: double the work for me, as I already have a curriculum used in my school) for me to fill out for them.

        What I want to say to you, is if you are passionate about the shortcomings of TFA, and you can manage without the Americorps award, quit. Because that sends a message. I have many friends who quit but stayed in their classroom, and I am guessing this would be a possibility for you too. It’s a funny misconception (probably because many TFA people are not concerned with staying in the classroom) — TFA and your JOB are two very different, often disconnected things.

        So, in sum, I regret my decision to finish, I should have quit TFA (i.e. NOT my job, I’m staying at my center a third year… maybe fourth… who knows :D) when I realized how lost of a movement it is.

        Just some food for thought :)

    • Liz

      I’m glad to say that I am an ECE 2011 corps member in Chicago and we will be starting the literacy pilot this year to really tackle this problem. In creating this pilot, I believe that TFA is admitting that there is much room for improvement in terms of preparation to teach literacy to our children.
      To Gary, I have read Ravitch in my education class in college (go Grinnell!) and I believe that she has a lot of insightful comments about the problems with standardized tests, teaching to the tests, and a loss of important classroom tenets such as creativity and teacher flexibility in terms of curriculum standards (tenets that may not be objectively measureable). Experienced teachers are by far exceptional and transformational, and as a corps member myself I do not see my role as one that aims to deny this nor try to show up those who are experienced. Like you in your first year, I will turn to those I work with and use them as mentors, learn about what they believe works and does not work, and acknowledge that it is my first year teaching. When I found out about my placement, I volunteered and observed the preschool in my college town for four months so that I could take additional steps to prepare myself. I will be invested in improving, learning, and researching about the ECE curriculum and how to teach effectively. I hope to bring my psychology major into the classroom as well in terms of developmental, behavioral, health, and social psychology.
      I myself am very uneducated about the union but have been aware that there are multiple perspectives. I believe that teachers should not have to kill themselves every year for 50 years in order to maintain their job. I think that job security is important, and even if a teacher has a rough year or struggles to make the academic gains they are used to in his or her classroom, that could be attributed to a number of factors outside of the teacher’s control and should not determine the loss of his or her job. I also do not think that teachers like the one shown in “Waiting for Superman” who read the newspaper behind their desk should become an over-generalized view of how most teachers are—those bad seeds are outliers, not the majority. However, when a bad seed teacher is discovered, tenure or other restraints should not be in place to prevent administration from doing something about that specific teacher. That’s where I believe the problem becomes personal and political though, and it becomes hard to put the trust in the principal’s hands all of the time if there may be personal problems vs. professional ones in a given situation.
      Sorry for the novel response.

  9. danielleinthed

    Great post. I agree that TFA (and its spawn, Michelle Rhee) are quite problematic. However, I think that we can agree that TFA has noble (albeit unfairly reached) goals.

  10. Excellent job. I bumped into some TFA recruiters on the subway, and I was frankly flabbergasted by their arrogance. When I confronted them with the knowledge that TFA-ers don’t stay in the teaching profession, I was told that many end up in administration. Really? After three years of teaching, you’re ready to work in administration? Why not try to master your craft, first?

  11. Betts

    TFA’ersare being groomed to takeover leadership – not teach. The utltimate goal is leadership. There were several at my previous school who, as the Principal stands guard, protects the jobs and interest of TFAers until they finish school. Then they move right into leadership, without an interview, without the regular process it takes for hiring an individual. They just slip right in. Once they finish school the next thing you know they are a dean or a vice principal. Some they move into position without any creditials at all – protect them while they are actually working in the capacity of a dean, asst. principal, or principal, until they finish school when there are plenty of qualified teachers who have already finished school, have experience under their belts and can do a much better job. Instead, they are fired. Once they are fired the TFAers have “secured” their positions. It is ruthless game to play with peoples lives. Teaching is a career if you want to put stability in childrens lives. Teaching is a growth career that teachers spend their entire lives training and keeping up with the latest in teaching, then to have people who only plan to stay 2 or 3 years max to move on to administration says only one thing – it s about money and power (oh 2 things then). After they get the power then they are so indebted to rhee that they help her with her propaganda. rhee and those who back her are dangerous people. Anytime a group of people want to monopolize anything, we should be leary. This is a dangerous mindset. And as I have said many times before we should not call a leader of a school a chancellor particularly when they have the mindset of a hitler.

  12. Emily

    Thank you for this post. As comments above put forth, the problem may be that there are “sides” to take at all- with the education budget so thin, it’s ridiculous that people within the education reform movement are tearing each other to shreds. I love this CM’s blog: http://twoyearsattheblackboard.blogspot.com/

    and he had an EXCELLENT guest post about TFA, data, and the issues therein here:

    http://www.anurbanteacherseducation.com/2011/05/teach-for-america-corps-member.html

    Completely unrelated: I love that you’re still blogging under the .teachforus domain- at least TFA is open to critics!

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Emily,
      Actually, teachforus.org is not officially affiliated with TFA. TFA used to have message boards on their website, but took them down when criticisms of TFA appeared on them. I do respect, though, that TFA put a link to this blog site from their own. I imagine that they regret it sometimes, but that was a good step in the right direction. I’ll check out those blogs you mentioned.
      Gary

      • Emily

        How interesting! Missed the “independent blog network” bit on their site… I am surprised that they don’t take a more active role (both in censoring bloggers and also in promoting them…) as they’re such a PR- heaving organization. hm!

  13. frustratedcm

    hey, i’m a first-year CM that is seriously contemplating leaving TFA over most of the same issues that you have. i’ve read a lot of posts on your blog about these issues, and i was wondering if you have an email address that i could ask you some questions at in a more private forum?

  14. iamateacher

    The TFA’ers I have met are usually white, and only want to work in schools that have mostly poor kids of color. They are missionaries, plain and simple.

  15. eminnm

    I’m a 2011 CM heading into Institute in a couple weeks, and I think you might be underestimating us a little. Obviously, I can only speak for myself, but not all (or even a majority) of the information I get about education comes from the Kool-Aid-stained lips of TFA. When I first looked into joining TFA, I had some rosy ideas for sure, but of course before I committed 2 years of my life to it, I looked at multiple sides of the issue (and by the way, thank you for being one of those sides). I know TFA isn’t perfect, I know teaching is really hard, and I know (consciously, even if like everyone I don’t want to believe it emotionally) that I probably won’t be very good at it at first. Like just about every issue worth talking about, education is complicated and if there were a simple solution we would have found it already. But I still think educational equality is worth fighting for, and from where I am now, TFA is a way to do that.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right that TFA is a way for you to join the fight, and I think that it’s great that you’re doing that. Also, I’m glad to hear that there are CMs (maybe a lot of them) who are getting a sense that TFA has its own slant on what they want the public and the CMs to hear. They like to paint a rosy picture to the public for PR, and they like to paint a rosy picture to the CMs since they seem to believe that if you go in not knowing how difficult it is, you might not give up so easily. In that way, I think TFA underestimates the CMs.

    • Rob

      Eminnm- You put in words what I have been thinking. I am a college senior, and I received my email today to advance to the phone interview. I have been contemplating my career path, but like you said TFA is the best option we have. I am interested in hearing more about your experience so far.

      • I don’t know about the “best” option. It’s certainly not the only option. There are a lot of regional alternative certification programs that are better integrated into the communities and in my opinion do a better job of training and supporting effective teachers. I guess it depends on a)whether one of those is available in the region you’re interested in and b)whether you’re willing to give up the prestigious cachet of the TFA name.

  16. '07Alum

    You should check out the chapter in Wendy’s new book entitled “No Silver Bullets, No Silver Scapegoats.” It’s pretty clear that TFA itself does not endorse the doctrinaire waves being made about Ed Reform; it’s antithetical to our work and movement. However, TFA allows space for our alumni who are fully invested in that approach to be heard and have a light shone on them. I don’t think the organization does a good enough job of illuminating the dissent that does exist within our CM and alumni base about the Ed Reform movement. Moreover, those of us who are alumni with criticisms are not organized to carve out a place for ourselves in the TFA movement either. TFA, like many things that have become ‘institutionalized’ belongs to us as well and our action, commitment, conversation, engagement must shape it.

    Your TFA is not gone; as an alum, you are TFA. There are many of us (alumni and I would guess CMs as well) with critiques who are committed to pushing the organization in a direction that we believe is true to our mission and is socially just. Let’s build a conversation and community; our critiques need to construct what we envision, not simply tear down.

    • 09Alum

      I must disagree with you. TFA is not interested in hearing alternative perspectives. I spent 2 years being torn down by them every time I opened my mouth with a criticism of their approach, attitude, etc. They would love to have you believe that they “encourage” feedback but really they just want everyone to give them an “agree” or “strongly agree” on their surveys and if you don’t, they use your one-on-one meeting time to attack you and try to change your mind.

      Additionally, TFA has done a STELLAR job of making it SEEM like they don’t endorse anything and then Wendy Kopp turns around and writes a letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger in March 2006 opposing Linda Darling-Hammond’s potential employment to the California Teacher credentialing Commission (gee, I wonder why she did that?)

      I appreciate that you are encouraging us all (i.e. TFA CM and Alum) who do not agree with many aspects of TFA to find a space to discuss with each other, but it is my opinion that TFA would prefer it if we didn’t.

      Read this article: It’s a fantastic assessment of TFA and what it has become

      http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/24_03/24_03_TFA.shtml

  17. BN

    Really enjoying reading this blog and the comments. I am a pretty young career educator, four years in, and I just completed working with a TFA’er on our very close team for two years. I must say, it was a trial. While he had good intentions, he was also hopelessly forgetful, self-centered, always less than truthful, and in the end, if the test scores show it, not a very good teacher. He seemed to believe that he could network and charm his way into a spot of esteem at our school. Our principal was gone during his first year, and this worked on those in charge, but when our principal came back, he was evaluated harshly but, I believe, fairly.
    In the end, it’s hard not to be bitter. He did not come to us with any degree of humbleness. I don’t feel like he left with any, either.
    I know he was popular with our students, but I find it hard to give great credit for that. After dealing with the huge emotional show that he put on saying goodbye to our kids, as if he was leaving them in a den of tigers, I am, as I said, bitter. He was not truthful about where he was going or why he was leaving, either.
    I also worked as a FA at Summer Institute and I was horrified. The CMs were overworked and had no time to discuss their lessons with us. I think showed me more than anything what TFA thinks of career educators. The director of our summer institute had one year of teaching experience.
    I am not against the idea of TFA, but in the individuals I have met, it is a rare CM who will make a huge impact in their first two years, and an even more rare individual that stays to become a part of the community. We also have a TFA-run charter pulling our kids and then kicking them back to us when they decide that they aren’t good enough for them. Bah.
    I just want to know why the millions if not billions that TFA is getting does not trickle into to the schools that do open their doors to CMs.

  18. ThanksButNoThanks

    This blog has been very helpful because it aligns with many of my own concerns about TFA. I was extended an offer to join the 2011 corps, and I have declined the offer. This was due to many reasons (not limited to) the region they wanted to send me to and the two month waitlist they enacted which was soaked in unprofessionalism.
    However, I think even more prominent than those logistical aspects is a sense that I got during my application process. I have a traditional teaching background and certification. I saw myself as a prime candidate because many of my educational beliefs align with TFA and I’m already on a career path to make teaching a life-long career… not just a two year ‘commitment’. Not only was my background downplayed throughout the interview process, but at times I even felt it was put against me. As if a teaching degree wasn’t really what they were looking for. I was told specifically by a 2010 CM that during the application/interview process “Do NOT say that your life-long career goal is to simply be a classroom teacher. They want leaders. They want people that are going to do bigger and better things to help supprt their political machine after their two year commitment.”
    For an organization that should be looking to minimize the revolving door of educators in a classroom… this speaks volumes as to where their priorities are placed.

    • What is the two month waitlist?

    • '07Alum

      The advice from the 2010 CM is categorically untrue. It is a key part of TFA’s theory of change that there be life-long educators in our alumni base. It’s so sad to see that you chose not to join the movement, though you will doubtless have an impact on the kids you teach. A diversity of voices w/i TFA is essential to the growth of the organization; I could’ve easily left TFA b/c of my critiques, but that would do no good to anyone.

      You need to be really careful about who you take advice from as well. Just b/c someone is a CM does not mean they understand Teach For America’s selection model. If you can find the 20th Anniversary copy of One Day magazine by any chance you should check out the article on selection. It shed light on a lot of q’s I’d had.

    • 09Alum

      My Program Director told me, “We don’t train teachers, we train leaders.” You are right — they don’t want people who are going to stay in the classroom… I wonder why?

  19. Phil

    Thank you for this post! I am an experienced secondary teacher with 8 years in public schools. I went about my training the traditional way. I recently made the decision that I was ready for the challenge of working in a high-needs urban school. I decided to apply for TFA because of the support system and specialized training it provided. Since I got accepted and began to do more research and my pre-institute work, I noticed with concern that I seemed to have alligned myself with a fairly “anti-teacher” group of people, if not TFA itself than at least many of the organizations that are related to it. I began to question whether I had made the right choice. I have come to the conclusion that I am making the right choice (because I still believe 100% in the TFA mission). However, as I go into institute I am preparing myself to educate my fellow CMs that there is much more complexity to the problems in education than Michelle Rhee would have them know. Over the years I have worked with exceptional teachers and mediocre teachers, but never lazy or uncaring teachers. I hope that new CMs can enter their schools with eyes wide open to see what it’s like for themselves, and not make assumptions based solely on anti-teacher union rhetoric.

  20. I’m a education activist in Seattle and write for an education blog, Save Seattle Schools.

    TFA is supposed to be coming to our region. One district has a contract with TFA that guarantees placement but not Seattle Schools. However, it is clear some kind of end run is going to be done around the contract to get TFA in Seattle. Understand that we do not have a shortage of completely qualified teachers so importing more unemployed TFA recruits is odd. We also don’t have the money in our district so naturally the Gates Foundation is going to pony up the fee for at least the first year. After that, who knows?

    As well, the University of Washington has created a new certification program just for TFA. Unfortunately, the students in the College of Education feel completed dissed. I’m sure when they find out that TFA got a discount on tuition for their recruits, they will be even less happy.

    There was a meeting with the Dean (how fortunate – he’s a former TFAer) of the College of Education and the students, many of them, feel like their degrees are being denigrated and that they have been slapped in the face. One asked how to create a community with people who come in under favored circumstances.

    The Dean said to them that if he had the choice between a fully certified student from his College and TFA, he would chose the certified student. He told them they had a “moral obligation” to help a TFA teacher because the kids in the TFA class had a lesser teacher. You can imagine what that sounds like to someone like me especially with a Special Ed student. I have no idea what it sounds like to one of you. (This is on videotape so you can check this.)

    What would you say to those grad students? Accept us but we’re smarter and more talented than you?

    What do you say to veteran teachers in a school? Help us, we’re quick learners?

    I can only say that Seattle can be a friendly place but education is taken pretty seriously here. I would not expect open arms here and a lot of that lies at the feet of TFA, the College of Education (and its Dean, Tom Stritikus) and the disingenuous talk from Seattle Public Schools.

  21. DE

    Hey Gary,
    I appreciated this blog post. I’ve just finished an alternate-route program similar to TFA that I chose over TFA at least in part because it doesn’t position itself against career teachers. I worked in a school system where there are a good number of TFA teachers, and many of my friends are corps members. Every single one of my friends is skeptical of the organization’s messaging and overall mission and execution. Of the other teachers in the organization I’ve come to know, there are definitely a lot who “drink the koolaid.” It’s not uncommon for me to see an acquaintance post on facebook “Today I taught for America,” with a not-so-subtle implication that they’re doing a better job of this than non-TFA teachers. But at the same time, this definitely is not everyone, and I wanted to share that with you.

  22. Seth

    Gary,

    Noble efforts on the piece and I appreciate the faux nostalgia. I think you would really benefit from hanging around a TFA office, or with current CMs and their PDs to learn more about the ever increasing effectiveness of CMs since 1991. You focus purely on your incorrect perceptions of what has negatively changed in the last two decades and on none of the dramatic wins we’ve seen occur in the time.

    Chief among my concerns regarding your extreme logical leaps of faith and fallacies is your claim that TFA should not place in regions w/o teacher shortages. Excuse you? A district being fully staffed has exactly nothing to do with the quality of those teachers or the distribution of them among underserved schools. I assume you know how feeble of an argument this is given the relative little ink given to it. I went to a lot of crappy schools, none of which had or have a shortage of teachers willing to come in and occupy a desk for 185 days. So, is your underlying belief that if there is no teacher shortage in a given district then there is no quality shortage either? Coming for an underserved community that’s just frankly offensive and ignorant.

    Lastly, I’m pretty sure I’m the one you’re referring to as “publicly bashing” Diane Ravitch? First of all, Twitter is considered public bashing? Second, my reply was a response to yet another union puff piece she was promoting. Three, many of these “detrimental reforms” are ones she was once the promoter for. Four, your claim she is “the person who knows more about the U.S. education system than any other person alive” shows exactly how in the pocket you are for her. Idolatry much? Five, you must follow her Twitter feed and also read the slew of misinformation and divisive (not to mention delusional too often) vitriol which spews forth. So if asking her via Twitter if she’s paid by unions is “bashing her in public” then I’m guilty as charged. If you play in the mud, you get dirty Gary.

    So, Gary, your poorly reasoned arguments disguised by some sense of noble reminiscing has not fooled me, and I hope not many others who encounter your blog looking not for divisive commentary (and someone building a readership base on negative viewpoints as opposed to genuine solutions) but actual solutions. I am a rather vocal voice on the things I want to see change about TFA, but I don’t sit around writing whiny blogs about how so much has changed and all for the worse.

    I AM TFA as well and the students we serve were me when I was being cheated out of an adequate education. So, this work is deeply personal for me in a way that demands I not subvert the service of students with ideology or some imagined dogma. The truth is that TFA continues to be one of the most powerful and positive forces in ensuring our poorest students and communities have advocates and quality/caring teachers. These may not serve the best interests of adults, which appear to be your and Diane’s primary foci. I have plenty of critiques about the work TFA does, but I’m also a part of the conversation to help realize what I want to see change—more than simply writing snarky and egregiously flawed blog posts.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Thanks for this post. You prove my point better than I ever could.

      • Seth

        Of course. It seems our mutual feelings here provide at least one point of agreement.

    • Alohagirl

      Seth, you sound…young.

    • Charlie Mas

      Seth,

      While it is true that the absence of a teacher shortage is not evidence of the absence of a “quality” shortage, there is no evidence that TFA does anything to meet that “quality” shortage.

      TFA corps members, on the whole, are no more effective than other novice teachers from traditional teacher training paths. Moreover, TFA corps members, like all other novice teachers, have been shown to be, on the whole, significantly LESS effective than experienced teachers.

      The presumption that TFA corps members close some perceived “quality” shortage is just frankly offensive and ignorant.

      So you should tone down the suggestion that someone else has committed “extreme logical leaps of faith and fallacies” or made a “poorly reasoned” argument. While you’re at it, you should also tone down the suggestion that someone else is “whiny”.

  23. AL

    I was a 2010 corps member. I joined because I wanted to be a a teacher and I learned, that if that is your career goal, you really should not join TfA. TfA trains heroes who think they are doing community service and becoming a leader and “effecting change.” Not every corps member comes in with that mentality- but that is the target of speeches and the way they frame their messaging.
    Teaching is a job. Teaching is a career. I was insulted by the propaganda that somehow we needed to be congratulated for our sacrifice of time and spirit to teach in these schools. There are teachers laid off all over the country, why are heroes for taking teaching jobs?
    Perhaps that congratulations helps some get through the grueling first year of teaching. I would have preferred actual support and a regional office that cared about my career goals and helped me start on my chosen path in my teaching career. They did not, on both counts.

    I left. I am sure tfa looks at me as just another quitter who couldn’t cut it. I am in grad school for education and I’ll teach in a year. and be far better prepared than I could ever have been with tfa. and I’ll be at my job, not a community service placement.

    I wish TfA could change focus and train teachers in it for a career. I would have joined with a 5 year commitment like Math for America, if asked and given proper teacher training.

    • Seth

      I agree, as I mentioned above, there should be (and hopefully soon will be) more options for CMs who would like to pursue “master teacher”, “school leaderhip” and/or “content specialist” positions. There is an onus on districts to identify their top teachers (TFA and not) but of course manyh of the districts we place in aren’t quite in a place to offer meaningful and targeted professional development.

  24. Jane

    Point to Gary.

  25. Thanks for this post, Gary. I’m not from as early a corps as you were, but when I did TFA I worked in a genuinely understaffed region, content area and campus, and I am disturbed by the current direction of TFA…or maybe I shouldn’t say the direction of the organization itself, but rather the way the organization is being used by certain alumni and outside forces to advance their agendas. It’s a relief to see someone else voicing these concerns in a reasoned, informed way.

  26. GRR

    @Gary: as someone who follows educational politics from a distance, i just want to congratulate you on this reasoned and nuanced perspective. @seth – clearly you have strong, impassioned opinions about this issue. I’d bet I agree with a number of them, but your tone makes me take you (and TFA) far less seriously.

    • Seth

      I appreciate your input, though I suspect taking this snapshot in isolation, devoid the broader context, suffers the same fate of all evidence evaluated without retrospect or acknowledgement of the thread of history that runs through our interactions: an ill informed perspective.

      I acknowledge my fervent rebuttal and slipping into less than polite discourse. However, and this applies you @parus, if given to choice to not have Gary’s dissent around I would not elect that option. Critique and evaluation are indispensable levers for learning and improvement. I would prefer to see and more balanced, helpful and inquisitive dialogue though.

      • bufatlbdlmia

        Were you part of an elite debate team?

    • Liz

      you should take out that “(and TFA)” because whether you agree with him or not, his voice is his own and, while he is a TFA representative, it would be wrong to generalize his voice to all of TFA.

  27. I’m also a TFA alum critical of the organization. And I also believe the organization has made significant and detrimental shifts in outlook, philosophy and strategy.

    That said, I think it’s far too easy for critical alumni to give themselves a pass. We were part of the organization. That doesn’t require loyalty (or even ‘critical friendship’). It doesn’t mean we are charged to inspire in Teach for America the reflection that might make it reconsider some of its positions.

    We are responsible for having been CMs. To my mind, TFA’s mission has always been flawed, and I’m responsible for my one-time support of that mission.

    When I joined TFA, my district was so hard up for warm bodies in the classroom that they paid a signing bonus to teachers. TFA was fulfilling a need, certainly. But as a first year, uncredentialed teacher, I was little more than a warm body – and one working with high-needs students. Ultimately, that’s not okay. Eleven years later, I’m still in the classroom, but it doesn’t excuse the hubris I had at the time.

    There are a lot of ways to solve the problem of too few teachers. I think TFA’s was and is the wrong one. Being critical of the organization now does not exonerate me from having been part of it, and I think honesty requires that all critical TFA alumni speak to this issue.

  28. Melissa

    Governor Kasich has just signed legislation to allow TFA in Ohio. This comes at a time when the state education budget had been cut and teachers are getting laid off across the state. When Cleveland has laid off 740 teachers, why does it need TFA?

  29. Phil I.P.C.

    Gary, I’m just curious: have you done any work in policy or lobbying? You have a unique voice on these issues and it would be incredible to have a counterweight in the political sphere to the Michelle Rhees of this country. Ravitch can’t fight them off on her own.

    It seems like it would be so easy to change the education reform debate in this country by pointing out how the voucher/anti-union crowd has clearly fallen prey to group-think, greed, or both to produce such clearly ineffective reform measures.

    And we need people not just going on the defensive against this crowd, but actively promoting real reform that really works.

  30. Phil I.P.C.

    Gary, I’m just curious: have you done any work in policy or lobbying? You have a unique voice on these issues and it would be incredible to have a counterweight in the political sphere to the Michelle Rhees of this country. Ravitch can’t fight them off on her own.

    It seems like it would be so easy to change the education reform debate in this country by pointing out how the voucher/anti-union crowd has clearly fallen prey to group-think, greed, or both to produce such clearly ineffective reform measures.

    And we need people not just going on the defensive against this crowd, but actively promoting real reform that really works.

    I really think you could do great things in education politics. Perhaps you have some insight into how an incoming 2011 corps member like myself might be able to start fighting the good fight as well.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Thanks for this comment. It’s great to hear a 2011 CM who is already seeing the big picture. And in answer to your question, I am beginning to get involved in the fight against the likes of Michelle Rhee. Up until very recently, I was mainly concerned with teacher training, but with what’s going on with the direction that the country is going in with education, I feel really compelled to start thinking and writing about these issues. This blog has started to get a lot of hits thanks to Diane Ravitch taking a liking to it. I hope that I can continue building a name for myself that could lead to me being one of the names and faces on the ‘good’ side of this fight. As a new CM, remember that your first priority is to do the best job possible for your future students, so try not to get distracted too much by that big picture. If you read my earlier posts, you can get pretty much all my advice for new teachers. Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions.

  31. Jennifer

    http://www.studentsfirst.org/

    StudentsFirst, not ‘Children First.’

  32. Matt B

    Thanks for this Gary. I read your blog a lot when I first joined the corps in 2009, and recommended it to several of my teacher friends. I grew disillusioned, ideologically from the organization for a lot of the same reasons you did, which was a big reason why I left the corps after a year of teaching.

    I wouldn’t expect 2011ers to know “where they stand” on the major ed policy issues of the day. I do ed research now and I still don’t totally know. Understanding that there are other valid viewpoints out there though, and that everybody (yes, even Ravich) is working for kids, is important.

    Thanks for being an important voice in the discussion.

  33. NYC cm dropout

    It’s been said a number of times, but THANK YOU. TFA offered me a slot in NY this year [after a two month-long waitlist process] and initially I accepted. However, slowly I began to feel notably uncomfortable with the organization. After the webinars TFA requires you to attend and the bizarre contracts you have to sign, which feel like you’re signing your soul away, I started to have real doubts.

    Every new bit of info I found out about my placement made me all the more uneasy. My “mentor” told me that I’d most likely [95% chance] be teaching special Ed because unlike a majority of other CM, I possessed the pre-requisites for the job. I was a Literature major in college. If an English major now is “qualified” to teach special Ed, I shudder to think what sort of “regular” teachers TFA is hiring.

    Anyhow, up until I read your blog [and the other posts] I’d been feeling like a fink who had chickened out of doing some kind of altruistic human service, a total heel. Instead of TFA I decided to apply for certification the traditional way and attend a joint MA/credential program. Because of what you said, I’m relieved to’ve made the right decision. Infinite thanks to you and the TFA-ers brave enough to be nakedly honest.

    • Sam

      As someone who works in special education, I genuinely laughed out loud at the thought that being a “Literature” major qualified you to teach special ed.

      Never feel like a fink or a chicken for not thinking you can “save society” simply because you are bright.

      I give you so much credit for going for substance over unwarranted prestige.

  34. Thank you

    I am one of an increasing number of traditionally credentialed teachers in Oakland who has been bumped OUT of a job to make room for TFA corps members. The routine goes like this: Principal calls you in during your first, second, or third year (pre-tenure, of course) and informs you that you’re a “Bad Fit.” No further explanation needed. Job reviews were good? Doesn’t matter, particularly if the principal is new (and possibly even affiliated with TFA, as an increasing number of principals here are). If my university hadn’t had an agreement with Oakland, I probably wouldn’t have been hired to begin with.

    Then there’s an empty slot for a TFA person who will almost certainly not stay for more than two years.

    Why does this happen? Money. If the district grants us tenure, we might hang around and advance on the salary scale.

    As for the tenured teachers, I’ve been hearing about people who have worked in the district for ten, twenty, thirty years SUDDENLY getting questionable performance reviews, pop-in observations, odd unsettling memos from administrators, and so forth.

    Make no mistake–there is no teacher shortage in Oakland. In this economy, there really aren’t teacher shortages in many places. The TFA people I worked with seemed to mean well (although it was pretty funny to hear a 23-year-old who’s never worked anywhere else a day in his life go on and on and on about how evil our union is, as though he were a seasoned veteran of education and we had Jimmy Hoffa running the show around here, which couldn’t be further from the truth). But the TFA people in my credential classes are long gone. The TFA girl who replaced me is long gone.

    The district had widespread layoffs yet again this year, and at the same time the New Teacher’s Project (begun by Michelle Rhee) was running ads for trainers to support the incoming crew of interns for 2011-2012.

    And the other thing about Oakland is, some of the TFA people are SCARED of our students! They’re scared to call their homes! Many of them are very, very white, which is fine, but it’s clear that some of them have never spent much time around black or brown people. They’re also very young, as in very close in age to our high school students, which can pose additional challenges for everyone concerned.

    And TFA has been in Oakland for quite some time now, so the students are almost inherently annoyed with them. They can smell enthusiastic condescension like it’s something stuck to their shoes, and their reaction is very similar. They know that these young, clumsy teachers calling them “man” and trying to rap the lessons are only here temporarily, doing Peace Corps work in the jungle.

    I’m still here, subbing now, still looking for a permanent job…somewhere, which is not easy after having been non-renewed. Teaching was a career change for me, so there’s also the age factor. And I’ve got student loans racked up from my credential program. Not fun!

    I live in Oakland. These are my neighbors’ children. And there’s no real place for me in our public school system, in the city I’ve called home for 25 years. Thanks a lot, Wendy Kopp, for changing the world.

    I very much appreciated your article.

  35. You say that there’s no real proof of Michelle Rhee’s success, but you don’t substantiate that claim. The numbers:

    ince 2007, secondary schools have improved their standardized test pass rates by 14% in reading and 17% in math, while elementary school pass rates have improved 6% in reading and 15% in math. System-wide high school graduation rates also improved by 3%, up to 72% in 2009. By 2010, D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System reading pass rates had increased by 14 percentage points, and math pass rates had increased by 17 percentage points.

    That said, I think your point that not all teachers are heroes and first year teachers need more training is legitimate. I had a hard time during my first year. It wasn’t until my third year that I actually started enjoying teaching. Now, in my seventh year, I still am learning and trying to improve.

    http://www.lulu.com/alastingwill – Classroom Resources For All

  36. Robyn Reeves

    As a prospective applicant to TFA, I appreciate your time and candor in your blog posts. I like the mission of TFA, but do not love the way that the organization engages in public controversy. From what I understand these days, TFA is a “controversial” program in and of itself, and I’m starting to feel it is b/c of it’s own dabblings in controversial issues. Their website says “The thoughts, ideas, and opinions expressed on Pass the Chalk are the responsibility of individual bloggers. Unless explicitly stated, blog posts do not represent the views of Teach For America as an organization.” Yet, the bloggers are TFA employees and it is posted clearly on the home page of their website. It is too bad that the organization can’t just focus on training the best teachers possible, and stay out of all the hubbub.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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