Why Some People Like TFA Somewhat Less Than Others Do

A recent post by one of the most thoughtful TFA bloggers on this site was called ‘Don’t Hate Me Because I’m TFA.’  In it, Tony B responds to another blogger that I think is great, Katie Osgood, from Chicago.  What people who have just begun following the education debate in this country might be surprised about is the ‘hating’ of TFA is something that has only recently become a phenomenon.

A new TFAer might be confused about why she could be ‘hated.’  After all, all she’s trying to do is do her part, give back, be a front-line soldier in the war against the achievement gap.  What could be so bad about that?

I’m glad that when I joined TFA in 1991, nobody ‘hated’ me for it (aside from some of the students who were unfortunate enough to have me as a teacher in my first year — but that is another story).  The veteran teachers in my building ‘adopted’ me and helped me in any way they could.  When the office stopped accepting kids from my class, the veteran teachers would allow me to send my discipline problems to their rooms.  When I was getting observed one day, veteran teachers ‘had my back’ by intercepting the students who were trying to come to class late (generally kids who I had trouble controlling in class) and bringing them to their rooms so I could have an opportunity to have a better observation.  When I would sleep on the couch in the teacher’s lounge during my free period (I did not have energy to plan, then, since I had to recover from all the screaming), the veteran teachers would carefully nudge me awake so I wasn’t late for my next class.  Far from hated, the teachers in my school liked me and took care of me the way one might care for a stray cat.

But if you Google ‘I hate TFA’ you’ll get a lot of matches, nowadays, and I want to use this post to explain why.  I hope to help new TFAers to understand, but also to help TFA, itself, to understand so they might be able to prevent this with some pretty significant changes.

The first person to publicly criticize TFA was professor Linda Darling-Hammond in 1994 in Phi Delta Kappan in an article called “Who Will Speak for the Children; How ‘Teach for America’ Hurts Urban Schools and Students.”  I was in my third year at that time and I didn’t take much notice of this critique.  At that time, there were fewer than 1,000 corps members a year so TFA wasn’t really able to do too much damage, I felt.  Principals, back then, weren’t really forced to hire us.  There were schools with huge turnover problems and they chose TFAers over long-term subs.

Over the next seventeen years, I never really ‘hated’ much about TFA.  I was often frustrated that they would not improve their training model.  I did what I could do to help out.  I even worked at the 1996 institute as a Corps Member Advisor (Michelle Rhee, now of StudentsFirst, was my supervisor, though she was a bit younger than me.  Hari Sevungan, also a major person in StudentsFirst, was one of my trainees.)  For about ten years I presented workshops about classroom management at various institutes, trying to fill the massive gaps I felt existed in the training.  So TFA frustrated me because I felt they were providing bad advice to the new teachers.  In a sense, they were lying to these new teachers about how to be an effective first year teacher and I felt that this hurt the new teachers and, more importantly, the students who were to be taught by these new teachers.  Still, I would never have said there was anything I actually ‘hated’ about TFA.

Over the course of the weekend of the TFA 20th year summit in February 2011, I had an epiphany.  What caused this was also causing people all over the country to have similar feelings, and that was when TFA became truly controversial.  There was a panel discussion and everyone on the panel was a corporate ‘reformer.’  Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada were the most vocal.  At the end of the weekend, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the keynote.  Listening to him tell what I knew had to be a blatant lie about the success of a school that had been ‘turned around’ by firing the teachers, I snapped.  I had had enough.  That was when my blog posts shifted from advice for new teachers to what it is like now.

Wendy Kopp recently responded to a critique of her book and of TFA, in general, by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review Of Books called ‘How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools.’  Wendy’s response, in The Huffington Post, was called ‘In Defense Of Optimism.’  Reading Wendy’s piece, I have a clearer picture of why those who ‘hate’ TFA do.

Incidentally, I don’t ‘hate’ TFA.  Though I’m one of the bigger opponents of the corporate reform movement, I don’t think that TFA needs to be aligned with it.  TFA recruits very motivated people who really want to do something ‘good’ for society.  Very few of them are looking to pad their resumes.  And I am one of the few people on my ‘side’ who believes that it is possible to teach someone to be a fairly competent teacher in five weeks.  Unfortunately, though, TFA does not know how to accomplish this.  The training is horrible, truly bordering on criminal negligence.  But I still think it is possible, with a better training model, to produce competent teachers.  As far as the two year commitment goes, well, people from ‘traditional’ teacher training programs don’t really have any long term commitment, either.  And it seems that many people from ‘traditional’ training programs leave within five years, anyway.  And, up until recently, nobody forced any principals to hire TFAers.  They wanted to.  (Now, though, in a sense, some are forced to because TFA has contracts with districts who lay off other teachers to make room for the new recruits so those principals are forced to hire TFAers.  I don’t like this very much.)  And some TFAers, like me, have taught well beyond two years and have gone on to become honest school leaders (i.e. they did not become millionaires by running charter networks that skim the most motivated poor kids and boot the ones who are bringing down their test scores — but that is another story.) and have made a difference in many kids’ lives.  So TFA, for me, could have a limited role in ‘fixing’ education.  Unfortunately, they got so much money which they used to ‘expand’ so that 6,000 new people come in a year rather than the 500 or so from the first years.

Newcomers to TFA probably rationalize the ‘haters’ with the easy, but flawed, logic of “Teachers are threatened by TFAers since by working so hard we are making them look bad.  In five weeks we learn to be more effective than other first year teachers and at least, if not more, effective that some veterans.  It is no wonder they hate us.  I’d hate someone who exposes me for being lazy too.”  Though this is inaccurate, it is the arrogant sentiment, also seen in Wendy’s piece, which is the true reason that some people hate TFA.

As TFA is often accused of arrogance, Wendy concedes in her book and also in the Huffington Post piece,

“my experiences have also deepened my appreciation of the magnitude of the problem and led to a nuanced vision for change.”

This is a humble beginning.  She used to think it was going to be a lot easier, and now she realizes it isn’t.

But as the best defense is a good offense, she writes:

“we in the United States have discovered that we don’t have to wait to fix poverty to dramatically improve educational outcomes for underprivileged students. In fact, there’s strong evidence that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty is to expand the mission of public schools in low-income communities”

To make it seem like there are two views:  1)  ‘wait’ until poverty is fixed and then concentrate on improving education or 2) improve education right now, is extremely oversimplified.  Ravitch doesn’t say we should sit around doing nothing until poverty is ‘fixed.’  Nobody says that.  The issue is whether the ‘reforms’ supported by the corporate reformers are likely to help or to make things worse.  The popular ‘remedies’ of closing down schools and firing teachers are not really based on research.  They don’t seem to be working in any individual schools, let alone districts, or states.  So one thing that Ravitch always advocates for, something truly based on a lot of research, is to expand early childhood education from ages 0 to 5.  This is something that has consistently been proven to help.  This also does not mean we do nothing to improve schools for kids over 5.  But turning schools into test-prep factories does not help those kids either.  And the ‘strong evidence’ Wendy mentions that school can break the poverty cycle is pretty flimsy, unfortunately.

Then Wendy gets humble again.  She admits that most TFAers are not all the heroes that they sometimes showcase.

“While we applaud the example of a few exceptional teachers who overcome every obstacle to put their students on a different trajectory, if we’re relying on classroom heroes alone, we’re setting ourselves up to fail.”

This sentence is quite important, at least when taken out of the context of what is about to be said.  One thing that frustrates me sometimes about the corporate reformers (It’s hard to tell if Wendy is a hard-core one, or if she is truly just an optimist) is that they do say things like this when people complain that they are putting too much of society’s problems on the shoulders of teachers.  So they say that it’s not just about the teachers — but then the policies are all about firing teachers and holding them more accountable.  Actions speak much louder than words.  Even Michelle Rhee has ‘said’ that it is not just about bad teachers, yet every time she shows up to lobby against LIFO, that’s all she talks about.

Then the pendulum shifts again from humble to arrogant when Wendy explains that though TFAers are not all heroic teachers, TFA leaders have sparked the turnaround in New York City and New Orleans.  I don’t want to clutter this already very long post with numbers, but let me assure you that I have nothing to gain when I assure everyone that New York City and New Orleans are complete messes.  It would be wise for TFA to not take any credit for them.

Then comes the biggest doozy of the piece,

“Ravitch is also wrong to suggest that Teach For America corps members aren’t effective. A significant body of rigorous research shows that they are more effective than other beginning teachers and, on average, equally or more effective than veteran teachers.”

This is just a lie.  Phillip Kovaks has studied every research paper ever written about TFA and has concluded otherwise.  And he also has nothing to gain, personally, by exposing this.  He does it for the same reason I do.  Lies that ultimately hurt kids and teachers need to be revealed.

Realizing, perhaps, that she has really stretched the truth, she then writes:

“Still, I am the first to admit — as I do in my book — that “the bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide” and “our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students.””

Humble again.

One last passage I take issue with:

“More than two-thirds of our 24,000 alumni are working full-time in education. Although few of them intended to enter the field at all before their involvement with Teach For America, today a third of them are teaching, 600 are serving as principals, and many others are working as district leaders. Of the remaining third of our alumni, half have jobs related to low-income communities or schools, and only three percent are working in the private sector — hardly the “corporate” stereotype Ravitch is so fond of perpetuating.”

So 2/3 of alumni are ‘in education’ and half of the other 1/3 (1/6) are in low-income communities or schools, which is a total of 2/3+1/6=5/6=83% of alumni.  This is just not true.  This is based on an alumni survey with a low response rate, particularly from the older corps.  The numbers are further skewed by the fact that the recent corps are 12 times the size of the older corps.  I can’t fully debunk this claim here, but I promise you that this is, at best, misleading.

So Wendy did have some moments of humility here.  In person, I’ve found Wendy to be quite nice.  Without her help, back in 1996, I could not have gotten my first book published.  She approved my request to print up copies myself and sell them to the 1996 corps members at the Houston institute.  Over the past 20 years I’ve chatted with her about a dozen times and she always been friendly to me.  I really don’t know if she believes what she is saying in this article or if she and TFA are in a bit of a jam.  They had to stretch the truth to stay in business and now they think they have to continue that way.  I’m not sure.  Sometimes I think that they have come to believe their own lies.

The big reason, though, that people who hate TFA is the way TFA benefits from actions that hurt kids and teachers.  When a school gets shut down unfairly, a TFA alum will be there to start a charter school in the old building.  When a school fires half its staff for a ‘turnaround,’ TFA licks its chops as they get to populate these schools with more TFAers.  Meanwhile, TFA must know, deep down, that shutting down schools and turning them around doesn’t work.    TFAs silence on these issues is another thing that people hate about TFA.  Surely some of these schools employ plenty of TFAers and have administrators who were TFAers who get fired because of these.  Destructive corporate reforms seem to benefit TFA and nobody else.  And TFA could do the right thing and speak up against this, but they don’t since these reforms are the source of much of their money and power.

To denounce some of these reforms, as they should, they would have to alienate some of their highest profile alumni.  Without these high profile alumni, TFA would have to focus on other alumni, like principals of traditional schools who are doing a great job, but not getting the test score gains that the famous TFA alumni cheat to get, or lie about getting.

It would take a lot of guts for TFA to disassociate themselves with the corporate reform movement.  They would be smart, though, to do this as soon as possible.  The foundation of the corporate reform movement is already beginning to crumble.  TFA does not need to go down with that ship but, sadly, they probably will.

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36 Responses to Why Some People Like TFA Somewhat Less Than Others Do

  1. Adrienne D. Dixson says:

    Gary, we were the same corps and I experienced TFA hate but I understood it then as I do now. Folks saw us as taking jobs from veteran teachers. If you recall our institute in LAUSD, there were teaching layoffs pending but TFA folks were getting jobs. While my colleagues supported me, they also hated the lack of training we got as teachers and felt it was a shame that we would have our own classrooms. Our year, in many ways, was just the beginning of the “spread” of TFA. The corp had essentially tripled our year, I think. I do recall 750 as the size of our corps. And, folks of color organized to protest the lack of diversity in the corps. There indeed, was “TFA hate” that was out just not in the popular discourse about the corps.

  2. David Greene says:

    Gary, Will you be in Washington DC 3/30-1? I will be speaking there about TFA and will be referring to some of your work. There are many Cms and former Cms who believe as you seems to believe that the Organization needs to reform itself. Love to send you what I plan to say.

  3. MavorW says:

    Gary, I started teaching in 1992 and worked at a school in Los Angeles that had some of the first TFAers. I was a rookie teacher just like they were. However, unlike my TFA coworkers. I was forty and has spent the last four years working and going to school full time. Standards were not lowered for me. To begin teaching I had to take all of the credential classes at night, study till the early morning, wake up and go to work. I saved so that I would be able to quit work and student teach. It was certainly more rigorous than the short two week “orientation” the TFAers attended. I did not hate them. I did resent that they had been given preferential treatment while I had completed all the requirements and jumped through all of the hoops the State has in place. My resentment increased when some of the TFAers, thinking I was and uncaring veteran teacher, seemed to look down upon me. Now, twenty years later I am still teaching and I am pretty sure few if any of the TFAers are still teaching.

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  6. JD says:

    ” Phillip Kovaks has studied every research paper ever written about TFA and has concluded otherwise. ”

    Wrong. He loves the crappiest studies, which are done by anti-TFA-ed-school types, but somehow fails to mention the more rigorous studies that find that TFA teachers are at least as good and often better than traditionally certified teachers. See, e.g., http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pam.20585/abstract

    Click to access mathematica_results_6.9.04.pdf

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I think the Mathematica study has been questioned, if not by Kovaks, then elsewhere.
      I’m not going to immerse myself in these studies since I already know that first year TFAers are not effective teachers. Certainly not putting kids on a different life trajectory. Wendy even admits this.

      It is true, though, that first year teachers struggle in general.

    • Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:


      The Mathematica study is irrelevant to any area that has an adequate supply of fully certificated teachers.

      I suggest you start looking at the work of Julian V. Heilig and David Berliner.

      TFA is essentially a TEMP agency that contributes to event further instability in High Poverty/ High Minority schools.

      Here are two letters concerning Teach for America in Seattle.

      (1) to Tony Martinez in the WA State Auditor’s Office

      which shows how the district violated the law to place TFA Corps members into classrooms

      (2) to the Seattle School Directors

    • Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:


      How about sending me the actual study rather than just a link to the abstract at the wiley onlinelibrary. I will not pay for it. Have you read the study?

      Your contention that the Mathematica study shows that TFA teachers are at least as good and often better than traditionally certified teachers is NOT correct. I’ve read it.

      The Mathematica study shows that when TFA is compared with a motley collection of beginning teachers that includes a great number of under prepared teachers. TFA does OK.

  7. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:


    About the two studies which you claim are more rigorous, please read and respond to the following:


  8. JD says:

    Danaher — your description (and link) about Mathematica are wrong.

    The Mathematica study — which is by far the best study on TFA so far, given that it was a randomized trial — found as follows:

    1. When TFA teachers were compared to ALL teachers (including the highly experienced ones), TFA teachers moved the kids 0.15 standard deviations upwards in math while the reading performance stayed the same. See p. xiv. Advantage: TFA.

    2. When TFA teachers were compared to other novice teachers, their kids’ math performance went up even more: 0.26 standard deviations. Reading performance again was the same. Even greater advantage: TFA.

    Note: the greatest effect anyone claims to have found from class size reduction (Alan Krueger’s study of the small Tennessee STAR experiment) was 0.22 standard deviations. So TFA teachers’ effect on math performance is in that vicinity or possibly even greater, when compared against other new teachers.

    That said, this study is admittedly 8 years old, so a more recent rigorous study would be nice.

    As for the other study: your link criticizes the TFA high school study for not being peer reviewed. As silly as that criticism is, it is also false: that same study was published in a peer-reviewed journal (it’s the same link above that you complain about not wanting to purchase).

    Even in the peer-reviewed version, that study still found: “We find that TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers, including those who are certified in field. Such effects offset or exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in science.”

    Advantage: TFA.

  9. CW says:


    An interesting perspective on “TFA” as sort of a monolith. I agree with you on many points and disagree with you on many points, as I’m certain most TFA alum do. (I am also a former full-time staff member who often raised many of the same issues you did and a current and continuing summer Institute staff member.)

    I did want to ask a further question about your comments made in regards to the training model. Having worked Institute three times in the past four years (including this upcoming summer of 2012), I have seem the model change, develop and improve dramatically just since my first Institute as a staff member in ’09 and markedly better than the Institute I personally experienced as a corps member in ’06. With this in mind, I was shocked that such a blanket statement about the training model was made:

    “And I am one of the few people on my ‘side’ who believes that it is possible to teach someone to be a fairly competent teacher in five weeks. Unfortunately, though, TFA does not know how to accomplish this. The training is horrible, truly bordering on criminal negligence. But I still think it is possible, with a better training model, to produce competent teachers.”

    I too am on the ‘side’ that believes five weeks can be an adequate training experience to produce a competent first year teacher. You only made reference to having worked at the 1996 Institute, though. Having seen how much the training model has improved in the last four years, I can only imagine how much things have improved since 1996.

    I don’t think anyone on the Institute design team would say that we have the perfect model for maximizing the five weeks we have with our teachers, but I think everyone would say that the trajectory of improvement is strong. I do not believe that TFA teachers leave Institute the best they will ever be (not even close!), but I do believe that they have developed a broad set of fundamental skills that will continue to be developed as they gain experience and engage in additional learning experiences, and the vast majority have also had a strong first experience leading students to academic achievement during summer school. The most important thing I think the training model develops in teachers though is the mindsets of awareness, analysis and improvement. The training model emphasizes reflection, followed by careful planning and thought partnering to develop and then execute aligned solutions for how to improve one’s teaching practice and therefore their students’ results. Coupling strong (but developing) foundational teaching skills with the mindset that you as a teacher must do and be better for your kids to do and be better is an aspect that I believe is indispensable and allows each corps members’ training experience to carry with them long after the five weeks.

    So much question is: how do you think those five weeks should be spent and what would you choose to focus on? If the training model is “truly bordering on criminal negligence,” I would encourage you to revisit an Institute this summer, talk with staff members who design and plan how the five weeks is spent and compare it to what you experienced in 1991 and in 1996. I think you’ll recognize that thing have changed dramatically in the last 15 years and your answer to the question about how to spend those five weeks will be quite similar to “TFA’s” answer to the question.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I’ll answer in more detail in a future blog post, but for a short answer I can say that the ideal training model, in my opinion, would have about 8 hours a day of teaching at least 25 kids at a time. It would be grueling, and would require a lot of kids (or fewer trainees with same number of kids). Right now I think the average is fewer than 10 students in a class with about 12 hours of practice teaching for the entire summer. My five weeks would have approximately 200 hours of practice teaching with 25 kids in a class at each time.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      True 1996 was a long time ago, but I continued to do workshops at the institute until 2006, and could gauge the quality a bit by what people would tell me afterwards and also by the enthusiastic response I’d get with people saying “They didn’t stress any of this.” More than anything, though, I have been able to gauge the quality of the training by reading peoples blogs on this site. I see, for example, that people still come through the training (not all, but some) thinking that it is a good idea in the first year to make a speech saying something like “We’re going to learn two years of material in one year so there won’t be time to waste.” Also, another gauge of the quality of the training is the quality of the ‘Teaching As Leadership’ book, which I consider to be absolute garbage. Thankfully, Teach Like A Champion is also very popular reading at the institute, but TAL, and I’d bet you agree with me even though you are on staff, is not a useful guidebook for setting new teachers up for success.

      • AA says:

        I am a first year CM and was at a “book club” meeting with my MTLD this past week (which was being used to make up hours for a missed All-Corps conference – both obviously very effective methods of professional development.) One of her comments was that, if you don’t buy into anything else with TFA, you have to buy into TAL, because that is the one thing that definitely works.

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        I wish it were true that the TAL wasn’t absolute junk. It would save me a lot of time trying to protect new TFAers and their future students from it. What’s wrong with it is that it is hopelessly oversimplified. It seems to me that they are saying that the biggest problem with education is that teachers do not have high enough expectations so if you do have very high expectations, the students will rise to meet them. I hate to rain on the parade, but that just isn’t the way it works in an actual classroom. Students have very fragile self-esteems and when a teacher makes it too difficult while trying to have high expectations, the students often ‘turn off’ for many reasons. To me, the TAL book has a few good idea, perhaps ten or twenty pages worth and the rest is filler and fluff.

        Of course this is just my opinion. I encourage you to seek out other people’s views and see how they defend them. I think that most TFAers who either are just completing their first year or their second year would agree with me if they re-read the TAL book.

        If your MTLD would like to write a ‘counter point’ to my critique of TAL, I’d be happy to post it on my blog. Tell him/her that I’ve invited him/her to do this, if you want.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Reflection is great, but like the tightrope walker who has fallen off the wire and there is no net below, sometimes it is too late for reflection. When you mess up in teaching, often no amount of reflection will enable you to make a new first impression. Better to get comfortable in front of a class so you are less likely to make the common new teacher mistakes.

  10. AS says:

    Thanks for your comments in the recent post. As a former corps member and staff member, I agree with many of the points you make, but am also worried with your choice of language. You say that is the training is horrible and “truly bordering on criminal negligence.” I wonder if you think that language really contributes to helpful dialogue, or just leaves readers with the impression that people are teaching things at institute that will harm kids? On both sides of the debate, I’ve noticed more and more use of loaded language that seem to be designed to provoke nothing more that emotional reactions, rather than offer thoughtful analysis or potential solutions. Reading that part of your article literally made me feel like you were a political candidate trying to score points in a debate. You didn’t once acknowledge that your last experience working at institute was in Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

    I worked as an school director at institute last year, and I sure hope our training wasn’t horrible. It definitely needs to be improved, but I’m pretty sure what my staff and I did was not “criminally negligent.” Language like that should be limited to acts that are actually criminally negligent.

    I agree about increasing the time to teach and the number of minutes per day. I bet if you surveyed everyone who worked at institute they would agree that increasing these areas are priorities. And so I hope you realize that the current limits to the model are not because of purposeful negligence or incompetence, but rather are because of logistical challenges that everyone is hoping to overcome and improve.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I suppose I could have just said ‘negligent,’ but the fact is that TFA signs a contract where they ‘promise’ to provide districts with properly trained teachers. So, in a sense, it is ‘criminal’ as they have breached their contract. It is a misdemeanor, not a felony, but still a ‘crime.’ Everyone is ‘hoping’ to improve the model, but it is not happening fast enough for me or for the kids who have to get taught by the under prepared teachers. If TFA can’t train 6,000 people properly, they should figure out how many people they can train properly and then limit the corps to that size.

      • AS says:

        Well, you obviously weren’t trained as a lawyer. A simple legal lesson for you: Breaching a contract is not a crime. It is what lawyers refer to as a “civil wrong,” also known as a “tort.” I think you should stick to your field, and tone it down a bit. (I.E. let’s have civil discourse.)

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Ha. I always wondered what ‘tort’ meant. But the real ‘crime’ is against kids whose teachers don’t know what they are doing. What would ‘impersonating a teacher’ be called?

        I think people who ‘know’ me by being regular readers of this blog get what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to write in a way that is interesting and represents the frustration I feel.

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  12. InstituteRefugee says:

    As far as the old Institute vs. new Institute argument goes, here’s my impression from attending a very recent Institute (2010 Atlanta):
    Institute did not effectively prepare me to be a teacher. I have to side with Gary on this one. I do believe those who are posting here as staff members from Institute mean well (keep in mind that if you are a staff member, whether intentionally or not you are biased to believing you are doing a great job of preparing CMs). And I am sure they are correct in saying that many things have changed since 1996. Unfortunately, I have found that much of what I learned at Institute had to be unlearned in order for me to be successful as a teacher in my teaching assignment. Institute was an adrenaline fueled blur that left so many people exhausted; on any given day you could find a dozen or more CMs (out of 40) standing up during afternoon sessions because they were falling asleep at their tables. I am a person very conscious of nutrition, and I enjoy a soda as a treat maybe 3 or 4 times a year- at Institute I was drinking 2-3 sodas a day. I had roommates who held all-night lesson planning sessions and went to work the next day without ever having slept (one started crying in the middle of class the next day). I finally made a commitment to myself that I would make a firm effort to go to bed by 12:30 no matter what was left to do in my LP (with a 5:30 am wake-up time, this means I was getting 5 hours of sleep a night-or less -and yes, I got scolded by my CMA for turning in “incomplete” lesson plans). To work like this as a teacher – day in and day out, 5 days a week (not 4 like at Institute), for months – would create a level of burn out and frustration that not only makes you a very ineffective teacher, but a very unhealthy person (a CM friend of mine ended up in the hospital).

    Institute was backwards: we spent so many hours in afternoon sessions, evening sessions, workshops, etc. cramming in info, and yet so little actually in a classroom with students. We taught just one class each, and this was with a collab group and a co-teacher! Not at all like real life teaching (at least for me). Another problem I had with Institute was how much it focused on the TFA schedule of collecting info about CMs and how little on the students’ development. We were given benchmarks to teach and had to teach a new one everyday – even when we totally knew that the students hadn’t really “got it”. While we needed to push forward so that we could write a new LP every day for our CMAs to review, in real life, much of teaching skill comes in recognizing that your kids didn’t learn what you wanted them to- and then going back and finding a new way to present the information so they get it. A solid LP is a great thing to have, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of teaching, and that’s what Institute pushed. When our LPs failed, we discussed it once or twice with a CMA- but didn’t go back to fix it. That can’t happen in “real life” teaching.

    Institute felt like it was preparing me for a sprint when what I really need to train for was a marathon. There are many ways that Institute could be improved, and while I am sure it has improved much since 1996, I don’t see how it could have significantly changed since 2010.

    Additionally, there were many aspects of Institute that were demeaning, bordering on abusive, and were distinctly insensitive to CMs of lower SES (ironically). Those are not necessarily related to teacher preparation; nevertheless those issues greatly affected the Institute experience for many CMs. When Gary noted that it bordered on “criminally negligent,” I had to laugh because I had gone to Institute expecting professional development and got something akin to indentured servitude. Not the most auspicious environment for learning an entirely new field.

    • Kelly says:

      As someone who attended the 2010 Houston Institute, I have to offer a hearty “amen” to InstituteRefugee’s comment. More than anything else, Institute served to break people down, weed people out, inculcate Teach for America’s values, and foster the development of the same unhealthy habits and mindsets that rendered many of us miserable, depressed, and ineffective in our first year of teaching. I attribute very little of the success I’ve recently begun having as a teacher to anything I learned at Institute.

  13. E. Rat says:

    The title of Kopp’s piece – “In Defense of Optimism” – is enough to turn me off. Without reading it, I’m sure she manages to accuse me (and everyone else who disagrees with her) of casual racism and classism because we just don’t believe enough.

    The problem with “optimism” is that real children are being affected while we wait to see if the cheerful outlook was warranted. I think TFA is so removed from the reality of high-needs schools that they don’t realize this. Their bubble of the “best and the brightest” has little real engagement with these communities and sees them as something experimental or fictional. So if it ends up pessimism was warranted – no big deal, it was just an experiment!

    I also resent how TFA’s five-week training model leaves its teachers with so few options for management that they all tend to a rigid, KIPP-like structure of silence and punishment. As TFA gets more and more into early childhood education, the CMs will be bringing this nonsense to children developmentally unable to meet their expectation, and the damage they do will be massive.

  14. Jan Farmer says:

    Thank you for illuminating the “TFA and charter school” myth so clearly. Rather than the leadership needed for transformational change, our politicians and some reformers have rallied around simple solutions to complex problems that do not work for all students. While politicians like the improvement data and concerned parents like their “learning environment”, charter schools only work for some students. Consequently our educational system is becoming more “ability grouped” with every initiative. This should not be our aspiration as a nation.

    As a 38 year veteran of educational change as teacher, administrator, and academic; I am now teaching public school in the New Orleans area. I came here to be part of the “silicon valley of educational change” but after several second interviews with different charters I found their approach to be rigid and myopic. Well funded and well intentioned organizations like KIPP and TFA have a “false clarity” (they don’t know what they don’t know, so they think they know it) about their success and mission. They do many wonderful things and have excellent schools but they do not improve our educational system. I applaud your blog for this honest conversation.

    After facilitating transformational change as a practitioner and consultant I know we can improve education in America. We are not at a loss for existing exemplars that teach all students the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to lead a quality life. Unfortunately most charters are not the exemplars

  15. Delta2010 says:

    I’m a soon to be released 2010 and all the ELA training I had was so ineffective I basically trained myself. The ELA pilot is a little better but they make it so complicated when there is an endless supply of books published to make it easier. My life savior is “When Kids Can’t Read.” I can’t wait to be out from under the TFA thumb next year.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Yes, some CMs realize that the training is inadequate and supplement in order to compensate for it. Others, though, probably trust that TFA knows what they are doing and don’t seek extra resources. Congratulations on ‘making it’ and hopefully other ELA teachers will see your book suggestion here.

  16. Therlo says:

    So, my kid is an education major. We live in NJ and she can’t get a teaching job, not in our poorest cities. TFAers can get employment tho…and you know, you KNOW, they don’t want to teach in Camden or Newark. They are more interested in the “scholarship” that comes next, and where they will be after their next paid for Master’s degree in… Finance? Perhaps law school? Maybe a job as an Exec. with a TFA corporate sponsor?

    My kid applied to TFA because it seemed the only route to teaching in an urban school in NJ. She was turned down–not because her grades weren’t good. Not because she wasn’t qualified to so do – she did her clinical 1 and 2 teaching in an urban school, and is fully certified. TFA didn’t want her. Imagine that.

    • Alum says:

      @Therio – Your daughter can come to the Delta region of Mississippi (a seriously high-needs area with a dozen or more schools that will hire qualified teachers). She can join Teach Mississippi if she wants or she can look at the web sites for the high needs schools and send in her application and credentials. There are numerous ways to teach in high needs areas without going through TFA. Fortunately for certified teachers in Mississippi, TFA can’t support the number of Corps Members they need to take over this seriously dysfunctional education nightmare. Unfortunately for the schools here teacher turnover is extremely high because the schools (for the most part) are so bad.

  17. Pingback: What should we build? | Learning to the Max

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