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.’