Jul 18 2012

My thoughts on the new TFA ‘Pass The Chalk’ blog

They really ought to pay me a consultant fee.

Some of the better decisions that TFA made over the past year were anticipated by me on this blog. Whether or not TFA reads this blog and if it makes them think about these ideas, consciously or subconsciously, I don’t know. It’s not like anyone ever sends me an email saying “Even though you are sort of a pain in the butt, we appreciate that you spend time every day of your life thinking about how TFA can improve. Even though we don’t always agree, we do appreciate your passion, at least.”

Nearly four years ago in a post called ‘Does TFA value teachers?’ I wrote:

When you finish your second year, you’d expect TFA to bring you in and lay some kind of speech on you where they say you should really consider staying. That you’re now a experienced teacher and it would be a shame if you didn’t do just one more year with all the talent you have and the skills you developed. They don’t, though. It would cost them nothing to do so, but they don’t because it’s just not part of the model. It seems like they would rather you spend your energy getting elected to public office so you can one day be secretary of education and then you can really have some impact.

Four years later, they announced the ‘Teach Beyond 2′ initiative which does just that.

Recently I wrote a post called ‘The man who saved TFA’ in which I explained something that everyone really knows — that not all alumni agree with the TFA alumni who are leading the ‘no excuses’ reform movement.  About TFAs role in promoting one group of alumni over another, I wrote this:

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.

I felt that it was a bad strategy to attach themselves to one side of the debate since you never know when the pendulum will swing the other way and the ‘reformers’ who once had all the power will be banished, and possibly not allowed to come within 500 yards of a school.

Now, perhaps this new TFA blog had been in the works for a while and it is just a coincidence that it appeared one week later.  But it is not totally impossible that the creation of this new blog is a direct result of TFA higher ups reading my ideas.  Either way, TFA has just launched their own blog site called ‘Pass the Chalk’.  Though I don’t quite ‘get’ the title (is it a play on ‘pass the salt’?), I like what they say the premise of the blog is.

In Wendy’s inaugural post she explains:

This won’t be the place to hear the “official TFA line.” In fact, you will see from these posts that there is no official TFA line or monolithic view. As you might expect from a community of some 40,000 corps members, alumni and staff, we have a wide array of opinions and disagree about many things, including the role of Teach For America itself in achieving our goals. We think this diversity of thought is a good thing, and that we all have much to gain from sharing our perspectives and grappling with tough questions.

I was pleased to see this description as it is what I’ve been complaining about for so long, that TFA has shut down one side of the debate by showcasing only alumni from the ‘reform’ camp.  I received an email from my alumni region which said it will eventually:

have series like “point/counterpoint” where two bloggers argue opposite sides of the same issue, like the benefits of gender-segregated education, and whether New Orleans is truly an example of community-level change.

Now, there’s something I’d like to see.

So far the posts have still all been from the “official TFA line” that Wendy claims does not exist.  Comments are not allowed either, as far as I can tell.  I’m going to try to be optimistic, but if there is a point/counterpoint of two bloggers where the ‘point’ is ‘charters are the greatest thing since the wheel’ and the ‘counterpoint’ is ‘charters are the greatest thing since sliced bread,’ I’m going to be sure to complain about it.

Also, it is not clear how certain people are invited to write these blogs.  I would love to square off against Michelle Rhee in a point/counterpoint, but as I haven’t been invited to contribute (I would if I was invited to) it looks like I might be shut out of the idea that, quite possibly, I inspired.  I’ll follow the posts and let everyone know if this blog is living up to its claims or if it is just an attempt to appear neutral while continuing to push the no-excuses reform agenda.

44 Responses

  1. Hmm

    Gary,
    I appreciate your desire to help TFA improve and be a contributing voice in the ed discussion.

    However, I think it is a little grandiose/conspiracy theory to speculate”it is not totally impossible that the creation of this new blog is a direct result of TFA higher ups reading my ideas.”

    I think you like to position yourself as the savior of TFA. Whenever they do something you like, it’s b/c you saved them.

    Another, I believe more rationale assessment, is TFA is not a monolithic/big brother/straw man that must be saved by you.

    You are a voice. One voice of many. I think some humility would add to your persuasiveness.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I don’t say that it is at all certain that this was directly because of me, just, as you quoted “it is not totally impossible.” How much more humbly can that be said while at least bringing up the possibility that it wasn’t just a coincidence?

      I don’t know if you were at the 20th anniversary summit, but if you were you would see that TFA was very deliberate on making it seem that all alumni are excited by the Waiting For Superman propaganda. The whole Dr. Royal thing that just happened is further proof.

      I don’t agree that there are ‘many’ voices, though I’m not sure why, at least against reform strategies that are so obviously (at least to me) destructive. My sense is that most alumni don’t really follow the issues and they remember that ‘bad’ teacher at their school and think that this is what the whole reform movement is about. I don’t know for sure, but as long as I continue to have the energy to ponder these topics, I will.

      I don’t see much humility from Rhee or KIPP, so I don’t know if being too humble will make me more persuasive. I guess it does take a pretty big ego to go head to head with people backed by hundreds of millions of dollars while I’m just one alum. Maybe my apparent lack of humility is a mindset that enables me to invest my energy into this.

      • Hmm

        Gary, there are hundreds of alums, parents, students and teachers that talk with folks from TFA and offer advice, criticism and support each month. You are one voice of many.

        Your voice is getting lots of attention via this blog. That’s great. But you ignore hundreds of people and communities if you don’t think there are many voices shaping the path of TFA.

        Beverly Tatum, John Lewis, Michael Lomax, parent and teachers across all the regions.

        They don’t all have blogs like you, but they exist.

        • Linda

          I really don’t get the purpose of her blog if one cannot leave a comment and it is her decision if you post anything. Come on, wake up…we don’t need to bow down to her highness. We have opinions. I don’t need her permission to share them. Don’t even give her that much credit for pretending to care…..she is worried about the long term stability of TFA and the growing criticism…always self serving and quite a phony….Rhee learned from the best….two self-appointed elite Mother Theresas for the poor and downtrodden in our city public schools. Puh-lease

        • sellario

          Hmm, a TFAer that either 1) doesn’t like what you’re saying OR 2) is jealous.

          You want some cheese with that whine?

      • Moseis

        No, there aren’t many voices, and that is the problem!
        We have despicable legacies in this country. Many of our kids are figuratively orphans. Parents? A voice? They are worried about the next flat tire! Tremendous poverty makes rational thinking difficult. The future? When o e can barely make it through the day!?
        I know one thing, I’d much rather be around a literate poor with hope than one day cracked over the head with a beer bottle in my 80′s by an unfeeling and ignorant and empty human being that could have chosen a different path within a rich education system. I’ve seen parents dis-enroll their kids, so they can start work at 16. Parents–voice–please!
        And teachers–voice? Oh yeah! Educators are the epitome of what it means to be a revolutionary!
        Teachers are beat down, afraid, and tortured by incompetent administrators that have rushed out of the classroom to stand lunch duty, enter dress code referrals, and share snacks with the kids as they undermine teachers
        Whatever happened to good cop vs bad cop? Kids should not be running to the principal’s office to hang out with their favorite administrator and asking for a snack or a piece of gum. What is that?
        What do they think: We are just as degreed and certified; Teachers CHOOSE NOT leave their kids to push a paper, disrespect teachers, and seek out higher pay. I did not career change into this field for the pay. Principals should be visionaries, NOT overpaid fools. Forgive my pathos, but what I have seen, what I have witnessed–it disgusts me.
        I have met many wonderful teachers on this seven year roller coaster ride, but the majority are passive-aggressive individuals who have not only abdicated their responsibility to themselves, but to these kids. Traditionally, teaching, a job for women, is a field “run” by an “oppressed” group! Throw in a tendency to nurture, and an inherent difficulty in saying, “I can’t or I won’t” and we have a recipe for disaster. Historically, oppressed groups do not exercise power all that efficiently. It comes in chunks, leaving many shot in the face, discouraging future aggressive maneuvering. Hello?
        Well, I’ll say it, “Leave us alone” and put a moratorium on testing. And, instead of workbooks and worksheets, use that money to pay folk (job creation!) to grade portfolios, actual product! REAL reading and writing!!! Full literacy, not bubble in answer literacy!!! Our Non-Gap-Achievement-White kids and other affluent sub-group “anomalies” might actually catapult off the success of a truly literate underclass, leaving the bubble tests that they “achieve” so expertly at for some actual LEARNING, some actual creation, some actual reading, and some actual writing (output)…
        Multiple choice is hurting ALL Americans!! Not just those often low performing schools.
        Why in the hell, after, AFTER second grade–7th, 8th, high school (heartbreaking)–are we still teaching kids HOW to read!!?? Are some groups genetically inferior?? Why are we not READING to LEARN instead of learning to read. Shame on this country…shame on passive non-voiced educators who are the last hope for many kids who have no functioning parent! The train has left the station, and many clueless parents are hanging out in the station–Choo Choo!!
        My room is lined with $80,000.00 worth if consumable workbooks–worksheets!! Somebody is getting paid!! Multiply that 80K times every English classroom in a very large district. Profit is to be made by scapegoating the passive and compliant teacher!!! STAND UP TEACHERS!?!

        • Moseis

          The future? When the poor can barely make it through the day….

  2. Hmm

    Also, I believe the title is a reference to “Pass the Mic.” Gotta love some Beastie Boys.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Maybe ‘pass the buck’ would be more accurate.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    TFA most assuredly has a line, which is the actions it takes in service of its financial backers: monetizing the schools and their students, and busting the unions to do so.

    That will not change, no matter what online Potemkin Village Wendy Kopp creates.

    • I haven’t seen a lot of “monetized schools,” Michael. I’d feel pretty safe saying education is one of the least profitable industries in this country, and I see very few people — especially charter school operators — who want to deal with endless regulatory hassles and strict public accountability to make a razor-thin profit operating a school. There’s more government money to be made in “green energy,” anyway — few regulations, huge government subsidies, no accountability for results. Go windfarm, young man.

      • Linda

        You are misinformed. Check out what is happening in New Jersey…check out the Jersey Jazzman blog. They do not have the public accountability that you speak of…check out the profits on cyber charters….read the Diane Ravitch blog. One way charters make money is they create a management company with very high salaries for the founders…see Success in NYC…close to $400,000 for Eva and more for her spouse. Check out Achievement First in NY, RI and CT. They are making money and there is less accountability….inform yourself, research, read past the “non-profit” charter propaganda..

        • No, Linda… you are misinformed. It’s a terrible business. Virtual charter operator K-12 Learning (NYSE:LRN) has not posted a profit for seven straight quarters. Existing charter operators in NYC, like Achievement First, have testing accountability and they’re showing results: http://www.nytimes.com/schoolbook/2012/07/17/charter-schools-celebrate-test-score-gains/

          If I were a businessman who wanted to make an easy profit off government subsidies, I would not come anywhere near education. You can make far more money — with far fewer expectations and strings attached — by starting a green energy firm. Do you see a lot of charter school networks getting $535 million government-backed loans like Solyndra?

          • Terry

            I won’t waste time looking up links for you. But if you want to know about “incentives” for charters to open and special fees and special locations you can find them. The fact that they are not in the millions doesn’t mean it isn’t our tax dollars being wasted to support privatization, union busting and the demolition of the teaching profession in order to create a cheap labor force of at will employees who will most likely submit to the test prep regime. I hope you can afford private school for your children.

          • You can either take a principled position against all government subsidies – in which case not only are you opposed to charter subsidies, but you’re also opposed to projects like Solyndra that waste government money on private corporations – or you can weigh the subsidies’ cost versus their contribution to society. It obviously matters that charter tax credits are not in the millions. They are very modest and contribute value to society. Compare that to Solyndra, which took $535 million that we could have spent on education – thanks, Obama administration – and gobbled it up before going bankrupt and leaving society worse off than before.

            My point has gone unchallenged: education is not a lucrative business model. If you really want easy government money, there are far simpler ways to get it than starting a charter school. There is no “monetization of schools” because there’s very little money to be wrung from public education, beyond a few cushy staff positions at non-profits. (And let’s be honest, AFT has 600 staffers with six-figure salaries… who’s really creating more cushy staff spots?)

          • Michael Fiorillo

            Jake,

            You are right and wrong: these indeed are terrible businesses, and the schools are being monetized.
            Like Edison, the zombie ne’er do well of corporate education reform, the companies you mention may not profit (their executives, however, receive far higher salaries than their public school counterparts), but they are nevertheless part of the business complex taking over the schools.

            Additionally, you fail to mention the vendors and consultants, who are expanding rapidly and making money. The cookie jar is not just offered to the CMOs and their execs.

            And, by the way, charters do get government subsidies through the New Market Tax Credit, which leverages the already massive private funding they receive.

            Though not part of the original discussion, let’s not forget the social engineering aspect of this project, whereby business gets to fumble directly with reshaping the schools to fit its perceived labor market needs, turning education from a public and civic good to a market transaction, with all the iniquities that follow from that.

          • Tee

            “Posted a profit”? All you have to do to not post a profit is keep spending money on things, regardless of whether or not you actually need them, and pay your execs tons of money. Not that these charters would ever do that ;)

      • Linda

        Keep reading articles that support your already preconceived notions and remain ignorant. If you funnel whatever money is left over into your already bloated salary you can continue to pretend you are a non profit. It is easy to have high test scores when you weed out sped, ELL, behavior problems and anyone who doesn’t follow your guidelines. It is easy to get high test scores when you run a militarized test prep factory. And high test scores Michael mean very little to life long educators. Can you think of a job where you sit around all day and fill out bubble sheets?
        Like Bloomberg, Emanuel, Christie, Obama or any of the faux reformers would send their kids to these schools. They are for other peoples’ children, especially poor ones with brown skin. Good luck with your green energy firm…maybe you can help some of the crumbling poorly built inner city schools.

        • If you’re reading Diane Ravitch’s blog, your hands are extremely bloody with “reading articles that support your already preconceived notions”. It’s always fun to see a liberal who has to argue against Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama, and the New York Times to continue believing in her misguided opinion despite a mountain of evidence contradicting her.

          • Linda

            Your assumptions and terminology when labeling shows your ignorance and hubris. You know nothing about my political beliefs or what I have read and read every day. Reading both sides gives one a full perspective in order to form an educated opinion, something you are obviously lacking.

            But if I were to make ASSumptions such as you do, I will guess that you may be another know it all TFA dropout who once slummed for a few years and is now onto bigger and better things. Once in awhile you come here and donate your opinions to the little people and the commoners, you know, public school teachers.

            Please get going on your company so you can share your profits and help the poor children you are so concerned about.

          • Awww – Linda’s going to take her ball and go home. That’s sad. Even the Grey Lady and “Yes, We Can!” have abandoned her.

          • Linda

            Not going anywhere Sir Jake….still reading, still learning…just leaving you behind. Not much room in your already bloated ego for other thoughts anyway, so why waste the energy. God bless you! You will need it.

          • No need for the “Sir,” Linda… I only went to Yale.

          • Terry

            Jake,

            I am not sure you realize it but you are epitomizing the TFA stereotype of being pompous, arrogant and narrow minded. Your opinion is always the right one. And others must be lesser than you. Just thought I would tell you since you may not realize it.

          • Terry,

            I am not sure you realize it but you are epitomizing the TFA opponent stereotype of being pompous, arrogant and narrow minded. Your opinion is always the right one. And others must be lesser than you. Just thought I would tell you since you may not realize it.

            - Jake

          • Terry

            One would expect a Yale graduate to have a better retort than that or to be above ranting in order the get the last word. I guess that is a stereotype too. Oh well….they say the quality of graduates is declining, so now we have proof. Best of luck in all your future plans.

          • Ter-bear, c’mon… did I hurt your feelings by pointing out that you’re the pot calling the kettle black?

          • Moseis

            The French Revolution = Liberal
            The American Revolution = Liberal
            The Constitution = Liberal
            Capitalism = Quite Liberal

            When Linda describes “militarized” test prep, she is correct! Unlike public schools, charters do not accept the “criminal” element. According to my colleagues, those students are quickly and swiftly ejected. And, teachers with experience know, it just takes one mental case kiddo to SHUT down learning for you kid. I wish, and I don’t understand why not, the same could happen in public schools. American schools have become holding tanks. No Child Left Behind? 60 to 70% of the kids that want to learn in these horrendous urban schools are being held hostage by the students they refuse to remove. But hey, these kids are just numbers. Just show up kiddies, and our school gets PAID. I don’t care if you’re liberal or Neo or conservative, what a shame that our country has abandoned so many American kids, whose ancestors also helped make this nation great. I am so disgusted with this field, that it makes me want to vomit.

        • Moseis

          “Can you think of a job where you sit around all day and fill out bubble sheets?”

          Oh Linda, so true. So SAD!!

          • Linda

            I plan on spendng my final years doing what is best for the kids. I am closing my door and instilling a love of reading and free choice when it comes to literature. I refuse to submit to test prep, CCSS, reform bullshit! We are killing kids with monotony. I will do what I want to inspire a love of learning and passion for each individuals student’s strengths, dreams, aspirations, etc… I refuse to become a Stepford drone. I refuse to be demeaned and bullied by policy wonks who couldn’t handle a class of students for five minutes. Teachers who do not care wouldn’t be reading, researching and engaging in dialogue on sites like this and others. Stay strong and stay informed Moseis….the kids need you!

          • By my count I handled a classes of students for 172,800 minutes. But thanks for being an arrogant, condescending know-it-all, Linda.

    • Everyone, I recommend you don’t engage with Jake McGuire. He works for this frightening Neoliberal (Neocon??) “free-market” thinktank: http://www.mspolicy.org/index.php He is paid to argue for choice and deprofessionalizing teaching. One more example of a bad apple that sprung from TFA.

      • Linda

        Yes and check out his Twitter posts…this is how TFA gets their reputation as elitist and arrogant…..Pompous and very full of himself. If he cares so much about children and education why didn’t he stay in teaching? Poor TFA and what a stain on Yale’s reputation.

      • Linda

        Katie…check this out…he is posting his TFA spin on Ravitch…I left her some info and she responded…..she will put him in his place..arrogant, pompous AND disrespectful.

        Go here, about halfway down:

        http://dianeravitch.net/2012/07/18/are-tfa-teachers-highly-qualified/?replytocom=11960

      • Michael Fiorillo

        You’re absolutely right, KatieO: always best not to feed the trolls.

  4. Teacher too

    What is even the point of this TFA blog if you can’t leave a comment and you have to be invited to write an opinion? It is a fake front to make it look like they care. If is an after the fact cover your ass ploy. It is pointless. Pass on pass the chalk…what do we need them for? Don’t be manipulated again by this self promoting spinmeister.

  5. James

    I sent an email to the ‘blog feedback’ email address asking when comments would be allowed? I’m not holding my breath that I’ll get a response…

  6. Terry

    Study shows irrelevance of test score gains:

    We have known for some years that the scoring of state tests is easily gamed. In fact, proficiency rates don’t tell us much, because state officials may raise or lower the passing score for political reasons. It happened in New York for years, when the proportion of students passing the state tests went up and up until it collapsed in 2010 as a result of an independent investigation. The state officials enjoyed their annual press conferences where they announced annual too-good-to-be-true gains. And they were too good to be true. They were fake. When the fraud was revealed, there was no accountability. No one admitted having done the dirty deeds. No heads rolled. Accountability is for “the little people,” as real estate queen Leona Helmsley once said about paying taxes. In education, the little people are teachers and principals. At the top–at state departments of education–heads don’t roll. They crown themselves and use their exalted position to blame those who are far, far below them. Think “Yertle, the Turtle.”

    An important new study at the University of Indiana sheds new light on the validity of state scores. This study found that rising scores on the state tests did not correlate with improved performance on the ACT. In fact, students at “declining” schools did just as well and sometimes better than students where the scores were going up.

    http://dianeravitch.net/2012/07/18/new-study-shows-irrelevance-of-gains-on-state-tests/

  7. Linda

    To Jake. Sorry for any typos. iPhone. That’s about two years……very impressive even for a Yaley. Imagine doing if for 25-30 years and never feeling the desire to become a useless policy wonk. Now that is genuinely impressive. Ta Ta for now

  8. Michael Fiorillo

    A final point and two questions for Jake:

    First, your Solyndra references are a red herring, just providing misdirection from the original post. Didn’t they ever teach you about those at Yale? Points off.

    Second, you count your time spent in the classroom in minutes (!) and you think that gives you authority and credibility to boast and hijack the discussion? That’s chutzpah!

    Keep it coming, True Believers: the more you write, the more you reveal what you’re all about, and the deeper in you get.

    • (1a) It’s a relevant point because she asked about subsidies and insisted education is a lucrative business. I said it’s not, and that if you wanted millions from the government you’d be better off creating a green energy company than a charter school. It bothers me that the same people who give the Obama administration a pass for blowing $530 million on a solar panel company (and major campaign donor) throw a temper tantrum over a trivial tax incentive for charter schools that doesn’t even reach seven digits. It’s absolute peanuts compared to the good it returns to society. Solyndra gobbled up money and contributed nothing.

      (1b) Points off for being a douche.

      (2) She brought up minutes, it was pithy. I am not a highly-experienced teacher; I just know how many students and parents I was privileged to know that are trapped in a school determined by their zip code, and the same kids from the same background who live across the river in Arkansas are allowed to attend a KIPP charter school that’s been ranked the second-best high school in the entire state. I want that for my former students – they deserve it. They want it and their parents want it. The only people who don’t want it are the adults who fight over control of the schools because they are frequently the largest employers in rural Mississippi, and those adults stand to gain from keeping schools exactly the same. It’s terrible for children.

      What drives me is not arrogance or elitism or knowing what’s best for people – I support school choice because I DON’T know what’s best for someone else’s kids, but we should respect parents enough to at least give them a choice between their local school district or a charter school.

      • Rachel

        Actually, those whose job it is to make money from money think that education is an opportunity to make HUGE amounts of profit…

        “Education is now the second largest market in the U.S., valued at $1.3 trillion. So while an industry of this size will always be scrutinized by regulators, the most onerous recent changes are likely over, and investors should face an easier climate down the road. And while eventual passage is not guaranteed, several pieces of legislation favoring the for-profit industry have been proposed in Congress…Schools in these states have more flexibility in how they spend federal funds to benefit students, which BENEFITS FOR-PROFIT COMPANIES focusing on high-quality programs and services.” (emphasis mine).

        This come from Schools in these states have more flexibility in how they spend federal funds to benefit students, which benefits for-profit companies focusing on high-quality programs and services

  9. Moseis

    Education is a multi-billion dollar windfall.

    The College Board is reaping major profit.

    Just ask Pearson the millions upon millions that are being contracted to them as they are plinking and plunking away at coming up with the most relevant and rigorous multiple choice questions possible–For all of our kids, not just the “low” performing ones. I have a friend, a bit militant, who told me once, “They will not teach their OWN to make sure ours are not taught.” What color really matters? Yep, green.

    Pearson is also making a ton testing English Language Learners, monitoring their “progress” as they are segregated into little groups that follow each other around from class to class. Immersion works…segregating and testing children whose first language is not English, does not work. Immerse them, and let’s get on with the job of teaching instead of testing.

    • G

      I teach in a bilingual classroom…and totally agree with what you’ve said here…actually, everything you’ve said.

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