The man who saved TFA

One day, that is what I’ll be known as because of this post.

But, you’re thinking, aren’t you the guy whose life purpose is to destroy TFA?  Are you not The Joker to their Batman?  No, my purpose is to fix, not to destroy TFA.  My concern is that the way things are going TFA is at risk of destroying itself.

Whether they believe it or not, the future of TFA is in danger.  And not because ‘critics’ like me are gaining momentum.  Contrary to how it might seem, I do not ‘hate’ TFA.  I believe in the original mission.  I believe that getting a supply of teachers from top universities is a good idea.  Because of this, I will, in this post, explain how TFA can save itself from impending doom.

The reason that TFA’s future is in jeopardy is because they have chosen to chain themselves to a ship that is about to sink.  That ship, of course, is the ‘reform’ movement, otherwise known as the accountability movement, the corporate reform movement, the ‘no excuses’ reformers, or, even, the ‘deform’ movement.  It makes sense that TFA would get intertwined with this movement as many of the leaders of that movement are either TFA alums (Rhee, White, Sternberg, Huffman, Henderson, Anderson, etc.) or are people who were very supportive of TFA as the program grew (Bloomberg, Klein, etc.).

But that reform movement is really nothing more than a paradigm shift.  A new paradigm is a bit like a new species.  It comes to be for various reasons and then it thrives, or doesn’t thrive, in whatever the environment is.  Then when the environment changes, the species may not be suited to the changes and will have to either adapt or go extinct.

The original idea of TFA was to get the ‘best and brightest’ to get some classroom experience.  Then most of them would leave the classroom and become educational advocates.  In some ways this plan succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.  Now there are TFA alumni in high leadership roles around the country and even in the U.S. Department of Education.

In an ideal world the ‘best and the brightest’ would all have great minds, and great minds think alike, so there would be much agreement on what sorts of lessons we have learned about how to improve educational opportunities in this country.  This is where something broke down, and it put TFA into an unexpected dilemma, one that they handled poorly.  What happened was that the alumni split into two factions:  There were the people who started charter schools and who quickly become district leaders after being ‘groomed’ by Joel Klein, the lawyer who was New York City schools chancellor.  These include Michelle Rhee (StudentsFirst), Cami Anderson (Newark), John White (Louisiana), and Marc Sternberg (New York City).  These people call themselves ‘the reformers’ and they believe that standardized test score ‘gains’ are an accurate and fair way to determine which schools should get shut down and which teachers should be fired.  Then, there were the people who remained teachers, or became assistant principals at public schools, then principals, some went to grad school to get Ph.Ds in education and become professors.  The vast majority of these people know that there is little evidence that the strategies proposed by ‘the reformers’ will do less harm than good.

When this divide started to become clear, TFA had the opportunity to use this ‘diversity’ of thought as a strength.  They could have said that they helped launch the careers of all these great thinkers and they haven’t yet figured out what the best thing to do, but through open and honest exchanges, they will hammer it out.  Then the ‘sides’ could have worked together, testing their theories as scientists would.  Challenges would be welcomed, not seen as threats, since everyone was seeking the truth, not just trying to appear right.

But when TFA was faced with these two camps, that is not the path they took.  Instead of staying neutral, the way a parent might when her two children are playing on opposing soccer teams, TFA picked a side.  They elected to shut out the side with all the teachers and the district assistant principals, the district principals, and the scholars.  That was when TFA became all about charter schools and educational reformers who all were test score zealots.

And for about five or six years, it was working out for them.  We’d hear about this person being promoted to head of this district or another.  There would be alumni getting elected to be state senators and drafting legislation overhauling school and teacher evaluations.  It seemed, for a little while, that choosing a side was the right thing to do.

But that mistake, if not corrected soon, will soon lead to big problems for TFA.  Already ‘the reformers’ are running out of gas.  In New York City where Bloomberg (with TFAer Sternberg) just love to close schools down.  But in doing so they tried to circumvent the law and had 24 school closings reversed last week.  StudentsFirst, despite claiming over a million members couldn’t muster up more than about 75 people in a rally in Connecticut.  In Louisiana, schools chief John White, another alum, is in hot water, admitting in emails that he tried to confuse the public with a bizarre voucher plan.  And the golden calf of ed reform, the so-called value-added metrics that are supposed to magically determine teacher quality based on standardized tests is falling apart too.  In Washington D.C., they had made it 50% of the weight of teacher evaluations, partly based on ‘research’ by The New Teacher Project (started by Rhee and now run by another alum) called ‘The Widget Effect’.  This turned out to be too much and they are rethinking the percent.  Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that we don’t yet know, as a country, what the right percent is.  And the tests themselves, these are taking a beating.  In Texas more than half the districts passed a resolution opposing the over-use of high stakes testing.  Then, just yesterday, the Governor of Florida said that perhaps we are using these tests too much.

None of this surprises me.  Like the emperor’s new clothes, it is only a matter of time before lies are exposed.

So the reformer’s boat is sinking and TFA is chained to it.  How can they get out of it?

Actually it isn’t that hard.

It is not too late for TFA to switch from the reformers camp to the neutral camp.  Maybe they needed the reformers at first to generate the money they needed to grow, but now I think TFA is pretty self-sufficient.  But how do they declare the neutrality?  Easy.  Hold some neutral summits where both sides are welcome.  Admit that we all don’t agree and that TFA isn’t sure who is right, and that’s what discourse and open discussion is for.

Now, so you don’t think that this summit is going to have every alumni except me on ‘the reform’ side of the table, and me, by myself, on the other side, I’d like to highlight a few of the MANY alumni who surely do not join in the support TFA has given to reckless, unproved, and untested experiments on this country’s kids and teachers.

Here are just a few of the alumni who you probably haven’t heard of, but who will be the ones who could save TFA from going down with the reform ship.

Roxanna Elden, Houston ’02

Roxanna is a National Board Certified English teacher in Miami.  She has written one of the best books for new teachers there is, ‘See Me After Class.’  Recently she did a presentation called ‘The Myth of the Super Teacher’ which can be found here and is going ‘viral’ in ed circles.  It definitely goes against the TFA idea of being relentless, but will help teachers not to burn out at or before two years.

Liz Dwyer, Los Angeles ’98

Liz is the education editor for Good Magazine.  The title of one of her recent articles, ‘Let’s Stop Comparing Education to the Civil Rights Movement’ will make TFA upper management nervous, and can be found here.

Dr. David Kauffman, Houston ’91

After teaching for six years in Houston and then going to Harvard for his Masters and Ph.D at Harvard, David could have easily become a high level person in Austin schools.  Instead, he was in no rush, so he became the principal of an elementary school in Austin.  You can trust that he has helped make the school a great place as his three children are students there.  This is not a school that is known for miraculous test scores, just a place where a brilliant principal leads a great community.

Anyway, these are just three alumni who deserve a proverbial ‘seat at the table’ if only TFA would stop pretending that all alumni, but me, support most of what is going on today in this country and being called ‘reform.’

To TFA I’d implore you to start shifting into neutral as soon as possible.  You will have to do this eventually.  If you wait too long, it will be a lot trickier.

This entry was posted in book proposal, Teach For America, tfa rants. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The man who saved TFA

  1. pfh64 says:

    Good luck with this Gary, part of the problem is you will never get an honest discussion from the Duncan/Klein/Rhee, etc. etc. crowd. See, we the educators, will say that testing has a place, albeit not the dominant part. However, the “reformers” can’t admit for a moment that testing is not the end all and be all, because then they lose.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      If TFA felt I have a good point, a good start would be a Wendy Kopp Huffington Post piece about how TFA has alumni on both sides of the fence.

      • Linda says:

        But do you think that a piece highlighting members on both sides would be much more than public relations spin to make it look like she honors those who stay in teaching?

        After all, the website, as of just yesterday, boasts about TFA members going on to leadership positions and they are fueling a REVOLUTION -…

        Also, it states corps members have a greater impact on student achievement than new teachers. Aren’t TFA teachers new teachers?

        In terms of test scores? Is that the measurement used in these “rigorous studies”? Isn’t she demeaning the teachers who pursued an education degree and may have planned to make this a career rather than a stepping stone to something better?

        I wonder why she doesn’t post a full copy of these rigorous studies?

        There is so much self-promotion while throwing the long term teachers (those who do not choose the short term training and teaching route) under the bus while boasting about the wonders of

        If she cares about educating all children, why wouldn’t she highlight the impact non TFA teachers have as well as her recruits?

        It all seems one sided and self promoting.

  2. Linda says:

    There is a lot of information here. I look forward to reading about the three alums you posted here tomorrow when I have more time.

    I just have to point out that the number people at the Rhee rally in CT was 25 tops with a camera crew, maybe two reporters and her staff. Our Governor, and he is not popular with teachers, would not even appear with her on the capital steps.

    She paid for, with Bloomberg help, deceptive tv and radio ads with teacher voices and signatures (small group from a city charter school….most of the signatures were indecipherable and the school was never mentioned, on the radio they didn’t even state their names or their schools) stating teachers in CT supported the orginal reform bill..SB 24. I can tell you the 45,000 public school teachers did NOT support the original bill and we are still leery about what did pass.

    She uses deceptive tricks to get petition signatures which she then counts as “grassroots” supporters.

    Ms.Rhee makes it clear she is not done with CT. She is a pariah and we don’t want her carpet bagging, self-promoting deform bull____ in our state.

  3. Michael Fiorillo says:

    I love the constant reference to TFA as representing “the best and the brightest.” People who use that phrase seem to have no memory that David Halberstam, who coined it in the title of his famous book, intended it to be an ironic reference to the fact that the so-called meritocratic best and brightest in the Kennedy and Johnson adminisfrations used deception and self- deception to lead this country into a war that killed almost 60,000 US soldiers and over two million Vietnamese.

    Smart, well-educated people are of no help when they are being manipulated to do a fundamentally bad thing, namely, being used as pawns in the takeover of public education.

    This time, the best and brightest, indoctrinated with the deception and self- deception that is the essence of TFA, are leading a class war here in the US, with the public schools as the battlefield, and minority urban children as both guinea pigs and cannon fodder.

  4. Tom Forbes says:

    Very good Gary. I am not as optimistic about the downfall of education deform. It may take longer then we think.

  5. James says:


    I really suggest you do a post highlighting the Roxanna Elden video — perhaps even tweet it to each of the Institutes (they have Twitter handles.). That is a phenomenal video with the potential to positively contribute to the mental health of thousands of new CMs.

  6. efavorite says:

    12 Gary — I hope you can get more TFA alums in your corner. If they truly care about kids’ education, you’d think more of them would be willing to stick their neck out for it the way you have, instead of forgetting it or protecting their own self-interests or putting their loyalty to TFA over what’s best for kids.

    On a related subject, I notice in reading through some of your recent posts, that links to blogs or videos critical of TFA have been taken down.

    Thus, I suggest that whenever you or a commenter posts a controversial link that you first copy it, to have your own record in case it eventually disappears.

    If it’s text, do a control C and copy it to a word file. If it’s a video or audio, at least make an audio copy that can be transcribed.

    Of course, this won’t be needed for public sources like NPR that could not be pressured to remove an audio because it did not present TFA in a positive light.

    • Unfortunalum says:

      As a TFA Alum in an institute site where the local school district has become run by TFA alums, I think your comment about alums needing to “stick their necks out” is condescending. For me, the cost of sticking my neck out would be losing my job. And, depending on how viciously they attack me, my certification and reputation. That might be easy to throw away when you are 23 and don’t plan on staying in the classroom, but not so easy to do a decade later when you have a family and children to support.

      • efavorite says:

        unfortunalum — I sympathize with your situation. You do have a lot to lose and your description of your situation is similar to many non-TFA teachers and people in other fields who are working in an oppressive, authoritarian system.

        The people I’d like to see stick their necks out are the 23 year olds you mention and TFA alums that have left teaching and therefore have nothing to lose materially — and something to gain in terms of doing good for kids and teachers in the long run.

        I do thank you for so straightforwardly describing your situation and your sense of how TFA would respond. Pretty Scary.

      • Unfortunalum says:

        It is scary.

        Sadly the new corps members who come to my school look down their noses at me, an alum who chose to stay in the classroom. So far I’ve seen a steady parade of them come to my school for two years, then leave–and they are not the ones I want sticking their necks out because they don’t know enough to speak intelligently on the issue.

        Not to mention the fact that potentially getting ‘blacklisted’ among other alums can cost you a job years later in a completely different field.

        The good news is that there are plenty of people like me, alums who are still teaching or working in schools. In some ways I agree with Gary, a line has been drawn and the numbers are on our side.

      • M. McNish says:

        I applaud you! I am a 28 year veteran teacher who has met many TFA’s and find the majority of them quite arrogant and condesending. They come into our school (large, urban high school in NJ) and think they know how to “fix” everything. They alienate most of their non-TFA colleagues and they make it well known that they wouldn’t lower themselves to stay in education, unless, of course, they were to go to a “charter school” and be an administrator! It’s a sad commentary! Kudos to the ones who really care about the kids and stay in education—so far, I’ve one met one!

      • Terry says:

        Would you mind stating what state and/or city you are in?

      • Unfortunalum says:

        Sorry, I’m too paranoid.

      • Parus says:

        Unfortunalum, you should be aware that TFU shares bloggers’ personal contact info with TFA, so if you are concerned about your privacy, you should be careful what email address, etc. you use when making comments – I would be surprised if they respect commenters’ privacy any more than they do bloggers’ privacy.

  7. teacher too says:

    Many TFA concerns on Ravitch blog today as well.

  8. KatieO says:

    Gary, you call for “neutrality” from TFA, but I do not believe that’s possible anymore. How can TFA claim neutrality when it accepts money from the most destructive forces in education today such as the Walton Foundation? Also, I don’t see it ending its ties with the big banks, financial firms, and corporations which are currently its biggest backers. TFA’s silence on social justice issues, combined with the tacit connection to the forces that seek to privatize education and deprofessionalize teaching make it extremely difficult to turn course.

    But let’s assume for a moment it was possible for TFA to change course. For me, that would entail pulling operations in any district or region that was not experiencing teacher shortages. Also, TFA is very closely married (literally in Kopp’s case) to the charter school movement. How would they separate themselves from those privatization efforts? Would they stop placing CMs in charters that have replaced neighborhood schools or are actively “competing” for those school’s top students? Lastly, TFA would need to commit to a much different training model–one that supports teaching as a profession with a professional body of knowledge to be learned and extensive supervised experience necessary to prepare for the work. They would need to abandon their love of testing and data, and train their recruits to have a more holistic approach to teaching and learning.

    In all honesty, I just don’t see these changes happening. And in the very real battle for the future of education, neutrality is no longer possible. I am reminded of the Desmond Tutu quote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

    If TFA does not stand up and say funding inequality, racial and economic disparities, and the disenfranchisement of communities of color are wrong, then they are part of the problem. If they don’t fight on the streets with the communities where they serve, then their silence is support of these destructive policies.

    You don’t have neutral debates about the utter destruction of the thing you are fighting for (public education). No, you fight for it, til your dying breath.

    • Teacher too says:

      Very interesting Katie and very well written.

      As long as the Kopp/Barth family benefits financially, why change course? Are they even humble enough to read and understand what you and Gary propose?

      I doubt it.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks Katie. You are one of my favorite bloggers and Tweeter, so I really appreciate your input. My proposed simple solution is really just a fantasy. A summit like that would be a small first step (you’d be invited too!), but probably will never happen since the big issues you mention cannot be ignored.

  9. Teacher too says:

    This may be old news, but I thought those who haven’t should read this by Barbara Miner:

    Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America

  10. Thank you for the shout out, Gary.

    I am a long-time reader of your work, and a fan of your blog and books.

    We definitely need more honesty and practical advice in the training and support of new teachers. The “relentlessness” rhetoric has especially damaging side effects.

    Compare it to training someone who has never been a runner before to successfully complete a marathon: Would you show them videos of marathon winners crossing the finish line, then put them on a treadmill at the highest possible setting and tell them that only lazy people who don’t believe in fitness would think of decreasing the speed?

    That’s not a recipe for winning a marathon. That’s a recipe for doing a face plant behind a treadmill.

    We need to work harder to minimize the face-plant factor in teaching. Many cringe-worthy mistakes can be avoided by showing a little humility and being realistic about the job at hand.

    Your writing provides a much-needed reality check in the field of education. Keep up the good work.

    Roxanna Elden, NBCT
    Author of
    “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers.”

  11. Pingback: Can TFA Save Itself from the Impending Disaster? « Diane Ravitch's blog

  12. Terry says:

    Great commentary on whether or not TFA should even be saved..go to Frank Little..10:32

    Opening line:

    “Will he be the one who helped save TFA?” Is the wrong question to ask under any circumstances. What we need to save is the public school system, the supposedly egalitarian, free education system that aim at creating, empowering and supporting students who will be the citizens of tomorrow. If we indeed want to save the public system and ensure children as thinking, moral, creative and active people, it will be essential not to save TFA but rather to euthanize it.

    • Unfortunalum says:

      So sorry and sad to say that you are probably right. As it is TFA is actually harming the very students it claims to try to save.

  13. Terry says:

    Whistleblower sues Rhee, alleges ErasureGate cover-up
    The plaintiff in the case, Bruno Mpoy– a former teacher at a school flagged for high erasure rates– alleges that his principal instructed teachers to alter scores on the DC standardized test. When he brought this to Michelle Rhee’s attention, Rhee allegedly responded by firing him. Rhee has been less than forthright in her previous comments about the scandal—attacking a USA Today investigation as “lacking in integrity”, and stonewalling reporters.

    Click to access second_amended_complaint.pdf

  14. Terry says:

    It is 2012 in the USA and it appears to be more like Stalinistic Russia…so depressing!

  15. Pingback: Is Teach For America the Lebron James of Education Reform? | River Deep, Mountain High

  16. KatieO says:

    Did everyone see the HuffPo piece by Dr. Royal? Contains the missing video, the text of her speech, and her take on this whole controversy.

  17. david says:

    So I have enjoyed reading some of the comments here and I promised myself I would not respond but I decided to throw my 2 cents in since I am an “old head” from TFA.
    I have heard a lot about Gary Rubenstein and I have met him a few times (really nice guy and I recommended his first book to many 1st year teachers when I was a PD). I like the fact that he is indeed looking at the problems within TFA and trying to “fix” them. In the public, from my perspective, TFA seems to get criticized a lot so I feel I am always put on the defensive and I always have to tell my story and the story of why this organization is so important. At the end of the day it is one of the few organizations that has really pushed people across the nation to think critically about public education and the way this nations educates (or in many cases does not educate) minorities and the poor. That being said, when I get a chance to dialog with close friends who were in the corps with me (like I did this past weekend with a dear friend of mine from ’93) we do come to grips with the fact that there are things going on within TFA that may need to be looked at, questioned and changed. Here are a few things that come to mind.

    1.) Teaching Beyond 2 Years – Yes it is the same old story. TFA loves to say that 65% of their teachers stay in education after 2 years. Here is what they don’t tell you. The needle has not moved from 65% for quite some time. I was using that same stat back in ’98 at the start of my PD year. The other thing they don’t talk about is the fact that, that stat usually means the corps member taught for a 3rd year then went on to grad school or got fast tracked into a principal program. I love the fact that some corps members have the wherewithal to become an administrator with quickness. That’s a good thing and TFA has created several initiatives and partnerships to get folks to become: Principals, Charter school operators, school board members and politicians. I am not opposed to any of those things. They are all well and good. I still however, don’t see a TFA initiative that tells folks to think about staying in the classroom for 5-10-15-20 years!!! I know this may not be sexy to board members or even to the corps but many TFA alums have done it. Why not encourage this? I know I tried to as a PD. I know that I got the impetus to stay longer than 2 years from my former CMA Steve Zimmer (we can debate his politics at another time…please focus). By not making this one of their initiatives and by not highlighting those who have stayed in the classroom longer than two years TFA shoots itself in the foot and may be alienating the corps members who want to teach and get better at teaching. I know I stayed (12 years to be precise )Because I wanted to get better. Because I am removed several years from the corps and from the office (and because I kind of only skim the alumni magazine) this may already be going on and I just don’t know. If this is the case please let me know. In my own naïve head I firmly believe if you want to be a strong instructional leader you had better be a strong teacher and that means you better be staying in that classroom for a lot longer than 2 years.
    2.) The Charter Movement – I have been a fan of the charter school movement in the beginning. The movement itself was teacher/student friendly and was about a like-minded group of teachers coming together to cut through red tape to give students and parents what they need. There was a time when TFA was not placing 1st years in charter schools because they felt that the 2 year experience needed to be at non-charter schools. Now (and this is part speculation on my part) due to the fiscal crisis, not wanting to reduce numbers of selected corps members and maybe to please a board member or two, TFA is placing 1st year corps members in charter schools. The issue I have with this is that at the charter schools teachers have to take on many different roles besides teaching. Many charter school leaders think they need teachers who have already taught 3-4 years in a regular school and have been successful in a regular public setting so that they are ready to take on extra leadership duties along with teaching. Guess what? Those folks are right. Added to this is the idea of expectations. Now 1st year corps members may expect (and again I could be wrong) to have laptops, ipads, smart board, small schools, kids who want to be there and so on. When this does not happen some may scratch their heads and say “hey what’s wrong with this place? I thought this was a charter school?” Added to this is the reality now that charter schools are not the be all, end all answer to what our students/communities need. Some are great, some are mediocre and some are bad! When I joined the corps I had an idea what I was going to be up against when it came to teaching in an under resourced area and Ray Owens (my interviewer) and Steve (my CMA) did not sugar coat it for me. “This is gonna be rough, difficult and not pretty but our students need you in the classroom” I was challenged and inspired by this. I knew I was not going to have much but I was ready for the challenge. I am not sure that these corps members whose first experiences in education are getting the experience they need at a charter school. Many maybe overwhelmed by everything they have to do because the schools (for the most part) are so small and because everyone needs to shoulder the load while teaching.
    3.) The Movement – Liz I know you have written about how you are tired of folks equating the achievement gap to the civil rights movement. I hear ya on this but I want to push your thinking a bit. For me the part of TFA that matters is the idea of inspiration and purpose. Teaching is still such an isolating experience. It was easy for me to forget I was in an organization trying to push for change in our society but then I would go to (or put on) the west coast conference, I would go to an alumni meeting or corps dinner. I would work at the institute (I know, crazy) and I would be pushed to remember that there are thousands of like-minded individuals, from different back grounds and walks of life inspired by this challenge, movement and mission. That’s one of the main things that kept me going in the classroom for 12 years even when there weren’t TFA teachers at my school. Again because I am removed I do not know if this type of inspiration still exists in the program.
    Well anyway those are my thoughts. I still have a lot of respect and admiration for TFA but I do think these things need to be looked at with a critical lens. Nothing wrong with having critical friends, right? I am not sure I, Liz or Gray or anyone for that matter can “fix” TFA but I do think alumni can take a hand in providing the dialog, context and tools in order for the organization, to fix itself.
    Hope all is well.

  18. M. McNish says:

    Pardon me–it should read, “only met one.” Most of the TFA’s feel that 2 years is enough experience to move into administration. Where are the true “classroom teachers”? IMHO, at least 10 years should be spent in the classroom before going into administration.

  19. Unfortunalum says:

    I wonder if all this backlash is making an impact? My region is having a hastily thrown “teacher appreciation” party for “teachers who have stayed in the classroom longer than 2 years.”

    I haven’t decided whether to go or not, they are going to have to do more than throw a small party to show teachers like me that we are respected in this organization.

  20. Unfortunalum says:

    Just TFA Alums

  21. Pingback: Gates Foundation Sends Reformers Scrambling | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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