Nov 15 2013

My advice to TFA staffers: Quit For America

The organization of TFA is a bit like a pyramid scheme.  There are a bunch of VPs who are making a lot of money for a non-profit, certainly six figures.  Then there are the majority of staffers, people who work in recruitment, teacher ‘effectiveness’, even the alumni team, IT, etc., who make much less.  But regardless of the status of the TFA staffer, they all have one thing in common:  They are all accessories to a $300 million annual fraud funded, in part, by taxpayers, and which has, I’m sorry to say, contributed to the weakening of the pubic school system which has, in turn, hurt innocent kids and, yes, their hard working teachers.

I feel kind of bad for these staffers.  I suppose there are some staffers who are oblivious about what seems so obvious to me.  But the majority, I think, are much too smart to not realize what, to use an expression from VP Juice Fong’s blog, “negative unintended consequences” TFA has caused and continues to cause.

It must be disheartening for those more enlightened staffers.  Like being in a relationship with a guy who used to be good and who still might have it in him to be good again, and who claims he is aware that he has not been himself lately but that he’s going to really try to turn over a new leaf soon, but who never demonstrates that these are any more than empty words.

To these staffers, I’m their secret hero.  They’re reading this right now and grateful that someone has the guts to call TFA out on this.  I’ve spoken to some of them and though they haven’t been so explicit, they have given me hints (and please TFA, understand that it’s not everyone I’ve talked to so please don’t try to track down everyone I might have talked to over the past couple of years and punish them all).  One said to me “don’t stop blogging.”  Others claim that they’re always the one at the staff meeting who is challenging the TFA status quo.

For those staff members who continue to go to work every day hoping that TFA will change for the better, my sense is that this is unlikely to happen.  All I see is TFA opening up more regions, Pittsburgh, Virginia, for example, getting more federal money, getting ‘highly qualified teacher’ to mean ‘anybody,’ and they really seem to be getting worse each day.

Yes, they talk a good game and they have even stopped talking up their hero Michelle Rhee.  But in a lot of ways I respect Michelle Rhee more than I do TFA because she is very open about her beliefs.  She thinks that teachers have way too many job protections and that the only thing that will motivate them is to hold them accountable for how their student’s standardized test scores compare to what a computer simulation predicts them to be.  TFA doesn’t say this explicitly, and they’ve even stopped having Rhee speak at their events, but they still behave like an organization that believes just as fanatically in test scores as the primary measure of the quality of a school and a teacher.

Many staffers, I believe, are frustrated by their inability to influence the direction of the organization.  I don’t know the turnover rate of staffers, but I think that some staffers do quit once they realize that they are part of an organization that has, as its cheerleaders, someone like Arne Duncan, and an organization that is a cheerleader for schools like the KIPP schools which are, let’s face it, vastly overrated.

I often get asked if I think that TFA is a net positive or a negative.  After all, there are a lot of great teachers and principals out there today who would never gotten involved in education if it weren’t for this organization.  It is true that a lot of good came from TFA in this way.  But as of November 2013 I think that the negative caused by the ‘reformer’ alumni, even though there are not a vast many of them, has greatly outweighed all the good that has been done by all the people, including those who are still working in schools.  This is not to say that ten years from now this will be the case.  You see, if there was no TFA it is true that there would be no Michelle Rhee.  But it is likely that someone just like her would have risen to power anyway.  But maybe the legacy of TFA will be, when we look back on it ten years from now, the alumni who fought against these ‘reformers.’  And if that turns out to be the case then the ‘good’ of TFA will eventually outweigh this ‘bad’ dark period.

So I’m here today to say to these frustrated staffers, and you know who you are, I don’t think that my awesome blog posts are going to be enough to get TFA to change.  No, they won’t change until they hit the proverbial ‘rock bottom.’  And already they are dealing with issues they never have faced before.  Several ivy league schools have recently published an op-ed urging people not to do TFA.  When TFA tries to invade a new territory, they are met with a lot of resistance though they always seem to edge out the competition at the end.  And, yes, there have been some former staffers who have spoken out.

So if you want to ‘give back’ as you wanted to do when you joined TFA, the best thing you can do is quit and get on the ‘right side’ of history.  After you quit, if you have the guts, you should write something about why you made this wise decision and publish it somewhere, I’d be willing to give you some space here — you can do it anonymously if you need to.

Doing this would, I’m sure you’re concerned, hurt your future prospects as powerful and rich player in the education industry.  TFA, at least right now, can probably make it so you will “never work again in this town,” so you’ll have to decide who you’re in education for.

I don’t expect the higher ups to take me up on this challenge.  You’re just making way too much money and I doubt you’ll be able to make as much elsewhere, particularly if you write something publicly.  But for the lower level people at the bottom of the pyramid, like leaving the bad boyfriend, this is the only way that there is any chance TFA will change.  It is the only way they will ever hit rock bottom.

Some might be questioning why I would write a post like this.  What am I hoping to achieve?  Well, I will admit that I don’t expect a large percent of TFA staffers to resign after reading this post, and I won’t consider this a failure when that doesn’t happen.  I guess I’m probing to see if I will get some anonymous testimonials from TFA staffers who are feeling a bit guilty, but a bit trapped.  Maybe I can post some of these responses.  Another thing that might happen is that the TFA spin machine goes into overdrive with testimonials from staffers who are very happy at TFA.  No matter what the response, it will be more information for me in trying to determine what strategies I’ll pursue in the future as I try to do my part in getting the TFA blob to start moving in a direction that might truly bring us closer to the day when One Day … you know the rest.

25 Responses

  1. Meghank

    Thanks for this post. Typo in first paragraph.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Perhaps a few subpoenas, followed by a perp walk or two – regarding, say, discussions between TFA, charter operators and the Emanuel administration over public school closings and charter school openings in Chicago- might focus their thoughts.

  3. Zach

    TFA isn’t structured so much as a “pyramid” as it is structured like a normal company…They have their own sets of issues but they’re not a pyramid scheme lol

    • Allison

      A normal company that gets its money from donations and government grants even though it doesn’t have a product. Sorry, this is a pyramid scheme.

  4. August

    Thanks for all your work on this. In my opinion TFA has gone a long way to convince policymakers that teaching takes no special knowledge or preparation, that nobody smart would want to make a career of teaching, that experience doesn’t matter, that teaching ought not to be viewed as a real profession, and that teaching poor kids is charity work. At this point, whether that’s been their intention doesn’t matter.

  5. Educator

    So I like what you write the vast majority of the time but I’m not sure this post will bring about the change you hope for. It would seem to make people who need to hear this message close their ears further. Despite this, some thoughts:

    - To TFA staffers reading this. Get past the tone but look at the substance. This post has a lot of hard truths in my humble opinion.

    - I don’t think TFA should dismantle I think it should change. The TFA alum who seem to be causing the most damage usually are the ones with the least amount of ACTUAL education experience (teaching in a classroom). This just makes sense – get people with little experience in any endeavor, then give them an extraordinary amount of power, and you’re more likely to get some bad policy. Couple this with hubris, where criticism is dismissed as “status quo protecting” or “adult interests” or “low expectations” and trouble begins. Can there be great leaders with minimum experience? I would say yes. But overall, it’s a bad idea, and TFA’s track record of alum isn’t stellar. TFA has got to a better job promoting alum who promote more thoughtful policy. There have to be some I hope? Zimmer comes to mind. Also there was an alum who ran for Houston school board but lost. She was endorsed by NPE.

    Of course, TFA’s business model would suffer, as it would be less likely that you would have as many applicants if more was required of the corps members, like a longer commitment. After all, who really wants to be a teacher anymore? Part of the draw of TFA is that you only have to struggle for two years then move on to apparently greater more substantial change in education or another career.

    • Michael Fiorillo

      TFAers who remain in the classroom are outliers, who the organization seems to have little interest in pushing forward, except for PR purposes. The explicit purpose of the organization, as stated by Her Koppness, is developing “leaders” (i.e. serial public school killers), not teachers.

      Given that, how should reform of this criminal enterprise good forward?

      • Educator

        Good question. I wouldn’t call it criminal though, but I get your point. I don’t have an answer. I think the problem lies in TFA having a very narrow view of teaching. For them, it’s about higher scores on standardized multiple choice exams, which is framed as “student achievement” or “academic growth” or “results” So the ultimate metric is very narrow. Scoring well on multiple choice tests isn’t terrible, and it would be great if more minorities and low income kids scored better, and I think it should be a goal, but not at the expense of other more important things about public education. TFA seems to promote high scores, and then makes these alum go into positions of power who then reinforce this narrow view (like putting in policies where you fire people and close schools based on low test scores, and then open up charters that score high test scores but then kick out low test score students like special ed and ELLs, or have a much higher dropout rate, or have instruction that looks like robotic mind control of both teachers and students, etc…)

        So TFA ought to learn more about education from….wait for it….educators! I know all these reformers like to crap on schools of education, but maybe these schools of education know something. Eat a piece of humble pie, listen, and, as Camika Royal has stated to TFA Philly, examine yourself.

        • Michael Fiorillo

          Educator,

          While I recognize that in the current climate it would be near impossible to get a prosecutor interested in pursuing this racket (which is what it is) and labeling TFA’s behavior criminal, I don’t think it’s all that hyperbolic: as you yourself write, heavily trained and promoted TFA cadre are sent into school districts with the express purpose (as the Broad Foundation’s “How-to-kill-a-school” toolkit describes) of using pseudo science and outright lies to close public schools, fire unionized teachers, and replace them with private charters that frequently have sweetheart deals with their for-profit management companies, landlords (who frequently sit on the Boards of the charters they rent to) or vendors.

          George Washington Plunkitt, a notorious Tammany Hall boodler in 19th century NYC became famous for using the term “honest graft” for enriching oneself by being embedded in the system you were looting. With TFA, it’s even worse, since there is are ideological and PR components that mask its true purpose, conning idealistic young people into believing they are “giving back” to society, rather than being unwitting pawns in a cynical game of union busting and public wealth extraction.

          • allison33

            Very well put.

    • Steve M

      Zimmer is still an unknown. Zimmer was a positive influence in his school’s community when he was still a teacher, and he recently helped change the make-up of LAUSD’s board, but the man has not taken a side in the national debate…and I don’t think he will.

      Zimmer’s become a politician, and it’s likely that we see him run for city council (or something similar) in a few years.

      • Educator

        Education policy is political. I’m hoping he’s trying to influence things in a better direction but being strategic about it, building alliances with those in power and trying to influence them….I hope. I honestly don’t know everything he stands for, but I watched a video of him once and he seemed to be decent.

        • Steve M

          Your point is well taken, but I’ve been teaching in the LAUSD as long as Zimmer has (at a rival, more problematic school than his, to boot) and I still don’t know where he stands. Does anyone?

          I’m afraid that he’s going to turn out to be (sorry to say it) a political whore…much like LA’s former mayor.

          • Educator

            I hope not. =\ I heard he opened when Ravitch was there. Hopefully Ravitch will keep him in check.

          • Jack Covey

            Where does Steve Zimmer stand?

            I think it depends on the audience to whom
            he is speaking.

            When he spoke at the UTLA’s August Leadership Conference, Steve came off as solidly anti-TFA.

            Go to:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgN2_7t4et8

            Start watching at 8:03.

            Here’s the transcript at 8:03:

            STEVE ZIMMER:
            |
            “And the same folks, the same millionaires and billionaires, and privatizers who caused this economic crisis that our school communities suffered so much from…

            “… are the very same people who are donating millions and millions of dollars to the privatization movement, to charter schools, to Teach for America, to everything that is intended to privatize and corporatize this last vestige of a public sector, of unions.

            “They did NOT come after just ME in this last election. They came after ALL of us.”

            That’s a pretty unambiguous condemnation of TFA, doncha think?

  6. Because all kids matter

    Thank you, Gary. You raise the questions that many consider when they can be honest with themselves and not be concerned that someone can actually read their mind as they read their email.

    You and many other alums who have unplugged from TFA, even when barraged by their emails and phone calls see through the rhetoric.

    Once a good corps member always a proficient staffer and trusted candidate for maneuvering by those from the higher level in the pyramid.
    The accountability and adherence to detail persists. Amazing how some comments focus on spelling typos instead of examining the compelling issues and long term effects of TFA working across the policy and social strata.
    Reminds me of how people get admonished when F in Teach For America is not capitalized.

    If TFA is not acceptable for your kids, why are you as alums and teachers, pushing TFA reform?

    Pragmatic considerations mean you think of your self first, it’s about you and how you’ll fare with the alliances you’ll benefit from and the post-TFA trajectory.
    How do you negotiate with your soul?

    Oh… It makes sense… Hard to get off that hamster wheel when it gets moving forward.

  7. Monica

    If TFA continues to grow and expand, increasing their need for ever more recruits (especially with the expansion of charter schools) won’t they start running out of the best/brightest to choose from and have to “lower” their recruitment standards? At some point, won’t they have to come knocking at State U for teachers? Won’t rules of diminishing returns render their claims of superiority utterly false?
    (Note: I don’t believe for one minute that simply by virtue of their pedigree, Ivy League 22-year olds make the “most effective” K-12 teachers, but that’s beside my point.)

  8. Educator

    More thoughts -

    TFA could gain more credibility, at least in my eyes, if the TFA staff had more teaching experience. To be specific, it would be nice to see at least some staff with 8 or more years of teaching experience before they moved on to do what they view is more impactful work with TFA. I think people would be more open to TFA ideas if they saw people with decent experience. The teach 2 years then do more impactful education work just doesn’t cut it.

    You have to ask yourself why so many education reformers have so LITTLE actual education experience. Let’s get specific.

    For a TFA 2 year teacher in an elementary school, s/he may have taught a total of 40 – 60 students depending on the state. Then this 2 year teacher believes s/he wants to do more impactful work (and probably wants to make more money and get more prestige and is probably so tired from teaching), so s/he becomes an administrator, or works for a politician in their ed policy division, or works for a charter management organization, or works for TFA, or works for an ed advocacy organization. Now they impact hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of students, depending on the role. All with 2 years of experience and interacting with 40-60 students. Additionally, if those 2 years were at a no excuses charter, they have seen just 1 idea of what education is about (serving low income kids who win lotteries, which self selects out a certain population of kids, instruction that is militaristic, fewer special ed students, fewer ELL students, a high dropout attrition rate, a school that does not have to follow the state’s education code that protects students, high suspension rates) So now these now powerful TFA alum have an extremely narrow view of what education is, and when they hear a counter point, they get dismissed as defenders of the status quo, when in reality, these are valid criticisms. You also have to ask yourself why these alum didn’t consider teaching longer. Maybe it’s because no one wants to be a teacher anymore the way things are going with education policy. I’m not sure.

    TFA also hires a lot of non educators to do non-profit type of work. I guess that’s OK to a certain extent.

    If anyone reading this does know of TFA staff who have in the neighborhood of 8 or more years of teaching experience, please let me know. I’d be interested in reading their thoughts on why they believe what they’re doing is good. Really, I’m open to it. I just find it odd that at Institute the oldest people there seem to be in their mid 20′s. So you have 2 year teachers teaching 0 year teachers how to be teachers, run by a management and corporate staff with people who have taught 2 years on average. Can we all take a step back and look at this and ask if this seems like a good idea?!

  9. Former TFA staffer

    On the money.

    • Educator

      Care to elaborate? What’s on the money?

  10. skepticnotcynic

    It’s because the American elite don’t value public school teachers and schools. It’s that simple.

  11. Alec

    It actually has more to do, probably, with the idea that the bankrollers of ed reform have a tangible interest in ensuring that equity and poverty are never talked about. Think about it. The number 1 thing the Waltons could do for Ed Reform and equality is pay the parents of our kids a living wage and give them health care. It is far cheaper to buy the local school boards, and TFA.

    As long as we blame teachers, and ignore poverty and equity as an issue, the privileged class will never have to sacrifice in order to solve the problem. The amazing marketing is that the 1% have convinced progressives that talking about poverty and equity is not only irrelevant, it is a racist distraction from the real problem: teachers.

    • James

      Totally agree with you — this is what I think is on the mind of most TFA ‘philanthropists’…

    • Educator

      I think progressives do believe poverty and equity matter, but they’ve convinced themselves that the solution isn’t really what unions or liberals have fought for in the past (taxes, funding, healthcare, greater societal system change, etc…), they’ve somehow been convinced that the focus should be predominantly on in-school factors, especially teachers and schools.

      Part of this I think stems from the media, and finding cases of really bad policies that are yes, sometimes supported by teachers unions. So these new progressives come on in and see that and think that’s the problem – fight the teachers unions, fight the system, fight the status quo, with fresh new smart ideas.

      And since they’ve convinced themselves that that’s the problem, they’ve supported things like charter expansion (even though there are SO many cases of charter schools NOT serving the representative community, enrolling fewer special needs and ELLs and other marginalized children, high dropout rates, and charters INCREASING SEGREGATION!) These are things that are exactly opposite of what progressives usually stand for. So there’s somewhat of an irony going on here. I don’t get it, but I do. If you’ve convinced yourself that the unions or the traditional system is the problem, and you’ve based your career on that, you’re more likely to look past the faults of the new system you’ve created.

      I think TFA has a lot of these people. I do think they care, but they’ve convinced themselves incorrectly. But as more bloggers, whistle blowers, ex-charter teachers and administrators, and now, even the media (finally!) and some politicians, picks up on this, I think TFA will start to realize they have to adjust course. Rhee didn’t, and I think this is why her influence has plummeted.

      So to any TFA staff reading this, I hope you do listen to Gary’s arguments (you might not like the tone), but he really does seem to be on to something. It’s just a matter of time before more people do. That is, if more people pick up on things and don’t like it (I’m assuming people don’t want more segregation, but I know there are groups like the KKK that do support segregation – look up PA’s KKK they wrote an editorial in support of PA’s charters).

      Like any organization/business, the leaders have to look in the mirror, examine oneself, and adjust. Otherwise, the organization might wither away like so many organizations that don’t respond to changing times.

      And I didn’t mean to make this all about charters, but that’s a clear example that a lot of people understand.

  12. Educator

    Here’s an example of a TFA leader getting heat for his no excuses model…not from status quo protecting teachers…but from students. One of these principals is a TFA alum according to the anonymous author. Now, in fairness, there are traditional principals where students don’t like the principal. But the students reference wanting to have teachers they can relate to. They don’t outright say it, but I wonder if this school is full of TFA corps members:

    http://dianeravitch.net/2013/11/23/high-school-students-in-new-orleans-walk-out-in-protest/

    http://www.wdsu.com/page/search/htv-no/news/local-news/new-orleans/high-school-students-protest-teachers-firing/-/9853400/22980804/-/wdkotsz/-/index.html

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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