May 17 2012

Rusama Bin Stein?

The most bizarre moment, so far, of my foray into the ed reform wars happened yesterday.  A few days ago I wrote  a blog post called ‘The resistance grows exponentially’.  My intent was to introduce a new blog exploring some of the same issues I’ve been working on.  For me this relieved some of the pressure I feel as the most vocal alum upset with the direction TFA has chosen to move in.  I said I was going to slow down on blogging a bit and maybe return in full force over the summer when, as I wrote, “I might be helping organize new TFA corps members to be ‘disrupting’ the institute if they are not getting properly trained or are feeling like they are being lied to in various ways—more to come on that in June.”

Much to my surprise, this thought was, the next day, the subject of one of the Education Week teaching blogs in a post titled ‘TFA Critic Hints at Plans to ‘Disrupt’ Training’.

I guess I feel a bit proud that I’ve built up my reputation over the years so that pondering my next move is, at all, newsworthy.  But what concerns me is that this article is a bit too reminiscent of articles about terrorist threats that I’ve read throughout the years.

Now, I’m sure that the author of the article, Liana Heitin, who is a fellow TFA alum, was not trying to evoke this comparison.  A good journalistic story involves conflict and suspense, and by speculating what I might have up my sleeve for this summer, the post is definitely an attention grabber.  But I can see how many people might view me as the bad guy in the story.

Heitin points out that new TFAers would be taking a big risk if they were to be uncooperative or adversarial this summer.  They would risk getting kicked out of the program if they boycotted mandatory meetings or otherwise refused to stay in line.  This is accurate.  I find that TFA suffers from something I’ll call ‘second year teacher’ syndrome.  Basically since the first year is tough, teachers develop a complex and overcompensate their second year with needing to have ultra ‘control’ over their classes.  When you teach for another 5 years or so, you get over that.  But since most TFA leaders only teach two or maybe three years, they find themselves ‘stuck’ in this mindset and are very rigid.  As tolerant as TFA claims to be of individual differences, like race, gender, and sexual orientation, they are quite intolerant of the thing that makes everyone different from one another — we have different ideas and opinions.

The article ends by saying “we’ll have to wait till next month to find out …”

If I were to orchestrate some kind of protest, and I doubt I have enough of a ‘following’ from new TFAers to accomplish one, it would actually not be the first time that trainees revolted at a TFA institute.  I can think of two times, in the early years, where this happened.  The biggest one was in the 1994 institute in Houston (which was the only institute at that time).  The first three institutes had been in Los Angeles, where there was year-round school, so trainees got a lot of student teaching practice.  TFA had run out of money and threw together the budget Houston institute.  Because of their constraints, they were not able to give the new TFAers many students to practice with.  Wendy Kopp had an ‘all corps’ meeting and there was a near revolt with angry corps members standing on chairs and screaming.  They knew that they were not getting the best training possible.  Ironically, this issue hasn’t been improved much.  People don’t revolt since, as far as they know, it was never any better.

A second revolt happened in the 1996 Houston institute when KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, just two years into the KIPP program, presented to all the corps members about their program.  The audience started grumbling when they saw the demonstration of how well the students can skip-count.  The sense was that this boot camp was about submission and not about the love of learning.  One of the corps member advisers, I remember, took one of the original KIPP kids aside and asked her, “Do you get to read anything by Maya Angelou?” and the kid had never heard of her.  Levin and Feinberg were practically booed off the stage.

Someone on Twitter even asked me ‘Are you really about to launch an occupy TFA movement?’  I doubt, though, that this article, or my post on which it was based, has sent the higher ups in TFA into any kind of emergency meeting to try to figure out how I might attempt to pull this off.

The truth is that I was really just musing about it when I wrote the post, but if everyone thinks that this evil mastermind is going to spend the next month hatching a diabolical plan which will catch everyone off guard, I’ll end the suspense today.

By ‘disrupting the institute’ I don’t mean that I’m going to coerce any new TFAers into getting kicked out of the program.  I also don’t want to distract the new TFAers from their main task, this summer, which is to learn as much as they can about teaching so the kids they teach in the fall have a moderately competent teacher.

Here is a list, though, of some things I might do:

1.  I could write a post with what I consider to be required reading and watching to understand both sides of this ed reform battle.  One good starting point is a debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada that happened on a special education edition of Meet The Press during NBC’s Education Nation.  Click here to access it.

2.  I could ask the new corps members to record what goes on in some of the training sessions and then anonymously post them and I could comment on them.

3.  I could give my own ‘homework’ and assignments that I think will balance the training.  Corps members would have to efficiently complete their required institute assignments to do my optional homework.  This could include groups of corps members supplementing their very meager student teaching experience by spending an hour or two each night practicing teaching to each other.

4.  Though new corps members might see me as a ‘denier,’ I could seek help from the institute staff.  There are 9 institutes with a lot of staff members.  I’ve received many emails from some of these staffers over the years.  Some staff members get very frustrated, as I felt when I was a staff member, when they realize they are participating in a very unhelpful training model.  These staff members don’t have as much to lose by protesting — just their summer jobs.

5.  I could ask corps members what topics are going to be discussed with their trainers and I could write blog posts with ‘disruptive’ questions that corps members can ask their trainers about these topics.  I don’t think corps members can be kicked out for just asking questions (though you never know …)

6.  I could make a blog post that guides corps members through my most relevant older blog posts.

7.  I could make podcasts with advice or do more episodes of my live spreecast video internet show.

8.  I could write a guide about how to research the statistics on a school that the new corps members are interviewing at or are potentially placed at.  I can show them how to identify a charter school that gets results by kicking out the lowest performing kids.  I would tell corps members that if it were me, I would not accept an interview or a placement at a school, like most KIPP schools, that has a 40% attrition from 5th to 8th grade.

But I am not planning an official ‘Occupy TFA’ event that I will be ‘leading’ remotely or otherwise.  Even if I had the ‘following,’ I would not do that since it would be too much of a distraction.  Learning to teach is hard enough, particularly when you only get a few hours in front of  a few kids that may or may not be around the age of the students you will eventually teach in the fall.  I may not even do any of those other things on the above list.  Really it will depend on how much time and energy I have to dedicate to this.

I hope these ideas don’t make me a TFA terrorist.  I’ve always thought of myself more like Michael Moore and TFA is like the Republicans.  One thing that definitely makes me different from extremists who hate America is that there is nothing that would stop them from fighting.  They don’t really have ‘demands.’

I, on the other hand, know exactly what TFA could do that would cause me to stop my relentless critique.

1)  The first thing they would have to do is to declare ‘neutrality’ in the current ed reform war.  There are two main sides:  the corporate ‘reformers’ and the people who think the corporate ‘reforms’ will actually make things worse.  TFA has aligned themselves with the corporate reformers because many of their prominent alumni are leaders of that movement and because the corporate reformers always make sure that TFA is taken care of.  But TFA has gotten so powerful on their own, they don’t need to align themselves with a particular side.  Just like Yale University didn’t take sides when Bush and Kerry were running for president, TFA can figure out a way to include people like me and people like Michelle Rhee in their panel discussions on reform.  They could say that the corporate reforms are still experimental and there is a mixed bag of results so let’s get everyone discussing what is truly working.  Critics will be welcome since if the corporate reformers can’t beat them in a debate, maybe the critics’ arguments have merit.  For instance, I truly believe that American schools are not in crisis.  Our low poverty schools beat all the other countries in the world on those international tests.  Our schools can be improved incrementally as things gradually evolve, and they have been improving over the years.  But the transformational change they love to talk about is not really possible without addressing the root cause of poverty.  Any school that claims to have achieved that is being disingenuous.  Schools aren’t failing.  Society is.  This doesn’t mean, though, that we give up trying to teach better.  But we have to recognize the limits of what schools can do otherwise we end up shutting down schools and firing teachers for things they can’t possibly overcome, and which nobody has ever figured out how to overcome without somehow cheating.  This would also mean stopping the constant touting of Washington D.C. and New Orleans, two districts that are a complete mess, from what I understand.  TFA would also have to resolve that charter schools go against the mission that “One day ALL students will have …” since charters serve only about 5% of students, and have not lived up to their mission of lifting the quality of the non-charters through friendly competition.  Instead the charters often send their rejects to the public schools to bring down their scores so they can get shut down and replaced with another charter.

Becoming neutral would also be a wise long term decision for TFA.  As the pendulum has already begun shifting away from the corporate reform movement, TFA will have much easier time gaining the favor of my side when we eventually take over once the corporate reformers are exposed as complete frauds.

2)  TFA would have to stop placing corps members in cities where experienced teachers are being laid off.  In my first year the veteran teachers in my school helped me get through that tough year.  I doubt that new corps members will get much support from experienced teachers when those corps members just replaced a more experienced, more competent, teacher who those veterans were friends with.

3)  TFA would have to stop exaggerating the ‘success’ of the first year corps members.  First of all, one out of eight corps members who begin training will quit before completing the two year commitment.  By lying about how well the new corps members are doing (are they as effective as traditionally trained first year teachers?  Perhaps, but that isn’t really saying much.  First year teachers are, in general, not effective).  By lying about first year corps member effectiveness they actually hurt the education system since new corps members hear these stories and think teaching will be easy so they don’t take training as seriously as they can.  Also, these stories of exaggerated success make philanthropists donate more money to TFA which might go to other organizations that don’t mislead about their success.  Teaching is hard and first year teaching is nearly impossible.  Denying this feeds into the myth that poor kids are failing because of bad teachers and that good teachers can turn that around.  Neither thing is true.

Well, I hope this sets the record straight.  TFA terror alert level can be moved back to ‘blue’.

24 Responses

  1. Haha, this is great. It’s also been interesting to follow the rise in prominence of your blog since I first began following it as a potential applicant two years ago. Hopefully you’ll get a call from Wendy one of these days.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Thanks. I’ve talked with Wendy at TFA functions and also exchange emails maybe two or three times a year. She’s always been pretty nice to me. This is why I think there is some hope that TFA eventually comes around.
      I am happy about the popularity of the blog. For a ‘threat’ of mine to become newsworthy (it was also picked up by good.com) is pretty funny. I’ll be interested to know if the new CMs will, generally, be aware of me. If many are and agree with some of what I’m saying, it could be an interesting summer as they won’t need me to actively ‘lead’ any sort of protest since they will organize themselves.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    This is a socially pernicious organization that cannot be reformed, as shown by their across-the-board dishonesty, imperviousness to criticism, and allying with interests that seek to dismantle and privatize the schools.

    TFA should not be occupied, but rather indicted under the RICO statutes.

  3. Sean

    Funniest title since “IMPACTed Wisdom Truth?”

    Point number 3 is interesting. “Are they as effective as traditionally trained first year teachers?” is not really the question of interest. “Are they as effective as teachers that the students would otherwise have?” is more precise.

    From Mathematica’s 2004 study:

    “When we restricted the analysis to novice teachers, the impacts of TFA were the same or larger than those reported for the comparison with all teachers. Compared with their novice counterparts, novice TFA teachers generated math test scores that were 0.26 standard deviations higher, on average. The impact on reading scores remained statistically insignificant based on the novice comparisons.”

    So, First Year TFA versus First Year Non-TFA was a wash in reading but a decided non-wash in math.

    • Tee

      The Mathematica study shows that there is no impact of TFA teachers on students’ reading scores and a small, yet meaningful, impact on students’ math scores. However, these statistics ignore the bigger picture: teachers get better over time. That means that these novice control teachers will probably improve improve with time, thus becoming significantly stronger than their TFA controls.

      With this in mind, it would make MUCH more sense to invest time, energy, and money in attracting highly qualified teachers *who will stay in the district for longer than two years* and thus raise students reading and math scores than it does to invest these resources into teachers who improve students math scores by approximately one month of extra instruction.

      • When I think of the huge amount of funding (public and private) and the huge number of manhours and the huge amount of brainpower and goodwill that went into generating the tiny statistical bump that are TFA’s standardized testing results, I get frustrated. I can’t help but think that if it were being poured into community services, or into one-on-one tutoring/mentoring IN ADDITION TO rather than in replacement of traditional teaching, we could be doing so much more.

        • Tee

          YES. As usual, I agree whole-heartedly. Of course, this would require TFA to admit that it has been overhyping its success for years…and that it has taken the wrong approach…and it would be way less prestigious on a law school app to say you were a tutor for two years…

          • Tee

            Caveat: I’m not trying to imply that most TFA alumni want to go into law school, but as we know, the majority of the alums go into more “prestigious” jobs than “merely” teaching, and TFA totally plays off this idea that you will be prepared to take on these high-level jobs after two years in the corps.

  4. 2012

    Gary,
    2012 TFA-er here and just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your blog. I’ve gone back and looked at all of your entries from the beginning in a desperate attempt to read everything I can about a more honest account of teaching and concrete tips. (Currently, I’m reading TAL a chapter at a time so that I can read your critique as I finish each chapter). To be honest, I’ve stopped reading your more recent posts simply because I don’t have time to worry about the larger battle of education reform at the moment (I’m sure I will once I stop freaking out about simply surviving). Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much your blog has informed me and will (hopefully) help me come fall. Please, please do #3 on your list and I’ll try to complete #2 while I’m in Tulsa this summer. Stalking some of the old blogs has gotten me a little concerned about Institute- there had better be more than three kids in my classroom… Sorry. Back to the point- love the blog and thank you so much!
    - 2012 Corps Member

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that not focusing on the ‘reform’ debate is wise as you try to focus on how to teach. The first three years of blogging were mainly tips for new teachers (as are both of my books). Then, I pretty much said everything I wanted to say about advice when this reform issue came along. I plan to organize those earlier posts somehow since I think people only like to read ‘new’ posts even though there are some good suggestions in the older ones.
      Good luck, and please update me with how things are going. I hope, too, that they figured out how to give new CMs a better student teaching experience. I reached out to them with some suggestions — maybe they took some of them.
      Gary

  5. C

    Gary, why is Teach for America still in cities that no longer have teacher shortages?

    • CM '11

      Because TFA is being used to staff low-paying, poor working condition charter schools with non-union teachers in cities where experienced (union) teachers won’t work for peanuts or take the charter abuses.

  6. That’s a good point about TFA and rigidity, which shows up everywhere in their training and model: there is only one way to manage one’s classroom; there is one acceptable model of school structure for reform; business and economic ideologies map perfectly onto the education of all students; long-term results are less important than brilliant if short-lived ideas.

    Personally, I think the best revolt from Institute would be for CMs and staffers alike to refuse to burn a year’s worth of energy over a few weeks and demand a sustainable lifestyle: adequate sleep, better nutrition, significant down-time. I strongly believe that part of the reason TFAers struggle their first year is not just their limited training and their lack of experience – it’s also that they’re already short on energy when they arrive at their sites.

    I attended the Houston Institute, where HISD had a summer school curriculum they wanted us to use, but TFA demanded that we write our own – long term goals and plans, then daily ones for each lesson. Since nearly everyone at my school site would be ultimately teaching in post-Williams California, an utter lack of curricula was unlikely. (In fact, at the time LAUSD, OUSD, and Alum Rock were all investing heavily in scripted, “teacher-proof” curricula and demanding fidelity.) So in the end, it was an incredible amount of work that served no particular purpose but keeping CMs from sleep. In terms of future classroom success, it would have been better to experiment with making required curricula interesting and differentiated. That would’ve allowed for more rest and wellness, too.

    • 2010DeltaIsDone

      There is a purpose to keeping CMs at Institute so tired they can’t function. It prevents them from thinking. I seriously went into my first classroom thinking I knew what to do and how to do it. if I had had a chance to catch up on sleep I would have been “hell no” I’m not teaching these kids about rainbows and big goals. Seriously, I had things thrown at me and I was clueless as to why because I was told I was prepared. I didn’t have a clue and should have walked out and never gone back. I did stick it out and had a moderately successful 2nd year. Not mind-blowing gains but some solid evidence that I could get a point across and engage a few kids now and again. I’m staying in teaching, that was my plan from the beginning but I taught myself how to be a teacher and how to teach – I got zero support from TFA and my district. I think that may be why I was a tiny bit successful year 2 – I didn’t have anyone meddling and I was able to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in my classroom.

    • James

      Yes, I think CMs should be GIVEN lesson plans the first week to teach — just focus on implementation, energy and paying attention to skills. The second, third and fourth weeks of teaching CMs can write their own lesson plans.

  7. Anonymous

    Gary,

    Thank you so much for your informative posts. Like the commenter above, I am also a 2012 Corps Member who who is hoping to be as prepared and informed as possible. If you could do number 3, that would be wonderful!

  8. James

    Great column, Gary. Corps members who choose to question TFA-doxy, though, should be prepared for an escalating series — in length — of ‘mindset chats.’ If you don’t know what a mindset chat is, future CMs, just wait until you get to Institute and say something like, ‘It’s important to consider student behavior’ or ‘Should we really be spending five days of 12 days of teaching conducting standardized tests?’

  9. Upcoming Corps Member

    I would be up for many of the things on that list as an upcoming corps member. :)

  10. Dan

    Gary,

    You don’t owe us anything, but as a 2012 CM, I would be eternally grateful if you did any of those things you listed. I can’t speak for everyone obviously, but it is clear from the comments I have seen on your posts that incoming CMs want a more balanced perspective on the reform movement and how they can best prepare to teach their students in the fall. Thanks for everything you have done so far.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I’ll definitely do some of them. Compared to a year ago, it seems like the incoming corps members really have a sense of what is going on around this issue. Should be an interesting summer. By their nature, TFA corps members who have been selected for their leadership qualities, will be a critical and potentially rebellious bunch. With 6,000 of them able to organize over the internet, I can’t see that there won’t be at least a somewhat sizable group of CMs who refuse to ‘drink the Kool Aid.’ I’m going to be pretty busy this summer with some coursework that I’m taking, but I will certainly dedicate some hours into developing some of what I described, and hopefully once the snowball is rolling, it can gain momentum and size without my direct intervention.

  11. sellario

    Gary, I think you should make a private email list or private Facebook group (recommended) about it. Otherwise TFA will be somewhat prepared, having seen the battle plans.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Ha. TFA would find a way to infiltrate. No, I think I’ll make it very transparent. If corps members at the different institutes want to hatch their own secret plans, that is up to them. I do have an idea, though, how people can coordinate. Stay tuned …

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
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Grade
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Subject
Math

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