When I was a kid, around ten years old I guess, my father told me a joke that began with the question “What are the three biggest lies?” I said I didn’t know and he proceeded to tell me that the first biggest lie is “The check is in the mail,” which as a ten year old I really didn’t get. The second biggest lie was, apparently, “Some of my best friends are Black,” which also didn’t make much sense coming from my father, considering that some of his best friends were, in fact, Black. The third, well, was a bit too X-rated for this blog, and definitely for me as a ten year old. Not everyone is a perfect parent, I know, and I don’t hold this against him, though I do try to limit his unsupervised time with my own two kids.
As someone who is, I suppose, a big “friendly critic” (an expression TFA coined as the need to describe the growing number of frustrated alumni) of TFA, I think the biggest problem with TFA is all the lying. Though the individual people I’ve known on staff aren’t huge liars, themselves, the sum of all the lies add up to an organization whose lying is pathological. Really, they’ve elevated the art of lying to new heights, much the way Mozart elevated the concerto. Even people like Bernie Madoff who thought they were great liars can’t help but marvel at TFAs techniques.
The lies began innocuous enough. They were just part of their PR, part of their advertising and fund raising efforts. Other lies they didn’t even realize were lies until they were too embroiled in them and still other lies they still don’t seem to realize are untrue. If I could change one thing about the organization, this would be it.
Of all the lies, I can easily identify the biggest three. Over the years I’ve written multiple posts about each of thes lies, but thought it would be useful for people just learning about, or just joining, TFA to get a summary of them in one place:
Biggest TFA Lie #1: The training is adequate.
This is a lie that I have been trying to expose for the past seventeen years. Back then I felt that by offering too rosy a picture of the first year, new TFAers were overconfident and not able to take their preparation as seriously as they would if they knew how difficult it is to have a good start to the first year and how nearly impossible it is to recover from a bad start.
For many years this was my big issue with TFA. By sugar coating the first year they mislead the corps members into a dangerous overconfidence. From 1995 to 2006 I volunteered at the institute presenting a workshop (which you can see here) about the realities of many first years of teaching (using my own as a case study). In the latest incarnation of the TFA pre-institute reading they have a whopping 5 minutes dedicated to this in a reading called “250 minutes.”
So the only five minutes of thinking about how grueling the first year can be is from a teacher who had at most a bad month. For a more realistic view of the first year, many of the bloggers on this site do a nice job at this.
In recent years a new problem emerged in the training model. As the size of the corps grew exponentially (the first few corps were around 500 people, then it was around 1000 for a while, but now it is 6000 a year), TFA did not figure out a way to give all those trainees enough summer school students to practice teaching. Now we routinely see people training for less than 12 hours in front of a class for the entire summer with less than 12 students in each class.
In the pre-institute reading that new CMs got this year, they explain why the readings are focused on big ideas surrounding education rather than much about how to teach:
If any trainees actually empower their “summer school students to make incredible academic strides,” I’m sure that it will have a lot more to do with the tiny class sizes of often single digit numbers of students than any “nuts and bolts” (maybe thumb tacks) that the teachers picked up at institute.
Though the corps is twelve times bigger than it used to be twenty years ago, the amount of money TFA has is around 200 times more. With $200 million a year, they need to find a way to get people more classroom experience. I’d also like to see the placement procedure fixed so that the corps members can all practice with the age group that they are going to teach. It seems to me that if principals are so enamored by TFA, as TFA claims, there could be a way for new CMs to replace all the CMs who are leaving their schools. This way they would know the placement way ahead of time and train accordingly.
TFA seems to be in denial about their training being ‘good enough,’ based on how slow they have been to improve it. Maybe they think that since the standardized test scores from teachers who trained with TFA (at least the 91% of TFA teachers who make it through the first year and get a chance to administer those tests) are not all that different than the test scores of ‘traditionally certified’ (TFA speak for ‘dumb’) teachers, that this is some kind of proof of the validity of their model. But this seems to go against one of the goals of TFA to have teachers who are ‘transformational.’ If TFA teachers are about the same (some studies have them, at least in math, a little bit better at raising standardized test scores) as traditionally certified teachers, that must either mean, at least by TFA’s logic, that those other teachers are also transformational or that neither truly are.
Biggest TFA Lie #2: The magical power of high expectations.
If I were to summarize TFA’s philosophy to teacher training in a few words I’d say “Students always rise to meet the expectations of their teacher. A large part of the reason that poor kids don’t have the same academic achievement as wealthy kids is that the teachers of the poor kids have low expectations.” How great it would be if this were true. While I do believe that setting expectations extraordinarily low isn’t a good idea either, expectations that are too high are likely to backfire on the naive teacher.
I haven’t figured out it TFA is purposely lying to new CMs about this or whether TFA, itself, actually believes this. The motivation behind lying would be, I suppose, that it would ‘trick’ new corps members into getting the confidence they need to take on this responsibility. Having high expectations, after all, is something that new teachers can choose to have, even if they don’t have the skills to get students to those expectations. The scary thing to me is that I’ve talked with different TFA staff members, and my sense is that this is not supposed to be a trick to psyche out the corps members. They seem to really believe that low expectations is a large culprit for the problems in American education. A good demonstration of how TFA leads new corps members to embrace ‘high expectations’ as the primary weapon for fighting educational inequity is in this corps member produced video last summer.
Honestly, if I were to make my list of reasons why poor students struggle to ace standardized tests, low expectations from teachers would not crack my top 10. Yet, the first 35 pages of TFA’s guidebook ‘Teaching as Leadership” is all about the power of high expectations until they reluctantly admit in one sentence on page 36 (and then never again) “Yet setting a goal that is impossible for students to reach even with extraordinarily hard work might further undermine students’ shaky confidence, cementing their impression that effort does not lead to achievement and that they are ‘not smart’ enough to achieve in school.”
Biggest TFA Lie #3: The existence of miracle TFA teachers/schools/districts.
As evidence that the training model is good (lie #1) we often get to meet ‘miracle’ TFA teachers who wield their all powerful high expectations (lie #2) to lead their classes to amazing ‘gains’ of up to two years. As an example of this, see the latest pre-institute reading where the accomplishments of Jeremy Beard (husband of new TFA co-CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard) are described:
This is about all the proof that a new corps member needs. 100% of the first three graduating classes of his school went to college? Wow. But what they neglect to say, and what I’ve learned by investigating hundreds of these miracle claims, is that there is always more to the story. When people hear this 100% statistic, they assume that this means that 100% of the students who entered the school in 9th grade eventually graduated and went to college. But all that happened is that 100% of the students who actually made it to graduation got accepted into college. More relevant is what percent of 6th graders eventually graduated and got into college. Fortunately, this is very easy to find out. In Texas they have an excellent public data system called AEIS which you can access here. Within a few minutes of searching for this IDEA college prep in Hidalgo county I learned that the first graduating class of this school was only 27 students in 2007. Six years earlier in 2000-2001, there were 69 sixth graders. What happened to the other students, I’m not sure. For their second graduating class in 2008, 32 student of whom 100% also got into college, well there were 85 sixth graders six years earlier. I encourage readers to double check these numbers for themselves. And my goal is not to take down Jeremy Beard who seems to be a nice enough guy. The point is that TFA just can’t resist including some kind of bizarre miracle story in their literature. In this case they could have chosen any success story from their entire 20 year history and the one they chose was so easily revealed as an inflated claim of success. This is not to say that they didn’t do good work over there, just that it wasn’t enough to prove the unlimited power of enthusiasm, hard work, and high expectations.
This type of attrition is true of all the ‘high performing’ ‘no excuses’ charters that you hear about, and which I have written about for a few years beginning with my very first investigative post around two years ago. College acceptance rate for graduating seniors is a meaningless statistic that is often thrown around recklessly.
This type of lie extends to TFA alumni who have gone on to lead charter networks (like KIPP), cities (like D.C., Newark, and New Orleans) and even states (Tennessee and Louisiana). Under scrutiny I’ve found that their results are definitely exaggerated. Here is something I wrote about New Orleans and here is a popular blog about what is (and isn’t) going on in Washington D.C.
I should make it clear to newcomers to this blog that I hope people don’t take my realism and exposing of blatant lies and half-truths as my believing that teachers can’t make ‘a difference.’ I’ve been teaching for fifteen years so I certainly try every day to do my best and some days I’m better than other days. Knowing that teachers are not superheros does not mean that I don’t think that they are still heros, but maybe more like an action hero like Indiana Jones than like Superman. We find a way to use the limited power that we have to make as big of a difference as we can.
When I taught in Houston for four years, I put in a lot of hours and really got to help my students and to know them very well. Twenty years later, I am still in contact with many of my old students who have friended me on Facebook. I don’t know that I was ‘transformative’ in the sense that TFA claims that many alumni were. I don’t know that I was ‘the reason’ that some of my students that did eventually graduate college did so. I do know that I got many of my students to like and appreciate math, which was really my goal. Likewise, teachers all over make small differences each day. It is tough to know what our individual impact is. I feel confident that I enhanced the lives of many of my students. Others hated my guts, but maybe those students were inspired by a different teacher.
The new co-CEOs have been going around the country on a ‘listening tour’ since taking over recently. I continue to wait for my invitation to a private meeting, though I’m not expecting one. If TFA wants to listen, then they can read this, I guess.
TFA does not have to lie so much. I know that they mainly do it because if they stop lying they might not be able to get as much public and private money. But there is a lot of truth that they can empathize and be proud of. Like the fact that even if few of the TFA teachers are changing life trajectories, there are some excellent teachers they have trained who are making small differences each day. Some of these teachers (though not as many as they say) teach well past the two year commitment. There are also some great school leaders — not the ones that we hear about from them — but honest ones who are also making small but genuine differences each day.
Lies will not help America’s children. Lies might make some charter operators rich which, I suppose, is good for the charter operators. But these lies are causing, around the country, schools to be shut down, teachers to be fired, and students to be scattered around looking for a new school after knowing that they got their old school shut down — and all because these schools, teachers, and students were not able to match the things that TFA has been lying about.
TFA, to quote Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’, can’t handle the truth. They just can’t stop lying. And as fast as they lie, I will continue to reveal those lies. (It is tough keeping up, sometimes!)
Though these are the biggest three TFA lies, there are so many more that deserve honorable mentions. I’ve already blogged about some of these. Here is a partial list:
50,000 people genuinely apply to TFA (You count as an ‘applicant’ if you complete stage one which only takes about a minute)
Charter schools don’t have easier to teach kids and more involved parents and don’t expel kids who bring down their test scores. (Finally admitted here, but myth still persists)
39% of first year TFAers get a year and a half of learning in one year from their students (finally admitted that this was a lie here)
Feel free to add your own …