A recent post by one of the most thoughtful TFA bloggers on this site was called ‘Don’t Hate Me Because I’m TFA.’ In it, Tony B responds to another blogger that I think is great, Katie Osgood, from Chicago. What people who have just begun following the education debate in this country might be surprised about is the ‘hating’ of TFA is something that has only recently become a phenomenon.
A new TFAer might be confused about why she could be ‘hated.’ After all, all she’s trying to do is do her part, give back, be a front-line soldier in the war against the achievement gap. What could be so bad about that?
I’m glad that when I joined TFA in 1991, nobody ‘hated’ me for it (aside from some of the students who were unfortunate enough to have me as a teacher in my first year — but that is another story). The veteran teachers in my building ‘adopted’ me and helped me in any way they could. When the office stopped accepting kids from my class, the veteran teachers would allow me to send my discipline problems to their rooms. When I was getting observed one day, veteran teachers ‘had my back’ by intercepting the students who were trying to come to class late (generally kids who I had trouble controlling in class) and bringing them to their rooms so I could have an opportunity to have a better observation. When I would sleep on the couch in the teacher’s lounge during my free period (I did not have energy to plan, then, since I had to recover from all the screaming), the veteran teachers would carefully nudge me awake so I wasn’t late for my next class. Far from hated, the teachers in my school liked me and took care of me the way one might care for a stray cat.
But if you Google ‘I hate TFA’ you’ll get a lot of matches, nowadays, and I want to use this post to explain why. I hope to help new TFAers to understand, but also to help TFA, itself, to understand so they might be able to prevent this with some pretty significant changes.
The first person to publicly criticize TFA was professor Linda Darling-Hammond in 1994 in Phi Delta Kappan in an article called “Who Will Speak for the Children; How ‘Teach for America’ Hurts Urban Schools and Students.” I was in my third year at that time and I didn’t take much notice of this critique. At that time, there were fewer than 1,000 corps members a year so TFA wasn’t really able to do too much damage, I felt. Principals, back then, weren’t really forced to hire us. There were schools with huge turnover problems and they chose TFAers over long-term subs.
Over the next seventeen years, I never really ‘hated’ much about TFA. I was often frustrated that they would not improve their training model. I did what I could do to help out. I even worked at the 1996 institute as a Corps Member Advisor (Michelle Rhee, now of StudentsFirst, was my supervisor, though she was a bit younger than me. Hari Sevungan, also a major person in StudentsFirst, was one of my trainees.) For about ten years I presented workshops about classroom management at various institutes, trying to fill the massive gaps I felt existed in the training. So TFA frustrated me because I felt they were providing bad advice to the new teachers. In a sense, they were lying to these new teachers about how to be an effective first year teacher and I felt that this hurt the new teachers and, more importantly, the students who were to be taught by these new teachers. Still, I would never have said there was anything I actually ‘hated’ about TFA.
Over the course of the weekend of the TFA 20th year summit in February 2011, I had an epiphany. What caused this was also causing people all over the country to have similar feelings, and that was when TFA became truly controversial. There was a panel discussion and everyone on the panel was a corporate ‘reformer.’ Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada were the most vocal. At the end of the weekend, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the keynote. Listening to him tell what I knew had to be a blatant lie about the success of a school that had been ‘turned around’ by firing the teachers, I snapped. I had had enough. That was when my blog posts shifted from advice for new teachers to what it is like now.
Wendy Kopp recently responded to a critique of her book and of TFA, in general, by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review Of Books called ‘How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools.’ Wendy’s response, in The Huffington Post, was called ‘In Defense Of Optimism.’ Reading Wendy’s piece, I have a clearer picture of why those who ‘hate’ TFA do.
Incidentally, I don’t ‘hate’ TFA. Though I’m one of the bigger opponents of the corporate reform movement, I don’t think that TFA needs to be aligned with it. TFA recruits very motivated people who really want to do something ‘good’ for society. Very few of them are looking to pad their resumes. And I am one of the few people on my ‘side’ who believes that it is possible to teach someone to be a fairly competent teacher in five weeks. Unfortunately, though, TFA does not know how to accomplish this. The training is horrible, truly bordering on criminal negligence. But I still think it is possible, with a better training model, to produce competent teachers. As far as the two year commitment goes, well, people from ‘traditional’ teacher training programs don’t really have any long term commitment, either. And it seems that many people from ‘traditional’ training programs leave within five years, anyway. And, up until recently, nobody forced any principals to hire TFAers. They wanted to. (Now, though, in a sense, some are forced to because TFA has contracts with districts who lay off other teachers to make room for the new recruits so those principals are forced to hire TFAers. I don’t like this very much.) And some TFAers, like me, have taught well beyond two years and have gone on to become honest school leaders (i.e. they did not become millionaires by running charter networks that skim the most motivated poor kids and boot the ones who are bringing down their test scores — but that is another story.) and have made a difference in many kids’ lives. So TFA, for me, could have a limited role in ‘fixing’ education. Unfortunately, they got so much money which they used to ‘expand’ so that 6,000 new people come in a year rather than the 500 or so from the first years.
Newcomers to TFA probably rationalize the ‘haters’ with the easy, but flawed, logic of “Teachers are threatened by TFAers since by working so hard we are making them look bad. In five weeks we learn to be more effective than other first year teachers and at least, if not more, effective that some veterans. It is no wonder they hate us. I’d hate someone who exposes me for being lazy too.” Though this is inaccurate, it is the arrogant sentiment, also seen in Wendy’s piece, which is the true reason that some people hate TFA.
As TFA is often accused of arrogance, Wendy concedes in her book and also in the Huffington Post piece,
“my experiences have also deepened my appreciation of the magnitude of the problem and led to a nuanced vision for change.”
This is a humble beginning. She used to think it was going to be a lot easier, and now she realizes it isn’t.
But as the best defense is a good offense, she writes:
“we in the United States have discovered that we don’t have to wait to fix poverty to dramatically improve educational outcomes for underprivileged students. In fact, there’s strong evidence that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty is to expand the mission of public schools in low-income communities”
To make it seem like there are two views: 1) ‘wait’ until poverty is fixed and then concentrate on improving education or 2) improve education right now, is extremely oversimplified. Ravitch doesn’t say we should sit around doing nothing until poverty is ‘fixed.’ Nobody says that. The issue is whether the ‘reforms’ supported by the corporate reformers are likely to help or to make things worse. The popular ‘remedies’ of closing down schools and firing teachers are not really based on research. They don’t seem to be working in any individual schools, let alone districts, or states. So one thing that Ravitch always advocates for, something truly based on a lot of research, is to expand early childhood education from ages 0 to 5. This is something that has consistently been proven to help. This also does not mean we do nothing to improve schools for kids over 5. But turning schools into test-prep factories does not help those kids either. And the ‘strong evidence’ Wendy mentions that school can break the poverty cycle is pretty flimsy, unfortunately.
Then Wendy gets humble again. She admits that most TFAers are not all the heroes that they sometimes showcase.
“While we applaud the example of a few exceptional teachers who overcome every obstacle to put their students on a different trajectory, if we’re relying on classroom heroes alone, we’re setting ourselves up to fail.”
This sentence is quite important, at least when taken out of the context of what is about to be said. One thing that frustrates me sometimes about the corporate reformers (It’s hard to tell if Wendy is a hard-core one, or if she is truly just an optimist) is that they do say things like this when people complain that they are putting too much of society’s problems on the shoulders of teachers. So they say that it’s not just about the teachers — but then the policies are all about firing teachers and holding them more accountable. Actions speak much louder than words. Even Michelle Rhee has ‘said’ that it is not just about bad teachers, yet every time she shows up to lobby against LIFO, that’s all she talks about.
Then the pendulum shifts again from humble to arrogant when Wendy explains that though TFAers are not all heroic teachers, TFA leaders have sparked the turnaround in New York City and New Orleans. I don’t want to clutter this already very long post with numbers, but let me assure you that I have nothing to gain when I assure everyone that New York City and New Orleans are complete messes. It would be wise for TFA to not take any credit for them.
Then comes the biggest doozy of the piece,
“Ravitch is also wrong to suggest that Teach For America corps members aren’t effective. A significant body of rigorous research shows that they are more effective than other beginning teachers and, on average, equally or more effective than veteran teachers.”
This is just a lie. Phillip Kovaks has studied every research paper ever written about TFA and has concluded otherwise. And he also has nothing to gain, personally, by exposing this. He does it for the same reason I do. Lies that ultimately hurt kids and teachers need to be revealed.
Realizing, perhaps, that she has really stretched the truth, she then writes:
“Still, I am the first to admit — as I do in my book — that “the bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide” and “our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students.”"
One last passage I take issue with:
“More than two-thirds of our 24,000 alumni are working full-time in education. Although few of them intended to enter the field at all before their involvement with Teach For America, today a third of them are teaching, 600 are serving as principals, and many others are working as district leaders. Of the remaining third of our alumni, half have jobs related to low-income communities or schools, and only three percent are working in the private sector — hardly the “corporate” stereotype Ravitch is so fond of perpetuating.”
So 2/3 of alumni are ‘in education’ and half of the other 1/3 (1/6) are in low-income communities or schools, which is a total of 2/3+1/6=5/6=83% of alumni. This is just not true. This is based on an alumni survey with a low response rate, particularly from the older corps. The numbers are further skewed by the fact that the recent corps are 12 times the size of the older corps. I can’t fully debunk this claim here, but I promise you that this is, at best, misleading.
So Wendy did have some moments of humility here. In person, I’ve found Wendy to be quite nice. Without her help, back in 1996, I could not have gotten my first book published. She approved my request to print up copies myself and sell them to the 1996 corps members at the Houston institute. Over the past 20 years I’ve chatted with her about a dozen times and she always been friendly to me. I really don’t know if she believes what she is saying in this article or if she and TFA are in a bit of a jam. They had to stretch the truth to stay in business and now they think they have to continue that way. I’m not sure. Sometimes I think that they have come to believe their own lies.
The big reason, though, that people who hate TFA is the way TFA benefits from actions that hurt kids and teachers. When a school gets shut down unfairly, a TFA alum will be there to start a charter school in the old building. When a school fires half its staff for a ‘turnaround,’ TFA licks its chops as they get to populate these schools with more TFAers. Meanwhile, TFA must know, deep down, that shutting down schools and turning them around doesn’t work. TFAs silence on these issues is another thing that people hate about TFA. Surely some of these schools employ plenty of TFAers and have administrators who were TFAers who get fired because of these. Destructive corporate reforms seem to benefit TFA and nobody else. And TFA could do the right thing and speak up against this, but they don’t since these reforms are the source of much of their money and power.
To denounce some of these reforms, as they should, they would have to alienate some of their highest profile alumni. Without these high profile alumni, TFA would have to focus on other alumni, like principals of traditional schools who are doing a great job, but not getting the test score gains that the famous TFA alumni cheat to get, or lie about getting.
It would take a lot of guts for TFA to disassociate themselves with the corporate reform movement. They would be smart, though, to do this as soon as possible. The foundation of the corporate reform movement is already beginning to crumble. TFA does not need to go down with that ship but, sadly, they probably will.