One day, that is what I’ll be known as because of this post.
But, you’re thinking, aren’t you the guy whose life purpose is to destroy TFA? Are you not The Joker to their Batman? No, my purpose is to fix, not to destroy TFA. My concern is that the way things are going TFA is at risk of destroying itself.
Whether they believe it or not, the future of TFA is in danger. And not because ‘critics’ like me are gaining momentum. Contrary to how it might seem, I do not ‘hate’ TFA. I believe in the original mission. I believe that getting a supply of teachers from top universities is a good idea. Because of this, I will, in this post, explain how TFA can save itself from impending doom.
The reason that TFA’s future is in jeopardy is because they have chosen to chain themselves to a ship that is about to sink. That ship, of course, is the ‘reform’ movement, otherwise known as the accountability movement, the corporate reform movement, the ‘no excuses’ reformers, or, even, the ‘deform’ movement. It makes sense that TFA would get intertwined with this movement as many of the leaders of that movement are either TFA alums (Rhee, White, Sternberg, Huffman, Henderson, Anderson, etc.) or are people who were very supportive of TFA as the program grew (Bloomberg, Klein, etc.).
But that reform movement is really nothing more than a paradigm shift. A new paradigm is a bit like a new species. It comes to be for various reasons and then it thrives, or doesn’t thrive, in whatever the environment is. Then when the environment changes, the species may not be suited to the changes and will have to either adapt or go extinct.
The original idea of TFA was to get the ‘best and brightest’ to get some classroom experience. Then most of them would leave the classroom and become educational advocates. In some ways this plan succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Now there are TFA alumni in high leadership roles around the country and even in the U.S. Department of Education.
In an ideal world the ‘best and the brightest’ would all have great minds, and great minds think alike, so there would be much agreement on what sorts of lessons we have learned about how to improve educational opportunities in this country. This is where something broke down, and it put TFA into an unexpected dilemma, one that they handled poorly. What happened was that the alumni split into two factions: There were the people who started charter schools and who quickly become district leaders after being ‘groomed’ by Joel Klein, the lawyer who was New York City schools chancellor. These include Michelle Rhee (StudentsFirst), Cami Anderson (Newark), John White (Louisiana), and Marc Sternberg (New York City). These people call themselves ‘the reformers’ and they believe that standardized test score ‘gains’ are an accurate and fair way to determine which schools should get shut down and which teachers should be fired. Then, there were the people who remained teachers, or became assistant principals at public schools, then principals, some went to grad school to get Ph.Ds in education and become professors. The vast majority of these people know that there is little evidence that the strategies proposed by ‘the reformers’ will do less harm than good.
When this divide started to become clear, TFA had the opportunity to use this ‘diversity’ of thought as a strength. They could have said that they helped launch the careers of all these great thinkers and they haven’t yet figured out what the best thing to do, but through open and honest exchanges, they will hammer it out. Then the ‘sides’ could have worked together, testing their theories as scientists would. Challenges would be welcomed, not seen as threats, since everyone was seeking the truth, not just trying to appear right.
But when TFA was faced with these two camps, that is not the path they took. Instead of staying neutral, the way a parent might when her two children are playing on opposing soccer teams, TFA picked a side. They elected to shut out the side with all the teachers and the district assistant principals, the district principals, and the scholars. That was when TFA became all about charter schools and educational reformers who all were test score zealots.
And for about five or six years, it was working out for them. We’d hear about this person being promoted to head of this district or another. There would be alumni getting elected to be state senators and drafting legislation overhauling school and teacher evaluations. It seemed, for a little while, that choosing a side was the right thing to do.
But that mistake, if not corrected soon, will soon lead to big problems for TFA. Already ‘the reformers’ are running out of gas. In New York City where Bloomberg (with TFAer Sternberg) just love to close schools down. But in doing so they tried to circumvent the law and had 24 school closings reversed last week. StudentsFirst, despite claiming over a million members couldn’t muster up more than about 75 people in a rally in Connecticut. In Louisiana, schools chief John White, another alum, is in hot water, admitting in emails that he tried to confuse the public with a bizarre voucher plan. And the golden calf of ed reform, the so-called value-added metrics that are supposed to magically determine teacher quality based on standardized tests is falling apart too. In Washington D.C., they had made it 50% of the weight of teacher evaluations, partly based on ‘research’ by The New Teacher Project (started by Rhee and now run by another alum) called ‘The Widget Effect’. This turned out to be too much and they are rethinking the percent. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that we don’t yet know, as a country, what the right percent is. And the tests themselves, these are taking a beating. In Texas more than half the districts passed a resolution opposing the over-use of high stakes testing. Then, just yesterday, the Governor of Florida said that perhaps we are using these tests too much.
None of this surprises me. Like the emperor’s new clothes, it is only a matter of time before lies are exposed.
So the reformer’s boat is sinking and TFA is chained to it. How can they get out of it?
Actually it isn’t that hard.
It is not too late for TFA to switch from the reformers camp to the neutral camp. Maybe they needed the reformers at first to generate the money they needed to grow, but now I think TFA is pretty self-sufficient. But how do they declare the neutrality? Easy. Hold some neutral summits where both sides are welcome. Admit that we all don’t agree and that TFA isn’t sure who is right, and that’s what discourse and open discussion is for.
Now, so you don’t think that this summit is going to have every alumni except me on ‘the reform’ side of the table, and me, by myself, on the other side, I’d like to highlight a few of the MANY alumni who surely do not join in the support TFA has given to reckless, unproved, and untested experiments on this country’s kids and teachers.
Here are just a few of the alumni who you probably haven’t heard of, but who will be the ones who could save TFA from going down with the reform ship.
Roxanna Elden, Houston ’02
Roxanna is a National Board Certified English teacher in Miami. She has written one of the best books for new teachers there is, ‘See Me After Class.’ Recently she did a presentation called ‘The Myth of the Super Teacher’ which can be found here and is going ‘viral’ in ed circles. It definitely goes against the TFA idea of being relentless, but will help teachers not to burn out at or before two years.
Liz Dwyer, Los Angeles ’98
Liz is the education editor for Good Magazine. The title of one of her recent articles, ‘Let’s Stop Comparing Education to the Civil Rights Movement’ will make TFA upper management nervous, and can be found here.
Dr. David Kauffman, Houston ’91
After teaching for six years in Houston and then going to Harvard for his Masters and Ph.D at Harvard, David could have easily become a high level person in Austin schools. Instead, he was in no rush, so he became the principal of an elementary school in Austin. You can trust that he has helped make the school a great place as his three children are students there. This is not a school that is known for miraculous test scores, just a place where a brilliant principal leads a great community.
Anyway, these are just three alumni who deserve a proverbial ‘seat at the table’ if only TFA would stop pretending that all alumni, but me, support most of what is going on today in this country and being called ‘reform.’
To TFA I’d implore you to start shifting into neutral as soon as possible. You will have to do this eventually. If you wait too long, it will be a lot trickier.