Apr 04 2012

Fly My Pretties

The original purpose of TFA was to encourage the ‘best and brightest’ to learn, first hand, about what is going on in the American education system, and then use this knowledge to help improve it.

I joined, as most people in TFA did, to ‘make a difference’ to ‘give back.’  Hopefully my inexperience in my first year didn’t serve to do more damage to the kids I tried to teach than if someone else was teaching them.  It took me a lot of years to convince myself that the good teaching I did in my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years made up for whatever damage I had done with that first group.  I also could rest more easily knowing that as I taught middle school math, that first year, I was only one of six teachers they had that year and that the other five (we had a ‘cluster’ system so the group of 150 kids who had me had the same other five teachers) were quite good.

After I learned how to be an effective teacher, I became critical of the TFA training model.  This began in 1996 when I first (and last) worked as a staff member at the institute.  Over the next fifteen years I tried everything I could to both encourage TFA to improve the training and also to spread the word about the deficiencies of this training.

Even though most people who have been through the TFA training surely agree that it is flawed, I was the lone dissenting voice for a frustrating fifteen years.  This always confused me.  Why was nobody else angry about this?  Why was nobody else speaking up?  Maybe people didn’t want to admit how tough their first years were.  Maybe people worried that if they said how poor of a job of teaching they did and then tried to blame it on the poor training, whoever they were telling would think that this was just an excuse.

This general silence goes on today.  Maybe TFA instilled the idea of the ‘locus of control’ so much that people are conditioned to not blame anyone else for their failures.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  Here’s a question I have for any current TFAer or alum:  If someone close to you joined TFA and just finished the institute and you had five minutes to give them some valuable advice that you wish you had heard at the institute, what would you tell them?  Unless your answer is:  “Nothing.  The institute pretty much covered it all.” then you know what I’m talking about.

Only recently, about fourteen months ago, did I turn my attention to the bigger issue of education reform.  Before that I was content to write advice for new teachers and to write funny stories about my first year of teaching.  But I had some sort of epiphany at, of all places, the 20 year alumni summit.  Suddenly, it was all so clear to me:  The same sort of people who had been pretending that they knew anything about training teachers had now taken charge of the American education system and were pretending that they had any idea how to make it better.  Instead they were conducting a huge experiment based, not on research, but on half-baked ideas about what the cause of the achievement gap is and what the remedies are.  This pretending that they know what they are doing was much worse than before since instead of just hurting the student of those first year TFAers, they were now harming millions of innocent students and teachers too.  Since that convention fourteen months ago, I’ve dedicated a huge percent of my life to learning about and writing about this issue.

And it would be wrong to assume that I ‘like’ doing this.  No.  I’m doing this because I can’t not do it.  I’ve got to speak up and spread the word since I truly believe that if the corporate reformers, who TFA has aligned themselves with, win then kids will ultimately lose:  Nobody will want to be a teacher anymore and those who do teach will just teach to meaningless standardized tests so they don’t get fired.  The result will be less educated students who hate learning.

Unfortunately for me, I have a special talent for understanding and writing about this topic.  And, yes, I do get some pleasure out of it too:  I do enjoy the bit of ‘fame’ it’s gotten me.  Certainly I’ve also enjoyed finally having a ‘clique’ that I belong to after all those years where TFA shunned me.  All in all, this has definitely given me a sense of purpose, but I am still looking forward to the day that this battle ends.

I’m 42 and a husband and a father of the two greatest kids in the world, a 4 year old girl and a 1 year old boy.  Right around the time my son was born was when I started learning about this ed reform battle.  The poor little guy has had to spend his whole life, so far, with a father constantly talking about the latest ed reform news.  His first two words, I think, were “Diane Ravitch,” and his third and fourth words were “Michelle Rhee.”

This is why, for my sake, and for the sake of my wife and children, I’m asking all the current and former CMs to help me out.  In the past few years, I’ve been relieved that a few other TFAers have joined in.  Probably the most prominent is author Roxanna Elden, who wrote the excellent book ‘See Me After Class.’  But there are others, even on this teachforus site.  Wessie, of Drinking The Kool-Aid fame has been posting with such honesty, and Tony B’s blog also.  I don’t know if these two think of themselves as on the same ‘side’ as me — but I do since I think I’m just on the side of telling the truth, whatever your ‘truth’ is.

You were recruited by TFA because you were smart and ambitious and would be able to use your talents to teach, but also to analyze what is going on, after getting first-hand experience.  So now you’ve experienced how difficult teaching is.  You’ve seen, also, how complex the achievement gap is too.  So do you really believe that the issue is ‘bad teachers’ who need to be motivated through fear of being fired or through cash bonuses?  Is that really what you determined after working in a school alongside people who elected to become career teachers?  Those of you who worked in charter schools, do you really believe that they are providing an excellent education to all students?

Its time for you to speak up too.  Start writing about it.  Make your own blog or, if you want, send stuff to me and I’ll give you a ‘guest post.’  I know it is more comforting to pat yourself on the back for having ‘given back’ to society — but if you don’t get real about how some of these ‘solutions’ will make things worse, you are part of the problem.

If you think that the TFA celebrities truly know what they are doing with the power they have attained then, well, you may be the best, but you sure ain’t the brightest.

19 Responses

  1. Amen. Great post, and thank you.

  2. I started a blog and I do speak my truth. I can’t say that I totally am against TFA, but I have some qualms. I would like to chat with you.

  3. Berklee

    It took me a long time to decide to major in education due to the many aspects of our nation’s education system that contradict the research, not to mention my own ideology. I realized, however, that I love teaching. Nothing has ever filled me with more pride and satisfaction than seeing a student learn and ENJOY it. It is disheartening to see education turned into big business by the very people who stand to gain the most from it (charter school lobbyists, turnaround businesses, etc.) As frustrating as that is, it’s heartbreaking that so many people are buying into their claims and vilifying schools and educators. I am grateful that you are willing to take the time to research these issues and publicize your opinions.

  4. CM '11

    Gary, what’s your emal address?

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Sure. Its garyrubinstein at-sign yahoo dot com

  5. Demian

    I’ve collected a few testimonials of TFA members’ criticism of the organization. Check it out at http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/testimonials/.

  6. Jan Keith Farmer

    Thank you for illuminating the “charter school” myth so clearly. Rather than the leadership need for transformational change, our politicians and some reformers have rallied around simple solutions to complex problems that do not work for all students. While politicians like the improvement data and concerned parents like their “learning environment”, charter schools only work for some students. Consequently our educational system is becoming more “ability grouped” with every initiative. This should not be our aspiration as a nation.

    As a 38 year veteran of educational change as teacher, administrator, and academic; I am now teaching public school in the New Orleans area. I came here to be part of the “silicon valley of educational change” but after several second interviews with different charters I found their approach to be rigid and myopic. Well funded and well intentioned organizations like KIPP and TFA have a “false clarity” (they don’t know what they don’t know, so they think they know it) about their success and mission. They do many wonderful things and have excellent schools but they do not improve our educational system. I applaud your blog for this honest conversation.

    After facilitating transformational change as a practitioner and consultant I know we can improve education in America. We are not at a loss for existing exemplars that teach all students the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to lead a quality life. Unfortunately most charters are not the exemplars

  7. Twin Cities ’09 alum here. I currently write most of the education pieces for Minnesota 2020, a think tank/new media outfit here in MN. I don’t bring up TFA very often, but I do offer regular critiques of many current “reform” attempts. While most of my pieces reference specific Minnesota issues, I tend to place most of them in the context of the larger ed reform struggles.

    The main site’s available here (click the “Education” link to get most of my longer pieces) but the Hindsight blog is updated more frequently.

  8. Delta2010

    When I am an alum I will speak – until then I will contain my frustration and anger in silence.

  9. Jim

    Gary,

    Great post — can you shoot me an email?

    • Jim

      Woops — see it above.

  10. Not sure where else to share this experience, but perhaps it might find a sympathetic ear here.

    I have been working, as a consultant, with a turnaround school in Louisiana. The teaching staff is a mix of veterans who worked at the school for years, National Board Certified Teachers and other experienced teachers who applied to move to this school (largely because the principal was dynamic and sharp) and a handful of Teach for America corps members. The principal did not identify who was who to me–although it was possible to guess (largely by age and experience) where the teachers came from. I have been blogging about the experience–as well as the devastating edu-political atmosphere in LA.

    After my last blog, I got an outraged message from one of the TFA teachers at this school, saying that I was “caricaturing” her work by calling her a firebrand. The message included a lot of inflated rhetoric about the good TFA was doing in poor ol’ Louisiana, and how she looked forward to a career in education policy where she can do still more good.

    I was dumbstruck. The person I was calling a “firebrand” was John White. I would never call out a novice teacher–no matter where they came from–largely because I was once a novice teacher myself. Public officials are fair game, but not newbie teachers. Why would this person inflate her own importance and value in this turnaround school? She copied the message to TFA higher-ups, by the way. Was this just a case of CYA?

    Here’s the blog, by the way:
    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/04/25/29prereading_ep.h31.html?tkn=NWPFPQL7dqSZ5BNqUl3re3BVCzAxlL3QISNj&cmp=clp-edweek

    Kind of felt like a case of “she doth protest too much.” If anybody has any advice on how to respond, I’d like to hear it.

  11. E

    The reason why so many people stay “quiet” is because most people don’t agree with you. Nobody is scared or nervous. Most people simply think you are wrong. With that said, everyone agrees that the training could be improved, and it is every year. It isn’t close to perfect but TFA is working like hell to make it as good as it can be. Nobody is satisfied where we are now.

    I’m surprised you went through the corps, taught for two more years after, and still don’t understand TFA. Teach For America wasn’t responsible for making you a transformational teacher – that was your job. I received the same training you did and won Teacher of the Year my first year ever teaching. My support and initial training was a solid foundation, but I took it upon myself to grow and develop on my own. What sets corps members apart is our relentless drive to improve despite obstacles. I’d challenge you to think about your mindset your first year – did you have a hard time and reflect on what you need to do to get better or did you get pissed and blame TFA?

    TFA isn’t perfect. Wendy Kopp would be the first to admit that. I think I am in the majority when I say that, despite our flaws, we are making a positive impact on this country. I’m not toting the “company line” by saying that. I’m saying that from personal experience and from what I saw in my classroom and my school.

    • George Brown

      Are you still teaching, “E”? I doubt it!
      As a superintendent, most of my TFA folks were not as self-directed as you report. Plus, we could not count on them for consistency . . . some just walked off! Yes, I am soured because my regular staff and our students suffered greatly!

  12. E

    The reason why so many people stay “quiet” is because most people don’t agree with you. Nobody is scared or nervous. Most people simply think you are wrong. With that said, everyone agrees that the training could be improved, and it is every year. It isn’t close to perfect but TFA is working like hell to make it as good as it can be. Nobody is satisfied where we are now.

    I’m surprised you went through the corps, taught for two more years after, and still don’t understand TFA. Teach For America wasn’t responsible for making you a transformational teacher – that was your job. I received the same training you did and won Teacher of the Year my first year ever teaching. My support and initial training was a solid foundation, but I took it upon myself to grow and develop on my own. What sets us apart is our relentless drive to improve despite obstacles. I’d challenge you to think about your mindset your first year – did you have a hard time and reflect on what you need to do to get better or did you get pissed and blame TFA?

    TFA isn’t perfect. Wendy Kopp would be the first to admit that. I think I am in the majority when I say that, despite our flaws, we are making a positive impact on this country. I’m not toting the “company line” by saying that. I’m saying that from personal experience and from what I saw in my classroom and my school.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I don’t know for sure that ‘most’ people don’t agree with me. Certainly the 1 out of 8 people who start institute and fail to complete their 2 years would be on my side. I think that is great that you won teacher of the year in your first year. I was a teacher of the year in my 4th year and I have to admit that even though I’m proud I’ve won it, and have cited this award to establish my credibility, it was voted by my staff who really couldn’t know how good I was or wasn’t, except for what they might have heard from students or just surmised by my general confidence. Still, assuming that your teacher of the year award means that you truly were so good in your first year, you will admit that your case is quite unusual.

      In nearly 5 years of writing this blog, comments like yours have only happened a few times. I think if that many people disagreed with me (and I know that people who read my writing are not a random sampling, but still) I would hear more dissent. (I don’t delete any comments.)

      TFA might be ‘working like hell to make it as good as it can be’ yet they continue to allow corps members to go through summer training with classes of under ten students for about 12 hours of time as a lead teacher. Surely when you taught, you allowed your students to practice the skill so you can assess if they had mastered the objectives. To not enable teachers in training to practice is a crime. Perhaps some will be ‘naturals’ like yourself, but out of 6,000 corps members this is going to be rare and the training that was apparently good enough for you won’t be sufficient for someone else, even if they are trying to be relentless. If you gave a test and one student got a 100 and 1/8 failed and another 1/8 came pretty close to failing, would you blame those failures and near failures on their lack of relentlessness and self-reflection.

      I think it is an exaggeration to say that Wendy Kopp would be the ‘first’ to admit that TFA isn’t perfect. She would admit it, though who wouldn’t admit that something is perfect as nothing really is. The question is: how close to perfect is it and how much closer to perfection can it become. By not finding a way to increase student teaching exposure, the training can only improve incrementally, which won’t be enough for many corps members.

  13. So, I still may have a little bitterness towards TfA because they didn’t accept me (and I’m proving to be a pretty good teacher, so say my students, co-workers, and boss) but did accept people from “better,” “brand name” universities, even though they had no desire to teach once they finished TfA. You’ve managed to put some of my thoughts into words a little more eloquently but still with a tinge of bitterness. After all, if something is bitter, you want to enhance it to make it better. That’s all I want. I want TfA to be better. I want teachers to be better. I want to be better.

  14. Anna Moffit (RGV 1997)

    Thanks for sharing this blog. I am also a former TFA member from 1997 that has serious concerns about the direction this organization has taken in regard to education reform. I have spoken out repeatedly about the inadequate training, demonization of public educators and ties to corporate reform of our schools. Unlike the majority of TFA members, I was trained as an elementary educator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so it was hard to listen to all the trash talk about the non-TFA teachers at out trainings and job sites. Things are extremely busy right now in Wisconsin, but we are at the forefront in the battle over school privatization with many well known groups. They have been spending millions in PR and positioning prominent individuals of color that are propagating their anti-teacher agenda within many communities, most notably in Madison. I would love to contribute some piece over the summer about the impact of charter and voucher schools on our children, as well as, the role TFA has played in the de-professionalization of public educators.

About this Blog

By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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