Jun 13 2012

Wendy at Dartmouth: Builders vs. Haters

A few days ago, June 10th, Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth (read it or see it here).  Aside from the appropriate motivational stories that make a commencement speech inspirational and relevant, Wendy also dedicated a fairly significant portion of her speech to the TFA critics.

Now I’ve been criticizing TFA for nearly 20 years, but in all that time, up until very recently, I still felt like part of ‘the family.’  Just as an American can feel that the country isn’t moving in the optimal direction, but still love his country, I focused, for 19 out of the past 20 years, on how TFA might improve their training.  In the past 15 months, however, ever since the TFA 20 year alumni summit, I’ve realized that TFA is part of something now that has the potential to do a lot more harm to kids than just simply putting a few thousand undertrained teachers into the classroom.  TFA, by putting the spotlight on a small group of aggressive alumni who act like they ‘know’ how to ‘fix’ schools — mainly by shutting down schools, replacing them with charters, and firing a lot of teachers — has backed something that I truly believe will make education worse in this country.  This is a shame because there are a whole lot more alumni who you have never heard of — alumni who taught for ten years and then became principals at public schools that serve all kids including, in some cases, their own.  Those unsung alumni are not publicized by TFA since their schools are not presenting the illusion of transformative change.

In the current ed reform battle, there are various ways to name the sides:  I usually say the corporate reformers vs. those who think the corporate reforms cause more harm than good.  This, though, is not that snappy.  One charged way to describe the sides is:  the ‘reformers’ vs. the ‘anti-reformers’, where both terms are meant sarcastically when I say them, but sincerely when a ‘reformer’ does.  In Wendy’s speech, as she is speaking more generally, though of course she is basing it on her experience in ed reform, she calls the sides the ‘builders’ and the ‘haters’.  Here is a quote from the speech:

There’s a divide, and it’s getting bigger, between the builders and the critics, between the fighters and the spectators. When you turn on the news or venture into the blogosphere, what you see is that the naysayers have the power while the people who are on the front lines charting a new course or working to make things better weather constant criticism.

To put it in layman’s terms, there are a lot of haters out there.

You will find that it is almost always more comfortable to sit on the sidelines and critique the builders from afar, but at the end of the day, the people who make a difference, the people who shape history, are not the haters.

I suppose I’m one of these ‘haters’ though I don’t ‘hate’ the concept of TFA.  Getting enthusiastic graduates who have been very successful so far to become teachers, some of them for prolonged periods of time, is good (assuming the training is adequate, which it isn’t).  What I ‘hate’ is the corporate reform movement and the destruction it is causing.

As a ‘hater,’ I guess, I disagree with this characterization.  To say “the naysayers have the power” in the context of ed reform is crazy.  The corporate reformers are backed by billionaires and the opposition has free Twitter accounts, some of us with dial-up connections.

And I also resent that the positive word ‘builder’ is used to describe high profile TFA alumni like Michelle Rhee (StudentsFirst), John White (Ed Commissioner of Louisiana), Cami Anderson (Chancellor of Newark), Kaya Henderson (Chancellor of D.C.), and Kevin Huffman (Ed commissioner of Tennessee).  The only thing these people are ‘building’ are weapons of mass destruction.  If those are the ‘builders’ that Wendy is referring to, I will proudly continue to say ‘nay’ with all my vast power.

19 Responses

  1. You can find out more about the destruction that former TFAer and now Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White has wrought on our public schools. http://www.geauxteacher.com
    Right now you can key in “Louisiana Vouchers” and get an earful.

  2. Jarratt

    Gary, you are making sweeping comments about the “corporate reform movement” and how reformers are not the answer. Might you be looking at narrow view that is easy to create from your current school (i.e. highly selective, high performing, private school)? And to Lee Barrios, as a former RSD teacher, I can without a doubt say that the school system is better now, than it has been in the past. Look at the new application systems that gives everyone a fair, equal opportunity to attend the school of their choosing (i.e. one common application rather than individual applications).

    Finally, while it is an isolated case, look at the success that Sci Academy (http://blog.nola.com/new_orleans/2012/05/sci_academy_students_cheer_as.html). Gary, in your talk on NPR you referenced “those types” of students (your readers can make their own assumptions by what you mean there). Sci Academy is open-enrollment, has the same percentage of Special Education students as the general population, and has still managed to move from the common goal of a turn around school of “being better than bad” to now, excellence. They have done it with the help of TFA alumni and others who share the same goal (all students should have the opportunity to attain an excellent education). The best part of all, they have done it with “those students.”

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Jarratt, First of all, my current school doesn’t pretend it is not selective and no other school gets shut down for not matching our results. Also, the school is public, though selective, and has about 40% on free/reduced lunch. We actually qualified for title I funds a few years ago.

      Math/Sci is a complete farce. When they had the lowest free/reduced lunch in RSD, they had good scores, and now they have dropped substantially. I have about 50 pages of notes on all the problems there. One day I’ll organize them and write a post just about that school. All I’ll say now is don’t believe the hype.

      And as far as ‘those types,’ I’m talking about kids who live below the poverty line. ‘Reformers’ also talk this way when they say “We took the same kids and gave them different teachers.” Having taught 5 years in ‘failing’ schools, I know that ‘those kids’ had a lot of potential, but external factors prevented many of them from going to college.

      You do raise good points, but you are a bit misinformed. Please continue to post comments and I’ll try to answer your questions.

  3. This “haters vs. builders” dichotomy is SUCH a cheap rhetorical trick. I have done a ton of “building.” I am currently building. I am a freaking metaphorical combat engineer. I am also a critic. It’s not like taking issue with aspects of the “education” “reform” “movement” and TFA’s role therein means someone isn’t also making any other attempts to address the various problems in public education.

  4. Off Topic

    Gary, I’m waiting for you to write a post about TFA professionalism. It’s amazing the number of institute workers, MTLDs, etc that end up dating their subordinates. It’s also pretty clear that TFA doesn’t stress that teaching is a profession and should be treated as such, with the respect and passion it deserves. It’s hurtful to the profession to see amateur teachers teaching other amateur teachers, and that being called, “rigorous training.”

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Interesting. I don’t know enough about this phenomenon to write a ‘data based’ post about it. I did once joke about this in one of my columns, though.

  5. Gary, thank you for this post. As a fellow “hater”, if that’s what Kopp wants to call anyone who is critical of TFA-which I most certainly am, I was deeply offended by her remarks. While she jets around the globe peddling her message how “poverty doesn’t matter” and unprepared 20-somewthing novices are what will transform our education system in and outside the classroom, I go to work everyday at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago and literally help clean up the mess than poverty has spewed upon our beautiful children. A majority of my students in my classroom would not be sick if they hadn’t grown up in poverty.

    After working all day in one of the toughest teaching environments imaginable, I come home and join the fight for equitable, quality, public education for all children. I attend every education-related event in Chicago, I speak at meetings, I march in rallies, I speak at Board of Education meetings, I participate in my Local School Council, I go to union and labor events (despite not being able to actually be in the CTU), I meet with my Congresspeople, I go to Washington DC to Occupy the DOE, I write letters to the editors, and in my spare time after all that, I blog and go on twitter. But apparently, I am “sitting on the sidelines”…hating.

    And you want to know what one of my biggest beefs with TFA is? I never, and I mean never, have once met a TFA current member or alum out there on the actual grassroots frontline. There is an epic battle over the fate of public education happening in our country. Here in Chicago, teachers recently took a strike authorization vote and got an amazing, unheard-of 90% of ALL members (and 98% of those who actually voted) to vote “YES”. It was a moment of breathtaking solidarity with powerful community and parent support. And I am told by friends in the schools that TFA folks were “encouraged” not to vote (which would could as a “no”.) TFA sat on the wrong side of this historical moment.

    I honestly have no idea what Kopp and other TFA folks are thinking. Their approach is so ridiculously skewed, that I am actually baffled by their actions and rhetoric. They say they want the same things I do and yet they back ideas like closing schools, firing staff and creating turnarounds, expanding charter schools, and ultimately their organization is willingly being used to weaken and break unions. I do not hear TFA complain about funding issues, or inequitable distribution of resources, or the effects of poverty, or racism and oppression. They are not helping us fight the good fight out there. And it is possible and necessary to fight that fight! Instead, TFA has become part of the problem.

    I guess I am a ‘hater”, but this “hater” is doing anything but sitting on the sidelines. And as long as TFA doesn’t change its corporate-reformy ways, there will be no love here.

  6. Please Read The Speech

    There’s a lot of sturm and drang here about being personally attacked by Wendy’s speech for disagreeing with her but I’m really not sure if I’m seeing it in the speech itself. I do see her make the reference that you posted, Gary, that mentions that there are people who criticize on the news and blogosphere. Seems pretty general in all honesty. Then, when she does talk about her own org. explicitly she is talking about the people who logistically said she couldn’t pull off the idea. Basically, it really does read to me like a positive, non-confrontational graduation message to follow big dreams, not an ed wars missive.

    There are a lot of things to be outraged about in this world. I just can’t feel this speech is one of them. Seems really benign and non-attacky, whereas the responses here and in the blog post read much less fair than anything Wendy said in her speech. Just my opinion and my reading of the speech, but I’m really not seeing what the folks on this post are so angry about.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Perhaps I’m reading more into it than is really there, but I think I’m right about this one.

      • Dennis

        Hi Gary,

        I’m a long time reader and saw this while I was catching up on posts. I was also Dartmouth’s TFA student recruiter last year and did a little behind the scenes work with Ms. Kopp’s speech. If you’re able to see comments on older posts, I’d love to talk more about it with you.


  7. It’s interesting that most of the haters seem to be spending all of our time in classrooms doing the hard work of teaching, while the builders are out explaining why we’re doing it wrong to exclusive audiences, or building their reputations on destroying the haters’ job protections and pensions.

  8. In the last couple of months, I have come across two TFA students. One is just doing this until she can save up enough for law school. The other really wants to be a child psychologist. So, you get young people who work for 2 years as a teacher, and then quit to do what they really want to do! What a disservice to our kids!

  9. Duane Swacker

    The term (and I don’t remember where I first saw it used otherwise I’d give the person credit) I use for the supposed corporate reformers is “deformer”. And for “hater” I using caring hard working “teacher”.

  10. batmanthecat

    Speaking of inadequate training – I am currently participating in the Chicago institute, and we just found out that elementary student teachers (which is K-8th here) will only have three weeks in the classroom with students. What’s an aspiring teacher to do?

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Ouch. This is something I’ve been complaining about for a few years now. Totally unfair to you and to your future students who have to deal with you learning to teach on them. I will post some good advice to new teachers in my next post.

  11. I am “pro choice” when it comes to education, that means I support charter schools… but I am offended by the term “corporate reformer”. While many charters may be classified as corporations they are not-for-profit, at least here in South Carolina. They are that way because it is against charter law to be for-profit, which is something, in my opinion, all states should enact.

    The main reason I am commenting though is because I am not happy to be classified in one big lump with all the other groups that have cropped up, hoping to cash in on the education gold rush. For some reformers, it actually is about improving education. Some are apposed to to the “teach to the test” environment that is so prevalent in traditional public schools today. Some of us are frustrated by the rigid and almost toxic environment that teachers find themselves in. Some of us respect teachers as professionals and believe that true reform will only come when teachers are allowed to teach (and held accountable), while engaging parents as a critical component to improving education.

    That is what the original movement was about. Unfortunately it has been hijacked by organizations like TFA and Democrats for Education Reform.

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