Teach For America has become a lot less outspoken, politically, since Trump became President and DeVos the Secretary of Education. During the Obama/Duncan years, TFA would often have blog posts and tweets supporting some ed reform policy about charter schools or about standardized test based accountability.
Wendy Kopp, before she stepped down as CEO to be replaced by Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard, was a bit better at, at least, saying the right things to make it seem like she was not a complete ed reform zealot. Her second book, for example, had an entire chapter about how there are no silver bullets in education. Wendy also wrote an op-ed opposing the release of teacher evaluation scores in the newspaper, even though Arne Duncan praised them. But Wendy often showed her extreme pro-reform side, most recently, just two months ago, in a revisionist history of the impact TFA has had in Los Angeles while failing to mention that two of the most prominent reform critics (Former board president Steve Zimmer and current union leader Alex Caputo-Pearl) are TFA alumni. In this piece, Wendy even goes so far to quote the first judge in the Vergara case about how teacher tenure there causes inequity that ‘boggles the mind’ even though that case was overturned and that judge was completely duped by misleading statistics presented by the prosecution.
Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard took over as co-CEOs in 2013. They quickly proved to be very one-sided in their understanding of ed reform. Villanueva-Beard, in particular, would give speeches where she was quick to use phrases borrowed from prominent reformers and reports from Michelle Rhee’s TNTP. In 2015, Villanueva-Beard went ‘full Rhee’ in a speech that evoked the title of the failed anti-union Walton funded propaganda film “Won’t Back Down.’
Eventually Kramer resigned leaving Villanueva-Beard as the sole CEO. As sole CEO, Villanueva-Beard has not tried so hard to conceal her allegiance to the Duncan style of reform. One example is a panel that she moderated at the TFA 25 event on the influence of Joel Klein and the TFA alumni he mentored. And most recently, in a speech, Villanueva-Beard actually took a quote from a DeVos speech when she said that education has not changed much in the past 100 years.
Most of the time, however, TFA does try to at least pretend that they are somewhat neutral when it comes to the education wars. They are happy to point out that 60% of their teachers are not at charter schools. They mention that some of their members are union representatives. But I recently came upon something that leaves no doubt where TFA stands politically, and much of it neatly aligns with the Trump / DeVos which isn’t all that different from Obama / Duncan when it comes to education.
Over the years, TFA has struggled with its public messaging. They have tried to do various blogs and podcasts. For a few years they had something called On The Record where they would respond to criticisms of TFA in the media. These responses were so defensive, it actually made them look worse so they stopped adding to that site about a year ago. It looks like they recently scrubbed the page, actually.
A few years ago they dabbled in podcasting. A staffer named Aaron French did a podcast called ‘Education on Tap’ for 21 episodes. Though he was reform leaning, he actually did a pretty nice job on this podcast and even had as one of the guests Jennifer Berkshire (AKA EduShyster). When he left TFA, French actually teamed up with Berkshire to work on a podcast called Have You Heard before he left that podcast too. I’m not sure what he’s up to now.
The ‘political arm’ of TFA is called The Leadership For Educational Equity or LEE. The main purpose of this group, it seems, is to aid TFA alumni who want to run for public office. LEE produces a podcast called The Leaders’ Table which I find to be very revealing.
Each episode begins with the producer Mollie Stevens who formerly worked for the failed Edison project setting up the episode. The guests on the podcast include people from the ‘who’s who’ list of reformers like John Deasy, Kaya Henderson, and Chris Cerf and also some from the ‘who’s that?’ list, like Marc Holley of the Walton Foundation. One thing for sure, you will not see any people critical of ed reform on the list of the 21 guests.
After the introduction, the host gives an introduction about who he is about to speak to. I haven’t listened to every episode, maybe a third of them, and the name of this host is never mentioned as far as I can tell. [Update: The host has been identified by a reader as Jason LLorentz, whoever that is] We know a little about him from some things he says in almost every podcast, like that he ‘survived New York City schools’, but we never get his name. He asks the same five questions in each episode, things like “What would you tell your younger self” and “What piece of technology do you find indispensable?”
The focus of most of the podcasts I listened to had to to with charters and choice. In the one with Nina Rees of The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools she said that all studies show that students with special needs do better at charter schools, which I found surprising since it is pretty well known that charters serve students with special needs at lower rates than their district counterparts and some charters get out of the responsibility of accepting special needs students by saying that the school is too small and doesn’t have the staffing to serve those students.
In the one with Chris Cerf, who is now the Newark superintendent and used to be the commissioner of education for New Jersey, Cerf claims that they closed down a significant number of charter schools, something that was news to me.
The host rarely challenges the guests. He is just there to ask the questions on his sheet. In one interesting part of the interview with Kaya Henderson, she actually said something somewhat controversial for this podcast. She said that charter schools were not much different than district schools in the way they were educating students. I really though the host might ‘push back’ on that or at least ask a follow up to that bombshell but instead he just kind of said ‘uh huh’ and moved on to his next question.
If you were to ask Betsy DeVos to summarize her ideas about education into one word, that word would certainly be ‘choice’ and many of the guests of this podcast would completely agree. There was even a podcast with someone from an organization called Friends Of Choice in Urban Schools or FOCUS. And when the Walton guy is interviewed, he also says that ‘choice’ is the number one thing that school systems need.
In my younger days I would have listened to all 21 podcasts and summarized them and transcribed key quotes. I tried to listen to some but they were so vapid and these ‘leaders’ clearly had nothing interesting to say and knew nothing about education, I just didn’t have the stomach for it. But I thought maybe this could be ‘crowd sourced.’ If you are a reader of this blog and you have an hour of your life to waste and never get back, maybe you could pick one of the 21 podcasts and listen to it and leave a comment on this blog post.