As I promised I would, I attended the TFA 25 year anniversary celebration in Washington DC last month. Having been involved with the organization for 24 years in different roles including a corps member, a staff member, a recruiter, a keynote speaker, and, now, a critic, I had a lot of different reasons I wanted to go.
I have lots of friends I’ve made throughout my years in TFA. There are also a lot of people who I’ve helped train as teachers through the different workshops I used to present at the different institutes, and I always enjoy meeting some of the people who have attended these and still remember them. But a main reason I went was to keep an eye on TFA.
If I had to summarize what I learned there in five words, they would be: TFA appears to be improving. ‘Appears to be’ because I’m not confident that they are actually improving, but whether they are or not, they want to make it look like they are.
TFA in many ways has it’s finger on the ‘pulse’ of education reform. Whether they are leading the ed reform movement or whether they are just followers who are benefitting from it, I’m not always sure. But either way seeing what sorts of messages they are transmitting through their public events is always interesting to me and sometimes very revealing about how things are going in the current ed reform wars.
Five years ago was the 20th anniversary and it was a complete union bashing, teacher bashing, charter loving, reform fest. Indicative of this was the interview with Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and other reformers at the opening ceremony.
Some key moments from that event are at 56:50 where Klein talks about how ‘poverty is not destiny’ and from 1:10:15 to 1:14:17 where Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada talk about how unions are so good at doing their function which is to protect teacher jobs. Also this is where Rhee talks about how the unions are so organized while the reformers are just isolated and not coordinated in their efforts which is why she founded StudentsFirst.
Five years ago I was disgusted by what I witnessed, so I embarked on a journey in which I started blogging about education policy and became part of a very passionate team of education activists. I’ve also made a name for myself as one of the top critics of TFA and certainly the top critic who is also an alum.
While five years ago, I was just another alumni, this time I was there as somewhat of an antagonist. I wasn’t sure how it would all play out. Unlike five years ago, this time there would be people at the event who truly hate me and have accused me of all sorts of horrible things. Would I have to deal with any of them? I didn’t know.
The event was mainly on Saturday, though there was optional stuff for Friday afternoon and evening and also Sunday morning. I took the TFA chartered bus from New York City at 6:00 AM — a subdued and sleepy group of TFAers. When I got to DC around noon I met up with Lyndsey Layton, one of the national education reporters for The Washington Post. We spoke for about an hour. I had no idea that three hours later she would publish a lengthy article about me called ‘He’s The Stinkweed at the Teach For America Garden Party’ I can’t imagine that I could have announced my arrival at the event any more effectively than that.
Friday there was a five hour workshop moderated by Alexander Russo about how to be a Twitter Education ‘influencer.’ I had volunteered to be one of the presenters at this workshop, but TFA would not allow me to, even though some of the other presenters were people I had never heard of who had very few Twitter followers. I found it interesting that Russo, during his presentation, talked about how until recently reformers were losing the social media war to reform critics and how people should not be fooled into thinking that the reform critics are not highly organized. As a reform critic, myself, and one of the more active ones, I had to chuckle at this since I’m certain that I’m not being guided what to write by some organizing force the way that the various reform websites are, like Education Post and The74.
I found myself in a break out session with RiShawn Biddle, editor of Dropout Nation, and someone who has made it clear that he does not have much respect for me. After the session I introduced myself to him and he was very cold. On his blog he once wrote that I’m only known for having a bad first year in TFA and I told him that I’ve done a lot more than just have a bad first year, winning teacher of the year at my school in my fourth year, and having trained many teachers, and written several books. He didn’t really react. I invited him to come to an unauthorized panel discussion I planned for Saturday at 5:00 PM and he said he’d think about it. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t show.)
At the Twitter thing I also met Brittney Packett, the executive director of TFA in St. Louis and someone who has been very active in the Black Lives Matter movement. I wasn’t sure whether or not I had ever trolled her on Twitter. I didn’t think so, so I introduced myself and she seemed to be happy to meet me and we spoke a little.
DeRay Mckenson also made an appearance at this session and gave a very uninspired, impromptu, talk about using Twitter. Much of his talk was about whether Twitter would change the 140 character limit and how that would work — would they not count links maybe? I don’t think this was his best work.
Leading up to this conference, I was contacted by some fellow critics who had heard I was attending, and we set up a mailing list and a text group so we could coordinate. Three things we planned were to meet up on Friday night for dinner, to have an unsanctioned panel discussion on Saturday after the scheduled panel discussions, and to participate in a TFA sanctioned bunch led by Amber Kim, called ‘Critics Not Haters.’ I did appreciate that TFA allowed such a brunch to be on the schedule though of course it was going to be on Sunday after the conference was over and while most alumni would have either left already or were sleeping.
In addition to my team ‘in the field’ I had a few other TFA alumni critics who were remotely monitoring from Los Angeles and Chicago the twitter account I had created just for the occasion @TFA25FactCheck. Together with the associated hashtag #TFA25FactCheck, this turned out to be a pretty successful social media campaign. It ended up with 250 followers and hundreds of mentions.
Friday night were the regional receptions and we all went to a big area where people could mingle. A few people came up to me, recognizing my name from my name tag and thanked me for the work I’ve done with ed reform fact-checking. I met up with my critics-not-haters ‘team,’ Amber, Jameson, Leah, and Brandon, four critical TFA alumni who I had been chatting with through emails and text messages in the weeks leading up to the event. We went to a restaurant and did some planning for our unauthorized panel discussion we were going to stage on Saturday. It was great meeting them in person finally. We had a great time together and planned our events. Throughout the weekend, we stayed in touch with a text group and it was nice knowing that we never had to feel like we were in this without any support.
On Saturday there were 50 different sessions to attend in the three time slots. Most of these sessions were videoed and if the more inspired reader of this blog wants to watch some of the sessions and report any interesting information about them, they can be found here.
To see the difference in tone between the reformers in 2011 vs those same reformers in 2016, compare Joel Klein at each of them. In 2011 on the opening panel he was loud and arrogant. Five years later we see a much more subdued Joel Klein, seen in this speech speaking about how complicated education reform is and how poverty is definitely a complicating factor.
This panel then featured a very reasonable sounding Kevin Huffman, former commissioner of education in Tennessee and then Kira Orange Jones, known to reform critics for having tens of thousands of dollars from Michael Bloomberg help fund her campaign to be on the New Orleans school board. She sounded pretty reasonable too, talking about building bridges with communities. Then Abigail Smith, a TFA alum who was deputy mayor of education in Washington DC appointed by Vincent Gray, spoke for a while about how ed reform without acknowledging structural racism is unlikely to work.
I was one of the first to show up and get a seat for the morning session called ‘alumni trailblazers’ which included Michelle Rhee, Dave Levin, Mike Feinberg, and John White. I sat in the second row and talked to Dave and Mike who I’ve known, now, for 23 years, since they were in Houston in 1992, my second year there. I’ve known Michelle Rhee since I worked with her at the 1996 institute and though I was five feet away from her before this session was set to begin, I decided that it would be best for me to not approach her. She also didn’t make any eye contact with me. I think it was better that way. Surprisingly, John White approached me, introduced himself very friendly — seemed to know who I was — we didn’t talk really, but I did appreciate that gesture. I’ve had a lot of debates with him on Twitter about AP tests in Louisiana.
This first session was interesting to me since Michelle Rhee gave a very happy speech. Nothing about teacher’s unions and ineffective teachers. I don’t think I ever heard a Rhee speech before this one without the claim that three consecutive effective teachers will erase the achievement gap. She did do some revisionist history, reminiscing about the decision to fire 200 teachers, just before an election, never mentioning that many of those teachers had to be hired back. After Rhee went, John White sounded very reasonable too.
There was also a panel featuring three of the biggest names in education reform, John White in Louisiana, Kaya Henderson, chancellor in DC, and Chris Barbic, former superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District. This panel was moderated by Dale Russakoff who recently wrote a book about the Newark school reform fiasco and how they blew a $100 million gift from Facebook.
In this part we have John White, who was mentored by Joel ‘poverty is not destiny’ Klein, talking about the importance of wraparound services. Chris Barbic, also in this panel, discusses how it is more difficult to teach kids from zoned schools than it is to teach kids at charter schools where the parents have to navigate an admissions process.
In a panel featuring Colorado state senator Michael Johnston and Race To The Top Architect Jon Schnur, Johnston was asked about his legislation that made test scores 50% of teacher evaluation scores in Colorado. He says at one point that we don’t know whether we should make it 40% or 50% or 20% and that it should never be just on one test on one day.
One session I attended was called “What should we do when the whole school fails?” This panel featured five reformers and one reform critic, Steve Zimmer, president of the LA school board. On this panel was also someone I have clashed with over the years Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart. It was interesting to see how the A-list reformers in the other sessions, Rhee, Klein, Huffman, Barbic, and White, had all toned down their message and were all about collaboration now, while the B-listers like Stewart and also seen on that panel Vanessa Rodriguez, who is evidently still hanging on in Newark after the departure of her boss Cami Anderson, are still doing the Waiting For Superman anti-union rants.
Here’s one of the few instances I saw where there was some push back from a reform critic. It was too bad that more panels didn’t have more diversity of views. Watch Stewart and Rodriguez explain the problem with unions.
I was interested to see which teachers TFA had picked to participate in a panel where alumni TFA teachers discuss controversial issues in education. Over a year ago I reached out to TFA saying that I would like to be on some panel. I’m not sure how many other alumni have been involved with TFA for 24 years, written five books, and been invited to speak at six NCTM conferences. I figured they would not let me be on one, but I felt this was a good ‘litmus’ test to see if TFA really was willing to demonstrate that they could be more balanced. This certainly would have been an ideal panel for me to have been on, but instead they had mostly charter school teachers and just one ‘voice of reason’ a former public school teacher.
The last session I attended was about the Tennessee miracle. Featuring mainly Kevin Huffman, and moderated by former TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer, this panel convinced me that much of the nice talk that people like Huffman and Barbic were saying earlier in the day were just acts. When you get them really talking, they revert back to what they’re really thinking. The premise of the panel is that because of Tennessee’s NAEP gains from 2011 to 2013, when Huffman had just started as ed commissioner there and none of his policies had really gotten rolling yet, Tennessee was a proven model of what works. No mention that Tennessee’s state reading scores have dropped for three years in a row. No mention that from 2013 to 2015 Tennessee’s NAEP scores were flat.
The fawning that Kramer does over Huffman is actually pretty comical. Huffman is getting so much love in this session he is literally glowing. This is quite a different Huffman from the one just a few hours before. And Barbic is no longer mentioning about how generational poverty is harder to overcome than immigrant poverty like he was earlier. One of the more interesting parts is when Kramer asks Huffman why he resigned. What he says is pretty accurate so I’m surprised he said it. He said that it’s hard to be the person who burned down all these bridges and then try to be the guy who gets the team together to rebuild the bridges. This is just what we are seeing around the country with the reformers. You have the aggressive reformer who isn’t intended to stay on for that long, Rhee, Huffman, Anderson, Barbic, how is John White still hanging on?, and then you get the replacement who is seemingly a better listener while maybe they are just continuing the work of the other person, but more discreetly.
Even though I was blackballed from being a presenter, I did get a kick out of two different shout-outs I got during the sessions, one from one of the most well known reformers and one from one of the most well known reform critics.
First, Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP
And later, Randi Weingarten
After the last session, the critics-not-haters crew tried to do our unauthorized panel discussion out in a main meeting area. It seemed like about 20 people showed up and it was kind of loud and not an ideal setting, but I did get to meet a very nice TFA couple, Ricky and Rickie, I think, who had attended one of my workshops when I used to do one about classroom management at the TFA institute. They also followed my blogging and were so nice to meet. So maybe my plan for a giant panel didn’t pan out, but sometimes quality beats quantity.
Saturday night after the sessions there was the ‘main event’ where we all went to the basketball stadium for a program kind of like the Oscars. There were old timer alumni making inspirational speeches, a TFA corps member who was taught by TFA corps members, and a very good speech by TFA-CEO, Elisa Villanueva-Beard. In the past I have critiqued her speeches for fighting the straw-man status quo defenders who think that poor kids can’t learn. In this speech, there was even talk about how some alumni have different ideas about how to improve education and as long as we have the same goals, she’s with us.
The next day, maybe as a response to the ‘Stinkweed’ article about me, there was another article in The Washington Post where Villanueva-Beard is quoted as saying “We have people who are not Kool-Aid drinkers, which is great and people who are Kool-Aid drinkers, which is great.”
The most disappointing part of the main event was a presentation by a group of community members called ‘The Memphis Lift.’ Introduced by Natasha Kamrani, who was one of my good friends when she and I were corps members together in Houston in 1991, she is married to another reformer friend of mine, Chris Barbic, former ASD superintendent in Tennessee, the Memphis Lift is apparently a group of parents and grandparents in Memphis who have been told by reformers that their schools are ‘failing’ and that they need to go around getting signatures so their schools can be turned over to charter schools so they will no longer be failing schools. I see this as exploitation and these parents are probably unaware that in the new charter schools in the ASD, the test scores are still in the bottom 5% so the schools are still failing, but now that they are run by charter management these parent will have no say in how those schools run.
If you want to see the whole event, it was recorded and can be seen here
The show ended with a lengthy performance by Janelle Monae, who, I have to admit, put on quite a performance. I felt that this was a bit over the top, however. I’m not sure what they paid her, maybe she did it for free. I just felt it was a bit gluttonous.
After the main event, there were some receptions, I went to one for early 1990s alumni. I got to hang out with some old friends and also saw some of the people I had trained when I was a staff member. I talked to Chris Barbic a bit and ran into Whitney Tilson and even exchanged pleasantries with Wendy Kopp. As it became 2:00 AM, it was time for me to call it a night and, I figured, a weekend.
A few hours later I was up and packed and needed to make one last stop at the TFA critics-not-haters brunch. I was a bit late and figured how many people are going to be there anyway? Well, I was shocked to see a practically full room. There were at least 80 people there having brunch and Amber Kim was running a full session complete with butcher block paper and prompt questions. Then there was a panel I participated on. I got my public panel after all, wouldn’t you know it. Afterwards I spoke to different people from all over the country at the brunch. It was a great end to a very productive weekend.
My feeling is that TFA is changing their messaging to stay current with the current strategy of the US Department of Education and the different ed reform groups. They realize that their anti-teacher narrative is wearing thin and it is time to be a lot nicer. Are they doing this because they want to or because they have to, I think it is because they have to. Still, they do ‘appear’ to be improving, as I wrote in the beginning of this post.
It will be interesting what happens when we have a new President and, hopefully, a new Secretary of Education. Maybe if that person has better ideas than Duncan and King, TFA will suddenly be parroting those better idea. I guess I’ll go to the 30 year thing in 2021 and let everyone know how that one goes.
For people who read this blog, there are about 120 hours of video from the conference and I do appreciate that TFA put them all up on the web. In my younger days I’d probably watch most of them, a little each day, and see what interesting things I could find in them. For instance, there is one about Success Academy and another about Joel Klein’s influence on education. If you get a chance to watch a few videos and see something noteworthy, either bad or good, leave a comment on this post. Some of the things said in the videos were pretty good, so if you are a TFA defender and want to comment on some parts that you think show the organization is getting better, you can comment on this post about it here too.