Why did TFA place a 2011 CM as a Phys Ed Teacher at a KIPP school?

Another excellent question!

TFA, according to its website, spends between $60,000 and $120,000 in a combination of taxpayer money and private donations to train, recruit, and support one new corps member.

The government gives them taxpayer money, many people donate their own money, and tens of thousands bright young minds apply to TFA because the mission statement of TFA, “One Day All Children Will Have The Opportunity To Attain An Excellent Education” is a worthy one.  People who give money trust that TFA has this mission in mind when they match the CMs with teaching positions.

When I joined TFA 19 years ago (here he goes, talking about the ‘good old days’ again …), me and my friends in TFA knew that it was going to be tough.  There was this giant problem of educational inequity, and we hoped that we could use our youth, intellect, and enthusiasm to be soldiers to fight, on the so-called, front lines.  We didn’t always succeed as much as we had hoped, but the experience working in the most challenging environments in the country give us a perspective on the education crisis that we could not have gotten in less needy schools.  Our experience made us able to really see what needs to be done, and what sorts of solutions are likely to work.  The more difficult the placement, the more wisdom we gained from our struggles made us the kind of people who could go on to be successful education leaders, or just generally knowledgeable advocates for education.

So when I was recently informed that there is a 2011 CM training in The Delta who has been paced to teach Physical Education at a KIPP school, I was disturbed for several reasons on which I’d like to elaborate here.

The first, and most obvious question, is why is anyone being placed as a Phys Ed teacher?  I have nothing against Phys Ed.  Many schools have wrongly phased it out to make more time for test prep, which is wrong.  Certainly part of the ‘sound mind in a sound body’ credo dictates that a well rounded education does have a component of Physical Education.  Also, I know that Phys Ed is a lot more than just a teacher handing out dodge balls, so please don’t think that I undervalue Physical Education.  But, is this really why taxpayers and private investors shelled out over $60,000 to recruit, train, and support a new CM?  If you think that this is wrong, you can speak up and voice your opinion to the higher ups at TFA.

The next question, is why is TFA placing anybody in a charter school at all, particularly a high-performing one.  For this post, I will suspend disbelief and say that the school is not just getting its high test scores by expelling the disruptive students who are bringing down their scores.  In that case, TFA should be placing people in the schools that are struggling, namely the regular public schools.  I know that when there was a hiring freeze in New York City, TFA had no choice but to place the CMs in charter schools, since they were the only schools permitted to hire them.  I understood that, but I think now that the ice has been broken on the idea of placing first year CMs in charter schools, it has become much more common.  I don’t have the statistics to back me up on this one, so I’d like some people commenting, if possible.  What percent of CMs are being placed in charter schools.  If it is more than 10% I’m going to be very upset and if it is more than 40%, I’m going to flip.   The reason that I’ll get so angry about this is that charter schools do not, in general, serve the neediest children.  By this I mean children whose don’t have parents, or who have parents who don’t have it together enough to register for the lottery, or who do register for the lottery, but don’t get to the lottery on time and are disqualified, or who get into the school, but then don’t have the support to keep the kid out of trouble so he or she gets expelled from the charter school and sent to the regular public school with it’s disproportionate number of students like this, many who bear the stigma of being booted from a charter school.

And the last question is why doesn’t the CM protest this placement?  I understand that TFA strongly discourages CMs from refusing a placement.  My understanding is that the CM seems happy about this placement, though he can comment if he’d like on this post if he would like.  Perhaps he has some special training in Phys Ed, like he was a physiology major in college and really feels like this is the place where he can make the greatest contribution to combating educational inequity — I’m willing to give him a chance to explain what’s going on in his head.  Now, I understand that TFA does not like when CMs question their master plan.  CMs are supposed to take their placement and trust that TFA knows what they’re doing.  But if you joined TFA to combat educational inequity and you feel that being placed in a charter school actually increases educational inequity, you should have the right to demand a placement in a regular public school.

When I was a CM in 1991, we did not have to take the placement that was first offered to us.  Many of us rejected placements because they seemed ‘too easy.’  If we were going to take two years out of our life to ‘make a difference’ we wanted to be sure that we were in a place where we had the opportunity to do that and a school that was already functioning well didn’t seem like the place to do it.

Now, if you’re a 2011 CM reading this who has been placed in a charter school for next year, you might be feeling a bit angry (or defensive, maybe) right now.  So let me write a bit to those people.  If you’re not happy about it, you should speak up.  Even if they say ‘no,’ you need to be assertive (a key characteristic of an effective teacher — consider it practice) and speak up for yourself.  Write an email to Wendy or to whoever you think you should and explain why you’d like a better (i.e. ‘worse’) placement.

Now let’s say that you don’t get granted a transfer (I hope they don’t boot you from TFA for just asking — like how baseball players are booted for even arguing that a strike was really a ball), well, then you have two responsibilities, in my opinion.  First, you’ve got to still do the best possible job you can teaching your kids.  Just because they were fortunate enough to be born into a family that had the ability to navigate the charter admissions process, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the best teaching you can possibly give.  But there’s another responsibility you have — a much more difficult one:

If you notice, while teaching at your charter, that the administration is being unethical in any way, report it to me as a comment on this posting.  By unethical I mainly mean expelling kids for minor repeated disciplinary infractions.  If this is how your school is boasting its high test scores, by expelling kids rather than help them, then you will be guilty by association, in my mind, if you sit back and watch it happen.

OK, everyone have their dodge balls now?

Play ball.

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35 Responses to Why did TFA place a 2011 CM as a Phys Ed Teacher at a KIPP school?

  1. Amanda says:

    Hi Gary! I am an incoming CM and understand your concerns about charter school placement in relation to making sure TFA is reaching the students who need support the most. However, I think charter schools vary (almost) as much as public schools across the country. I’m not sure where I’m being placed yet, but I interviewed with a charter school that says they accept/enroll many students who were kicked out of the public school district for behavioral or other issues. Do I want to work in a charter school (or ‘normal’ public school) where everything is organized and they boot the children who would bring down scores? No. But does that mean I don’t want to work in a charter school? Absolutely not. And I know you said ‘generally’. =)

  2. Phoenix 09 says:

    I taught in a charter school in Phoenix for two years and I have to say that if TFA was not there the school would have been closed. Not all charters are high performing, and almost none in Phoenix run off a lotto system, and all are with out oversight. If you have a facility and a mission statement you are allowed to open a school it seems, as a result most of the teachers before TFA were with out certifications, and students were not reading until 2nd grade. TFA placed in countless charters like this in Phoenix, and at first when I learned i was going to be in a charter school, I was confused, but when I arrived at the school there was no better place TFA could have been needed more. As a result I have learned that the charter schools across the countries are very different in each city and some, like my placement, are just where TFA is needed most. Although the Kipp placement is a little crazy, it is just one corp member and it will be a wonderful learning experience for them if they are satisfied with their placement.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      So there is this issue between charters that are ‘good’ and charters that are ‘bad’. I guess CMs going to ‘bad’ charters is better than going to ‘good’ ones. Any idea of what percent of CMs are going to go ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ ones. Then, all other things being equal I think I’d rather see a CM at an underperforming regular public school than an underperforming charter school.
      I’d like to see all ‘bad’ charters close down anyway. What purpose are those schools serving anyway? It just shows how little regulation there is about the quality of these schools which politicians like to point to as a real solution to fixing public education. Kids go into a lottery and get their hopes up for nothing.

  3. STL '10 says:

    I have to echo the sentiments of the previous commenters on charter schools. In St. Louis, the charter schools are performing equally as poorly as the schools in Saint Louis Public and surrounding public districts in the city, and the TFAs in those schools are equally as advantageous to their students as we are in th publics.

  4. An Alum says:

    Two things:
    First, on the tone your blog has taken of late:
    I read your book “Reluctant Disciplinarian” during my first year and I recalled (and used) the advice you offered in my subsequent years in the classroom. I liked the book because it was refreshing, concrete, funny and offered a perspective that was a little different than what TFA was saying. I began reading your blog about 2 years ago for the same reasons, but it seems that lately, you’ve become much better at identifying problems than offering solutions to them, which is part of what made your earlier writing so great. If there is anything I have learned from being in the classroom 4 years it is that no one has all the right answers and there is no simple answer to what being a good teacher looks like. For the most part, I think TFA did a great job training me, certainly better than the university at which I completed my masters.
    You seem like you are bitter about not being one of TFA’s favorites and because of that, you’ve made it your intention to plant seeds of dissent within the ranks of CMs and alums and bring down or at least force significant change in the organization from within. If that is not your intention, I apologize for misreading your writing, but that is how you come across most days.
    Second, on placing CMs in charters:
    I just completed my fourth year teaching in a region that places CMs in charter schools. My year, there were no CMs placed in charter schools, but there were very few charters. Two years later, my guess is that between 30 and 40% of incoming CMs were placed in charters, but the number of charters had also nearly doubled. I cannot say what has happened in the past two years because I wasn’t as connected to those CM’s but I do know some were placed in charters.
    I waver about my feelings on this. In one sense it seems a bit less “authentic” and depending on what type of charter you work in, you may not face coping with as much of the chaos that one might see in a public school. But, at the same time, teachers often get better support at charter schools and are more closely monitored, which allows them to become more effective quicker. Plus, all kids, deserve a good education and I think, for the most part TFA teachers are good teachers who are willing to work to be better teachers.
    Last, charters are part of the educational landscape now, especially in high needs urban areas and I think it would not behoove TFA to ignore that they exist as part of understanding the complexity of education is understanding the interplay between public and charter schools and how the two affect each other. I don’t think they are the best solution or even a long term solution, but I do think there is much that educators in public schools can learn from charters about what to do right and I wish there was more collaboration between the two.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for the comment. I just posted a new ‘anecdotal’ essay kind of like the things I wrote about in Reluctant Disciplinarian. I can still write stuff like that, but I’m really scared and angry about the direction this country is taking in education so most of my posts will reflect that until this changes, which I hope will be soon.

  5. Memphis 11 says:

    I think you’re wrong in your assumption that all CMs placed in charters are unhappy about it – or should be unhappy about it (even if that’s not what you’re intending, it’s how it comes across). I’m slated to teach at a charter starting this fall and I’m thrilled about it. The incoming 6th graders at my school average a 1st to 2nd grade reading level – I think they “need” TFAers just as much as any other kid. I’m excited to be teaching in a community of like-minded faculty and administrators with a solid management system and a ton of teacher support (I’ll train for 3 weeks before school starts and will be observed at minimum once a week, my principal is even coming to watch me teach at institute next week).

    In terms of TFA nationally, I’m not sure what the charter percentage is – but it’s nowhere near 40%. I would say the big three regions in terms of charters are Houston, Memphis, and New Orleans. Memphis is about 18% (of the 2011 corps) in charters, and I think New Orleans and Houston are closer to 20%. The reason these regions are so high with charter school CMs isn’t because TFA doesn’t want their teachers in traditional public schools, but often because of the number of charter schools in the area. For example, 70% of students in New Orleans attend charter schools (http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2011/06/new_plan_sets_up_dramatic_way.html). Therefore, it makes sense that many CMs are in charters, because that’s where most of the students are (and 70% means not just the most motivated with the most involved parents).

    Another thing to consider is that many high-performing charters are run and staffed by alums, so they might be more familiar with/eager to hire corps members.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Throughout the country, only about 3% of students attend charter schools, so TFA should reflect that. I see that New Orleans is an exception, so I’m OK with CMs in New Orleans having a much higher percentage.

      • Mr. Gosselin says:

        Am I correct in understanding that your argument suggests TFA placements at a regional level should mirror national percentage trends? This would seem counterproductive if the needs at the local or regional level do not fall in line with the national average.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I’m not saying that you are unhappy about it, or that you should be. I’m saying that I’m unhappy about it. I’m not trying to make you unhappy about it either, but just trying to encourage you to think about all sides of the issue.

  6. H says:

    My original assignment from TFA when I joined was “art teacher”. That ended up not being the position I was ultimately given, but I remember at the time thinking, “art teacher”???? I love art and I believe that the arts are an important part of a well-rounded education. But, I did not join TFA to teach art. I joined to try and help children achieve academically. I would be interested to know how many CM’s over the years have been placed into art, PE, music, or other non-academic positions.

  7. Heather says:

    That’s a worthy question. Here’s another. Why is my private school in DC in talks with TFA to accept corps members placements? You read correctly: private school. $35K tuition. If this is the only place left to place CM’s, then TFA needs to scale back its growth.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Heather, Keep me updated on this. If that really happens, I’d like to write about it.

      • Heather says:

        Gary, I think it has already happened. There is a private school in downtown DC with TFA corps members. I think the way TFA justifies it is that some of the students are publicly funded to attend there. Still, it’s extremely silly.

  8. BallerinaMathematician says:

    I know that in the Colorado region CMs can only apply to schools with a minimum percentage of students with Free and Reduced Lunch. Whether it’s a charter school or not, whether it’s high-performing or not, we are reaching out to those low-income students. I agree it seems a little unfair for some CMs to be working in an excellent environment where many students are successful, but I have heard from those CMs that are at schools perceived to be that way and it is still a challenge. The “best” charter schools in Colorado still require amazing teachers and are still working to close the achievement gap. I don’t think it’s fair to say all teachers need to work at miserably failing schools.

    Also, I know of at least one CM in our region who teaches art/music/PE. I’m not sure about it either, but I think it’s a rare few who do it.

  9. parus says:

    “The reason that I’ll get so angry about this is that charter schools do not, in general, serve the neediest children.”

    But they do serve what appears to be TFA’s political agenda, and I think it’s become readily obvious by now that TFA as a bureaucracy (not many of the individuals, but the drift of the organization as a whole) is a lot more interested in “the system” than in actual individual children.

    • stateofhope says:

      Yes, and in the pre-service agreement/document/soul sign-over that CMs have to agree to adhere to before being accepted into TFA there is a specific clause that you must agree to view charter schools as public schools and will serve in one if placed there. To be honest it was that addendum (and the one that seems on first reading as if it is infringing on your right to protest) that made me consider not joining. The charter schools focus of TFA (and alums) really, really seems to be moving TFA away from the most important part of their original mission. Though I agree with Parus, the political agenda of TFA seems to be drowning the original mission. Not surprising given the class alignment of most TFA alums…

  10. K says:

    Charter schools were created to help students. They deserve to have good teachers just as much as any other school, if not moreso because of the initiative these families are taking to get the best education possible for their children. It’s ridiculous to think that TFA shouldn’t be helping charter schools get great teachers too.

    Also, according to the CDC, Americans in the South are among the least likely to get a healthy amount of physical activity. A Teach for America corps member could definitely have an impact on the well-being of these students. Just because it’s not your traditional academic subject doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly important, especially in an area that is weak in physical education. Don’t be so quick to criticize.

    I hope you don’t get diabetes.

  11. Molynn says:

    The obesity epidemic among Americans should cause us as much alarm as the education gap — especially in TFA communities! In these low-income communities, where access to safe, structured, low-cost physical activities and healthy food options is traditionally scarce, our students shouldn’t be deprived of a *physical* education either. Failure to provide such an education adds to the soaring healthcare costs, the leveling/decreasing life expectancy, and premature death from preventable diseases. A quality education from quality educators — including those in physical education — truly is a matter of life and death.

  12. Wil R. says:

    I understand that you’re upset about your experience and that you have major problems with TFA, but as a proud member of the 2011 Mississippi Delta corps, I take great offense to your attacks on the PE teacher who happens to be a friend of mine and an awesome person. Your ideological attacks neglect to recognize that there are REAL people on the ground doing REAL work to help children across the nation. Is TFA perfect? No. It has its flaws, but so does any system. Instead of bashing a current CM who’s working hard to do their job, why not focus on some positive solutions? You also do realize that the Delta region is one of the most obese regions in the nation? And to simply pigeonhole that CM into a overpaid coach is preposterous. Physical education is more than that and if you were to witness the hundreds of thousands of students here in the Delta, and that includes KIPP schools, who believe that “Hot Chips” and a soda constitutes lunch, you’d be begging for there to be a phys ed teacher somewhere. Get off of your ideological soapbox and do something for a change instead of maliciously attacking the people on the ground who are trying to help our nation’s children. Teach For America is not what’s wrong with education in America. You, and the other demigogues of “educational reform” who do nothing but complain that any answer but there’s is wrong, are what’s wrong with education in America.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I’m sure the CM is a good person. I hope you/he doesn’t think that I’m attacking him personally. What I don’t like is what this incident reveals about a corrupt system. How does someone get placed as a KIPP phys ed teacher? Does KIPP supply TFA with a list of all their open positions and then TFA fills them all first (even ones that are non-academic) before sending their ‘second tier’ CMs to the regular public schools. It seems very odd to me that this could happen. I’m not suggesting that obesity is not a problem in the south. And I do a lot more than complain. If you read through my older blog posts, you will find that only recently have I began to really complain. Before that, I offered a lot of good advice to new teachers, which is really the thing that I think I’m best at. But I’ve written all the advice I know already so now I’m onto some bigger issues. I don’t like lying in the current education reform debate. I don’t like shady back-alley deals that TFA makes with charter networks, and that’s what this phys ed placement makes me think about.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Everything about this post summarizes what career teachers hate about TFAs.

    The first and foremost issue with TFAs taking jobs at high performing charter schools should be that a 2-year temporary teacher is taking away a job from a person who wants to make a career out of teaching. This “insignificant” detail was omitted from both this post and every comment on the post.

    The concern you raise about core members being needed to fix educational problems in low-performing schools is exactly why TFAs often come across as arrogant and condescending toward certified career teachers. At one point, you actually implied that placing a TFA in an already high-performing school will cause that school to do so well that the achievement gap would be increased. “But if you joined TFA to combat educational inequity and you feel that being placed in a charter school actually increases educational inequity, you should have the right to demand a placement in a regular public school.”

    There is more to the education system than Teach for America. While I understand you were writing to a predominantly TFA audience, you would serve them better to give a somewhat more holistic view of a problem like this. By thinking and writing as you do in this blog, you only perpetuate the notion that TFAs are superior to the people who do this everyday for far more than 2 years.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      You obviously haven’t read many of my posts. I’m well aware that first year TFA teachers are, in general, not very effective. But for this post, for the sake of argument I’ve assumed that TFA really wants to serve the most needy students and that they have developed a training model that would enable newbies to be effective. Under those conditions, which TFA would claim are the real conditions, this placement as a KIPP phys ed teacher is crazy. But I guess in reality, that’s a place where a new TFA teacher can do the least harm, so I shouldn’t be complaining.

  14. Sarah says:

    I have been teaching third grade in a charter for 3 years, and it was my TFA placement school. During that time, I have not seen a single kid expelled for any reason whatsoever. The school is primarily low income and ELL (higher than 90% of both). But over the past three years, the third grade team has increased it’s percentage of kids passing the state test from 57% to 79% in reading, and from 73% to 93% in math. There are certainly needier kids in the city, but I still feel like I’ve done right by a high-need community.

    There is certainly some self-selection in charters, but in my opinion, the school-wide discipline makes a bigger difference in the success of the school. The entire school is on the same page with discipline with a school-wide plan, strict uniform, and consistent enforcement. Any teacher will be more successful in an environment where the school will back him or her up with disciplinary issues.

    TFA gym teachers? I question that, too. But KIPP is doing great work in a high-need community. Why not support that?

    • E. Rat says:

      Speaking for myself, I don’t support KIPP because I don’t believe they are doing “great work”. I believe they are using damaging pedagogy and that their school systems visit great harm on their surrounding public schools.

      Not supporting KIPP has less to do with bashing on success than KIPP would like it to.

  15. jsb16 says:

    And here I thought that KIPP was so wonderful that both career teachers and wise parents were banging down all their doors to be a part of their miracle…

  16. Delta Alum says:


    Your cost per corps member is off. It’s $40,000 to recruit, train, and support the teacher for his/her two years.

    You should ask TFA for this stuff directly.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I got that stat from their website, so I thought it was accurate. I put a link to the place where I got it from. Also, in my experience with asking TFA for info, they ignore me, so I’ve used what I could find on an official resource. If it’s $40,000, that doesn’t change my point at all I was trying to make. Does it?

  17. Ali says:

    in Chicago I think the number was close to 85% of corps member being placed in charters last year. Not all were high performing- but many many were. Some of that had to due with the fact that CPS laid off teachers, but also- TfA has great relationships with charter schools run by former corps members and heavily places there. TfA wants to get their corps members placed as soon as possible- regardless of where.

    On refusing a placement- mine was not in a grade level I was admitted to TfA to teach AND I was not cleared to be certified in the area by the state. But TfA would not let me refuse it, or be moved. even with clear education career plans that required a different degree and no interest in teaching secondary rather than elementary education.

    Just thought I’d provide for background..

  18. Anonymous former CM says:

    Is anyone else bothered by the fact that TFA gets government money to run its program, and then contributes to the demise of the public school system by placing teachers in charter schools, which are basically private schools being run with public money? Charter schools are answerable to their own Boards of Directors – not necessarily to the school district in which they are located. In the case of a charter school, the education they choose to provide is a corporate product. Right now it appears that charter schools are willing to accept even underprivileged and underperforming students. But how do we know this will continue. Once they have killed the public school system by stealing the public money, will education continue to be available to all?

  19. leighmke says:

    Here’s just one little stat that might make you feel better. In Kansas City, MO, a third of students are in charter schools (no, that part won’t make you feel better, I know), but only about 10 out of 160 2011 CMs were placed in charters.

  20. Ms. D says:

    Hello. I failed to read all of the comments so this may have already been said.. and you can take this comment with a grain of salt since I am a 2011 CM. But, from my understanding the placement at the charter schools rather good or “bad” schools, is based on the economic statistics of the students at these schools. For example, if a ‘GREAT” charter school that has 100% of the students going to college, but the school has 90% of the students on free and reduced lunch, then TFA will still place there. This, I believe, is a slight flaw in the system, because these “aspiring teachers” should go to schools that need them the most. Unfortunately, I think, because TFA has become so large it can be difficult sometimes to weed out these schools that are “great”, but have low-income kids. Just food for thought.

  21. Ms. D says:

    Oh, and also, I requested to be in a public school as soon as I joined TFA with the Dallas staff, and while I have not been placed yet, I will not be in a charter school because of this (they have already started training, so it would be near to impossible to be placed in a charter school). So if you are upfront about where you would like to go and you start your process early, it is quite possible to get placed in a “regular” school rather than a charter school if you so choose.

  22. 2010 CM says:

    I am another 2010 St. Louis CM. Going into the Corps, I had the exact same thoughts you did: I joined this program to fix public education and I want to be in a public school. After seeing the mess that is SLPS, I cannot help but think that students in this city deserve other, better options. If I were a parent, I would not want my child to have to be a guinea pig to a cause and wait it out for TFA, SLPS, or any other organization to get their act together and fix the system. With that being said, St. Louis charter schools (as a previous poster indicated) are just as bad, if not worse, than their SLPS counterparts. I am not sure of numbers, but the region seems to be placing an increasing number of CMs in both charters and even magnet schools. This city needs a major overhaul, across the board, in the way we educate our students and I am happy to see CMs being placed in every type of school in the city to at least in a small way facilitate that happening.

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