A few days ago The Pope of the Catholic church and The Pope of Teach For America, Wendy Kopp, both stepped down.
I was not always thrilled with the direction that Wendy Kopp was steering the organization in, and I publicly aired my grievances in my open letter to her. I was pleased with her lengthy response. Though she evaded my most important questions, she did admit that TFA needs to do a better job with highlighting alumni who have different views than the typical “shut ‘em down, fire ‘em, charter ‘em” approach of the most high profile alumni.
Taking over for Wendy are two co-CEOs, Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard. I haven’t met either of them before. From what I’ve read, Matt’s expertise is in management, though he has not been a teacher, while Villanueva-Beard was a 1998 corps member.
When I heard about this transition, I was hoping that maybe this was part of Teach For America changing direction and freeing themselves from the entrenchment they have with the corporate reform movement. Wendy was on so many boards with people like Joel Klein, and her obvious connection to KIPP charter schools, it might have been hard for TFA to be very neutral.
But with Wendy’s letter to me and also some balanced material on the Pass The Chalk blog (no comments allowed still!), I was kind of hoping that the balance was shifting somewhat and the selection of these two new co-CEOs was a part of this. I also read that they were beginning their terms with a nationwide ‘listening tour.’ Now going on a listening tour doesn’t mean anything if you just go and listen and then ignore every complaint you heard. Even Arne Duncan goes on listening tours like that. Whether they really want to listen, well, I don’t know them, as I said, and I certainly don’t know what the long term plan is for TFA as far as how neutral they want (or can afford) to be.
One thing I can say for sure is that neither one of them reached out to me, personally. I’m sure that when they invite all alumni to the New York City listening tour stop, I’ll be included on their mass email, but I can’t see myself showing up like that without some kind of personalized invitation from someone high up in the organization. I’ve spent nearly 20 years doing what I could to help improve the organization. I’ve been on NPR describing my concerns. I’d think that would earn, at least, some kind of semi-private meeting with them, then I don’t know what would.
Matt Kramer, I know, is part of a family that is very influential promoting corporate reform in Minnesota. His brother, Eli, is the head of the Hiawatha Charter Schools, which I learned a bit about when I debated a principal on Minnesota’s NPR last summer. The great EduShyster wrote an illuminating post about the Kramer family. This does not mean, though, that Matt is necessarily pro-charter or pro-corporate reform. I certainly don’t agree with everything that everyone in my family believes. Matt follows about 100 people on Twitter of which most are your usual corporate reform accounts like DFER, John White, Michelle Rhee, SFER, etc.. As far as people opposed to this style of reform, I notice Dr. Camika Royal and Randi Weingarten, but not much more. Still, Matt did tweet this after Wendy responded to my open letter:
The other co-CEO, Elisa Villanueva-Beard, is listed as a ‘reformer’ on the Excellence In Education website, which is never a good sign. When I checked out who she follows on Twitter, I was pleased to see that she followed Diane Ravitch. Most of the people she follows, though, were ‘reformers.’ I noticed. One pleasant surprise I had was that I was one of the people she followed. Not only that, but look at who I am between on her following list:
This made me feel pretty important.
I don’t know Villanueva-Beard, but I have crossed paths with her husband Jeremy Beard over the years. At the TFA 20th anniversary he gave quite an inspirational speech. It was so powerful that I actually found him later that day and said that it was great and that I hope his family gets a chance to see a replay of it.
Here’s that speech:
At the time I didn’t know much about the Apollo 20 program in Houston that he leads. Since then I’ve been skeptical as I learned that the idea is to bring ‘best practices’ from KIPP schools. I’ve read accounts that many teachers are now miserable in those schools and the schools haven’t moved reading scores up much, though they have made some progress in math. Still, I do like Jeremy and know that he is sincere about wanting to do what works.
The only thing I know about Villanueva-Beard’s views come from a series of tweets from the Teach For America Twitter feed as she participated in a panel discussion at Rice University recently. Now I didn’t see the actual discussion, only what TFA tweeted, so my impression is not based on full information. Maybe the series of tweets says more about the person who was choosing the quotes than what Villanueva-Beard most strongly believes. Still, I was disappointed that most of these quotes come directly from the ‘reformers’ playbook:
This is the type of thing that Michelle Rhee says all the time. I know a lot of teachers and I know that the vast majority of the ones I know are very frustrated by what is now called ‘accountability’ — but really means the inaccurate ‘growth’ on standardized tests.
This term ‘irreplaceable’ was coined by TNTP, one of the leaders of the corporate reform movement. They came out with a very shoddy report, which I critiqued on my blog, that claimed that D.C. is moving in the right direction because they are retaining the teachers with high value-added scores and the people with low value-added are leaving (partly because some of them are getting unfairly fired because of them). I’d advise Villanueva-Beard to avoid this term if she wants to seem more neutral.
I wonder if she really believes this statistic. I analyzed it, and found it to be highly exaggerated.
I wrote about why the principal survey results are skewed once, and as far as effectiveness of TFA teachers, the research is, by all accounts, mixed.
This is also an expression from the ‘reformer’ script. Many TFA teachers disagree with this. In particular, TFA alum and writer for Good Magazine, Liz Dwyer, wrote an excellent article called ‘Let’s Stop Comparing Education To The Civil Rights Movement’ about this. And just the other day a current TFA staffer, Stevona Rogers, disputed this claim in a piece called ‘The Civil Rights Movement of Our Time? Not Yet.’ on Pass The Chalk.
The new CEOs have not reached out to me for advice on media training, but if they were to, I would be very willing to help them in being more careful about what language they use to represent their thoughts. In the case of these quotes, I don’t know if Villanueva-Beard realized that she was saying things that alienate people like me.
Being a CEO of TFA right now is a very tough job. They have inherited a lot of problems and backlash from TFA’s ties with corporate reformers like Michelle Rhee. They have a lot of damage control to do, and I’m not sure how easily it can be done without upsetting many of the people on their board. Still, I have seen some recent efforts by TFA to be — or at least to make it appear that they are — more tolerant of people who think that some notable alumni are actually moving us further away from the day that ‘One Day all students ….’ There wasn’t even any announcement, as far as I’ve noticed, by TFA about Michelle Rhee’s recently released autobiography. Two years ago there would have certainly been a big event promoting it, but they are keeping there distance, at least publicly.
I hope that the new CEOs do a good job with TFA and that they make some changes that make me want to wear a TFA T-shirt again. I’m not going to sit by the phone waiting for them to call me for advice, but if they do, I’ll be happy to offer it.