The Three Biggest TFA Lies

When I was a kid, around ten years old I guess, my father told me a joke that began with the question “What are the three biggest lies?”  I said I didn’t know and he proceeded to tell me that the first biggest lie is “The check is in the mail,” which as a ten year old I really didn’t get.  The second biggest lie was, apparently, “Some of my best friends are Black,” which also didn’t make much sense coming from my father, considering that some of his best friends were, in fact, Black.  The third, well, was a bit too X-rated for this blog, and definitely for me as a ten year old.  Not everyone is a perfect parent, I know, and I don’t hold this against him, though I do try to limit his unsupervised time with my own two kids.

As someone who is, I suppose, a big “friendly critic” (an expression TFA coined as the need to describe the growing number of frustrated alumni) of TFA, I think the biggest problem with TFA is all the lying.  Though the individual people I’ve known on staff aren’t huge liars, themselves, the sum of all the lies add up to an organization whose lying is pathological.  Really, they’ve elevated the art of lying to new heights, much the way Mozart elevated the concerto.  Even people like Bernie Madoff who thought they were great liars can’t help but marvel at TFAs techniques.

The lies began innocuous enough.  They were just part of their PR, part of their advertising and fund raising efforts.  Other lies they didn’t even realize were lies until they were too embroiled in them and still other lies they still don’t seem to realize are untrue.  If I could change one thing about the organization, this would be it.

Of all the lies, I can easily identify the biggest three.  Over the years I’ve written multiple posts about each of thes lies, but thought it would be useful for people just learning about, or just joining, TFA to get a summary of them in one place:

Biggest TFA Lie #1:  The training is adequate.

This is a lie that I have been trying to expose for the past seventeen years.  Back then I felt that by offering too rosy a picture of the first year, new TFAers were overconfident and not able to take their preparation as seriously as they would if they knew how difficult it is to have a good start to the first year and how nearly impossible it is to recover from a bad start.

For many years this was my big issue with TFA.  By sugar coating the first year they mislead the corps members into a dangerous overconfidence.  From 1995 to 2006 I volunteered at the institute presenting a workshop (which you can see here) about the realities of many first years of teaching (using my own as a case study).  In the latest incarnation of the TFA pre-institute reading they have a whopping 5 minutes dedicated to this in a reading called “250 minutes.”

In it the teacher describes a very bad day, but later concludes that:

And also:

So the only five minutes of thinking about how grueling the first year can be is from a teacher who had at most a bad month.  For a more realistic view of the first year, many of the bloggers on this site do a nice job at this.

In recent years a new problem emerged in the training model.  As the size of the corps grew exponentially (the first few corps were around 500 people, then it was around 1000 for a while, but now it is 6000 a year), TFA did not figure out a way to give all those trainees enough summer school students to practice teaching.  Now we routinely see people training for less than 12 hours in front of a class for the entire summer with less than 12 students in each class.

In the pre-institute reading that new CMs got this year, they explain why the readings are focused on big ideas surrounding education rather than much about how to teach:

If any trainees actually empower their “summer school students to make incredible academic strides,” I’m sure that it will have a lot more to do with the tiny class sizes of often single digit numbers of students than any “nuts and bolts” (maybe thumb tacks) that the teachers picked up at institute.

Though the corps is twelve times bigger than it used to be twenty years ago, the amount of money TFA has is around 200 times more.  With $200 million a year, they need to find a way to get people more classroom experience.  I’d also like to see the placement procedure fixed so that the corps members can all practice with the age group that they are going to teach.  It seems to me that if principals are so enamored by TFA, as TFA claims, there could be a way for new CMs to replace all the CMs who are leaving their schools.  This way they would know the placement way ahead of time and train accordingly.

TFA seems to be in denial about their training being ‘good enough,’ based on how slow they have been to improve it.  Maybe they think that since the standardized test scores from teachers who trained with TFA (at least the 91% of TFA teachers who make it through the first year and get a chance to administer those tests) are not all that different than the test scores of ‘traditionally certified’ (TFA speak for ‘dumb’) teachers, that this is some kind of proof of the validity of their model.  But this seems to go against one of the goals of TFA to have teachers who are ‘transformational.’  If TFA teachers are about the same (some studies have them, at least in math, a little bit better at raising standardized test scores) as traditionally certified teachers, that must either mean, at least by TFA’s logic, that those other teachers are also transformational or that neither truly are.

Biggest TFA Lie #2:  The magical power of high expectations.

If I were to summarize TFA’s philosophy to teacher training in a few words I’d say “Students always rise to meet the expectations of their teacher.  A large part of the reason that poor kids don’t have the same academic achievement as wealthy kids is that the teachers of the poor kids have low expectations.”  How great it would be if this were true.  While I do believe that setting expectations extraordinarily low isn’t a good idea either, expectations that are too high are likely to backfire on the naive teacher.

I haven’t figured out it TFA is purposely lying to new CMs about this or whether TFA, itself, actually believes this.  The motivation behind lying would be, I suppose, that it would ‘trick’ new corps members into getting the confidence they need to take on this responsibility.  Having high expectations, after all, is something that new teachers can choose to have, even if they don’t have the skills to get students to those expectations.  The scary thing to me is that I’ve talked with different TFA staff members, and my sense is that this is not supposed to be a trick to psyche out the corps members.  They seem to really believe that low expectations is a large culprit for the problems in American education.  A good demonstration of how TFA leads new corps members to embrace ‘high expectations’ as the primary weapon for fighting educational inequity is in this corps member produced video last summer.

Honestly, if I were to make my list of reasons why poor students struggle to ace standardized tests, low expectations from teachers would not crack my top 10.  Yet, the first 35 pages of TFA’s guidebook ‘Teaching as Leadership” is all about the power of high expectations until they reluctantly admit in one sentence on page 36 (and then never again) “Yet setting a goal that is impossible for students to reach even with extraordinarily hard work might further undermine students’ shaky confidence, cementing their impression that effort does not lead to achievement and that they are ‘not smart’ enough to achieve in school.”

Biggest TFA Lie #3:  The existence of miracle TFA teachers/schools/districts.

As evidence that the training model is good (lie #1) we often get to meet ‘miracle’ TFA teachers who wield their all powerful high expectations (lie #2) to lead their classes to amazing ‘gains’ of up to two years.  As an example of this, see the latest pre-institute reading where the accomplishments of Jeremy Beard (husband of new TFA co-CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard) are described:

This is about all the proof that a new corps member needs.  100% of the first three graduating classes of his school went to college?  Wow.  But what they neglect to say, and what I’ve learned by investigating hundreds of these miracle claims, is that there is always more to the story.  When people hear this 100% statistic, they assume that this means that 100% of the students who entered the school in 9th grade eventually graduated and went to college.  But all that happened is that 100% of the students who actually made it to graduation got accepted into college.  More relevant is what percent of 6th graders eventually graduated and got into college.  Fortunately, this is very easy to find out.  In Texas they have an excellent public data system called AEIS which you can access here.  Within a few minutes of searching for this IDEA college prep in Hidalgo county I learned that the first graduating class of this school was only 27 students in 2007.  Six years earlier in 2000-2001, there were 69 sixth graders.  What happened to the other students, I’m not sure.  For their second graduating class in 2008, 32 student of whom 100% also got into college, well there were 85 sixth graders six years earlier.  I encourage readers to double check these numbers for themselves.  And my goal is not to take down Jeremy Beard who seems to be a nice enough guy.  The point is that TFA just can’t resist including some kind of bizarre miracle story in their literature.  In this case they could have chosen any success story from their entire 20 year history and the one they chose was so easily revealed as an inflated claim of success.  This is not to say that they didn’t do good work over there, just that it wasn’t enough to prove the unlimited power of enthusiasm, hard work, and high expectations.

This type of attrition is true of all the ‘high performing’ ‘no excuses’ charters that you hear about, and which I have written about for a few years beginning with my very first investigative post around two years ago.  College acceptance rate for graduating seniors is a meaningless statistic that is often thrown around recklessly.

This type of lie extends to TFA alumni who have gone on to lead charter networks (like KIPP), cities (like D.C., Newark, and New Orleans) and even states (Tennessee and Louisiana).  Under scrutiny I’ve found that their results are definitely exaggerated.  Here is something I wrote about New Orleans and here is a popular blog about what is (and isn’t) going on in Washington D.C.

I should make it clear to newcomers to this blog that I hope people don’t take my realism and exposing of blatant lies and half-truths as my believing that teachers can’t make ‘a difference.’  I’ve been teaching for fifteen years so I certainly try every day to do my best and some days I’m better than other days.  Knowing that teachers are not superheros does not mean that I don’t think that they are still heros, but maybe more like an action hero like Indiana Jones than like Superman.  We find a way to use the limited power that we have to make as big of a difference as we can.

When I taught in Houston for four years, I put in a lot of hours and really got to help my students and to know them very well.  Twenty years later, I am still in contact with many of my old students who have friended me on Facebook.  I don’t know that I was ‘transformative’ in the sense that TFA claims that many alumni were.  I don’t know that I was ‘the reason’ that some of my students that did eventually graduate college did so.  I do know that I got many of my students to like and appreciate math, which was really my goal.  Likewise, teachers all over make small differences each day.  It is tough to know what our individual impact is.  I feel confident that I enhanced the lives of many of my students.  Others hated my guts, but maybe those students were inspired by a different teacher.


The new co-CEOs have been going around the country on a ‘listening tour’ since taking over recently.  I continue to wait for my invitation to a private meeting, though I’m not expecting one.  If TFA wants to listen, then they can read this, I guess.

TFA does not have to lie so much.  I know that they mainly do it because if they stop lying they might not be able to get as much public and private money.  But there is a lot of truth that they can empathize and be proud of.  Like the fact that even if few of the TFA teachers are changing life trajectories, there are some excellent teachers they have trained who are making small differences each day.  Some of these teachers (though not as many as they say) teach well past the two year commitment.  There are also some great school leaders — not the ones that we hear about from them — but honest ones who are also making small but genuine differences each day.

Lies will not help America’s children.  Lies might make some charter operators rich which, I suppose, is good for the charter operators.  But these lies are causing, around the country, schools to be shut down, teachers to be fired, and students to be scattered around looking for a new school after knowing that they got their old school shut down — and all because these schools, teachers, and students were not able to match the things that TFA has been lying about.

TFA, to quote Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’, can’t handle the truth.  They just can’t stop lying.  And as fast as they lie, I will continue to reveal those lies.  (It is tough keeping up, sometimes!)

Runners Up

Though these are the biggest three TFA lies, there are so many more that deserve honorable mentions.  I’ve already blogged about some of these.  Here is a partial list:

2/3 of alumni are still in education, half of them as teachers

90% of principals are very satisfied with their TFA teachers

50,000 people genuinely apply to TFA (You count as an ‘applicant’ if you complete stage one which only takes about a minute)

Charter schools don’t have easier to teach kids and more involved parents and don’t expel kids who bring down their test scores.  (Finally admitted here, but myth still persists)

The average career length of a TFA teacher is 8 years

39% of first year TFAers get a year and a half of learning in one year from their students (finally admitted that this was a lie here)

Independent studies show that TFAers get between a half year and a year of gains above non-TFA teachers

Feel free to add your own …

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63 Responses to The Three Biggest TFA Lies

  1. E. Rat says:

    What is bugging me the most about TFA right now is its ethos that you should work at your classroom and your practice 24/7 for two years and then be done with it.

    For those of us who are in teaching for the long haul, eating/breathing/sleeping teaching is not realistic. I’ve been a classroom teacher for well over a decade. I don’t need to spend eighty hours a week at school. Moreover, I can’t – I have personal responsibilities that preclude doing so.

    But the idea that “good teaching” is about hours at school is destabilizing for those of us who teach as a career. We are pressured to give more, spend more, and do more for our students and schools, and that comes at the expense of our families, our outside interests, and our health.

    No one can maintain that TFA lifestyle longterm, and no teacher needs to do so. The hours CMs put in have to do with organizational pressure and having very little experience, not with high expectations and rigor and vague anti-unionism. When they sell it as an example of the necessary labor that a truly invested teacher brings to the classroom, they’re telling a lie that shames veterans for having the gall to have the skills that enable work-life balance.

    • Educator says:

      There’s this thought that TFA is like investment banking’s first few years. You do it for a little while for an expected gain in the future. For TFA’ers, I’ve observed that for many the gain is switching careers to ed policy, medicine, law, politics or finance and consulting.

      Yes, some do stay in education, but many do it for resume building. So the counter to this would be “well at least they taught two years in places that don’t have good teachers.” I think this used to be true when TFA was younger, but it seems much different now. Hence, the criticism from Gary and others.

      • E. Rat says:

        Oh, definitely: I am a TFA alum from the olden days. My district was so hard up for labor that every teacher who signed on got a $4,000 bonus. In such situations someone making a two year commitment (and who may stay longer) is probably worthwhile. There weren’t any better options.

        The problem is that very few of the districts in which TFA is active have this problem. In fact, at the end of my two years, my district was so well-staffed that some TFA CMs who wanted to stay at least one more year were laid off so that brand new CMs could be placed. That creates a revolving door of new, lightly-trained teachers – bad for students and bad for schools.

        TFA also used to talk about how it wanted to put itself out of business; part of its rhetoric shift includes selling the idea that its CMs are so superhuman that TFA is a necessity, and that it is worthwhile to lay off veterans to place CMs.

    • KrazyTA says:

      E. Rat: it not just that teachers and other teaching staff have responsibilities [e.g., elderly parents, dependent children, vital community activities] outside of school that deserve and demand time, energy and attention, but a career educator will gain invaluable experience and insight from them that is of invaluable help in the classroom.

      Just a couple of examples taken from firsthand experience. First, Special Ed teachers and TAs who had family members [including adopted children] who had severe physical and/or emotional and/or cognitive difficulties who brought an incredible amount of knowledge and patience into the classroom as a result of their out-of-classroom life. Second, teaching staff who had suffered great trauma [e.g., loss of a loved one or a life-changing accident] or great change [e.g., one SpecEd TA I worked with who went from stereotypical violent gang banger to an exemplary ethical human being] who provided a stability and steadiness impossible for a greenhorn.

      I sometimes get the feeling from TFA that the more experience a teacher or educator has, the more incapable they are. In other words, less is more.

      Unfortunately, amid all the hype and spin and PR, important truths get lost. Yes, there are a few awful educators, and a few stellar ones, but the majority are everyday heroes we should honor because of what they do day in and day out, often [what a sad thing to write] downplaying to their own detriment their contributions to their students, communities and our nation.

      I think this comment by Mother Teresa fits many educators: “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

      Just my dos centavitos worth.

    • KatieO says:

      I think E. Rat’s point is critically important to the ed reform conversation. TFA, coupled with the ‘no excuses’ charter school movement, has shifted the nature of teaching from the investment in long-term dedication, knowledge of a school community, and valuing of experience to the short-term cheap exploitation of labor. Today, the norm in teaching, especially in the charters, but really with any administrator who hails from the reform movement (i.e. New Leaders for New Schools,) is to work insane hours until you burn out and never, ever ask questions. (And while many TFAers go on to lucrative careers after their short-term hard work, the millions of other teachers are left behind to suffer.)

      And it is this second point I would stress, TFA’s model-specifically because it relies on newbies who know no better-reinforces a compliant workforce. TFAers are not likely to be the ones pushing back on bad administrative policies. They are unlikely to protest in the streets against the [status quo of] top-down corporate reform. They are less likely to understand and participate in their unions (in the places where unions still exist) to fight collectively for social justice and equity. They are much more likely to be funneled into the charters, the Teach+, the Stand for Children, Students First, and other astroturf groups. While there are exceptions (and I am SO grateful for those CMs/alums who go against this trend), TFA is literally creating the “leaders” of the corporate reform movement. And many have never questioned the righteousness of the movement. They do what they are told, rise up the ranks with little exposure to any other perspective, and then continue the cycle in leadership positions in government, ed policy, administration, and non-profits.

      I encourage everyone to question, question, question what is being spoon-fed to them. As Gary so aptly points out, TFA has (intentionally or not) gotten into the habit of lying. I think of them as the cigarette companies who for years spit out “research” and marketing promising how healthy and safe smoking was, until finally the evidence of cigarette’s damage became too overwhelming to ignore. The use of the tiniest amount of common sense tells us that teachers benefit from more experience, school communities benefit from stability, and that poverty and inequality are the root culprits to our problems in education. And placing poorly-trained, uncertified novices with our neediest students (especially Special Education and English Language Learners) is absolutely unacceptable. At some point, the lies will be too obvious, the damage too great to ignore. I think we are getting close to that tipping point.

  2. Mr. K says:

    “We find a way to use the limited power that we have to make as big of a difference as we can.”

    This perfectly encapsulates what I’ve learned in the classroom over the past two ears. Thank you.

  3. Educator says:

    This is such an incredibly important post that I hope gets wide attention, from both those in education and in education reform circles, and from the education media. This perspective that Gary has written about has been pretty absent until recently, I think.

    I think the biggest reason why this post is important is that it shows that yes, there are critical thinkers out there who are questioning education reform…these are not all “status quo” loving, self-interested lazy educators. I think Gary’s thoughtful post here makes it difficult to so easily dismiss him.

    To all the education reformers out there who will surely be reading this blog: I hope you can take a step back and consider your policies. Ask yourself, for the sake of a thought experiment, “What if the policies I am pushing, what if the policies my organization is pushing, what if the policies my mayor that I support are pushing…are actually NOT helping to improve education?” What if the “status-quo” is actually right?

    My belief is that a lot of the education reform debates are focusing attention AWAY from other important solutions, such as addressing poverty and inequity. Yes, poverty can’t be an excuse for crummy teaching, but “superstar high expectations teachers and schools and leaders” can’t solve poverty alone either. And yes, I know a lot of ed reformers say that they don’t believe excellent schools alone can solve poverty, but a lot of what ed reformers are selling to the public doesn’t communicate that. Hence, the “solutions” being sold in many urban cities is: Test –> label failing –> fire –> open charters –> self-select in–> expel / counsel out weaker students –> Test –> “High test scores yay!” –> Repeat. This is not education reform. It’s a false house of cards, that seems to be slowly falling apart, with blogs like this one gaining more prominence, and reporters like John Merrow outing Rhee, for example.

    I wanted to believe in a lot of what the education reform movement was doing, but when I take a step back, I’m really dismayed, especially since I have seen Gary’s Lie # 3 being marketed so many times by charter management organizations and the media. It’s really disappointing to me, if these education organizations claim to put students’ interests above adult interests, why Lie # 3 is around. It negatively affects many people’s lives: students, teachers, and communities. It positively affects others, though: a select few students who may have made it in their traditional school setting anyhow (or may not have), charter leaders, and politicians.

    But I don’t necessarily think education reformers need to just go away. They have created some good, like bringing a lot of attention to education. I think they just need to reform their reforms. Maybe it’ll happen, as long as more people question, and as long as the public doesn’t get tricked.

    So PLEASE, education reformers, take a step back and see what’s happening from a different perspective, and see what seems to align more.

    • CarolineSF says:

      They are not interested in this, @Educator. They’re in it for the money. You make a big mistake when you assume sincerity.

      • Educator says:

        Yes, I have considered whether or not it’s silly to consider that they’re not in it for the money. I guess I see it this way (warning: oversimplified terms being used here)

        The reformers like to criticize “status quo folks” as self-interested lazy folks who don’t like to be held accountable. This is what the media writes, and this is what many reformers say of teachers, unions, district offices, etc… This drives tons of educators crazy and it’s insulting, because I haven’t found in my personal experience educators who just like to collect a paycheck by working in a job where close to 50% of people quit in their first 5 years. Are there protectors of the status quo who are more self interested? Probably, just like in any job or organization there are people who don’t like change and are self interested.

        Critics of reformers like to say that reformers are in it for the money. Some reformers also get very upset and frustrated at this, as they believe they are doing their work to improve student lives. Are there people trying to privatize education and make $$$ of of students? Definitely. But I don’t think it’s everyone who is a reformer.

        It’s kind of like liberals vs conservatives in D.C. There’s a lot of name calling, but not a lot of compromise. There are crazies on both the left and the right, and it’s getting harder for the middle.

        I think it’s the same in the education debates. Very polarized, not much progress.

      • CarolineSF says:

        i’ve worked in nonprofits, and in seeking funding, there’s a lot of promoting results that actually can’t be directly tied to the nonprofit’s work. It’s just the way it is in that area. Usually it’s stuff that possibly/probably is tied to the nonprofit’s work, but there’s no way to conclusively show that it is. That’s just the way it is. I’m not inherently saying that’s a terrible thing, because nonprofits get money to do good work that way.

        (I’ve worked for nonprofits that trained child care/preschool workers to screen for possible disabilities in preschool-age children, for example, and to create inclusive environments; and that trained summer youth program workers to include enrichments in activities that helped prevent summer learning loss. What’s not to like?? But they still do that.)

        But from there it IS not that much of a stretch to making **** up and creating entire campaigns based on BS — for example, TFA’s overarching message that its bright-eyed temp newbies with their five-week crash course and their “excellence” are superior to the deadwood burnout experienced committed career teachers. And in this case, of course, it’s a destructive message that, if it were truly effective, would do “friendly fire” damage to TFA too. But TFA doesn’t care about that because it gets money that way.

        And then there are the many, many unprincipled sellouts who are commentators and “researchers” paid handsomely by the forces behind education “reform.” Of course they wouldn’t believe that crap if they weren’t being paid to promote it — they’re not stupid. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends
        upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

        When there are so many lies and there’s so much money involved, there isn’t middle ground. Wrong is wrong and immoral is immoral. I don’t know what the solution is, but pretending that compromise with evil is possible is not the solution.

  4. Michael Fiorillo says:

    While TFA lies about virtually everything, and you have provided an important service exposing their lies, there is one thing that Wendy Kopp and her acolytes are truthful about: they really don’t care about developing career teachers, and instead are looking to identify, groom and promote “leaders” (read educational hit men and women) who will bring about “transformational change” ( read wholesale privatization of the schools).

    It’s one of the very few things things they’ve ever been honest about.

    • Cosmic Tinkerer says:

      Funny, I had been thinking the opposite. In my mind, their most egregious lie of all is leading young, enthusiastic new grads to believe that, after 5 weeks training and working two years as novice teachers, TFAers will be qualified to assume roles as education leaders and that they SHOULD be appointed to top education positions, including as school district and state superintendents, and determining education policies across the country.

      • Educator says:

        I think TFA’s argument would be that there aren’t that many great leaders attracted to go into education. TFA fills that gap, as it’s a sexy alternative to the private sector. So now there are better leaders, and they at least have 2 years of teaching experience rather than none. And those who go into education as a career aren’t that great leaders in the first place. So overall, TFA is better being around than not.

        So the above has some logic (a small some). The danger that I see is that many of these TFA-ers get 2 years of experience teaching in a non realistic setting with a specific pedagogy of results…results…results…on standardized tests. This is drilled into them at Institute. results…achievement…growth…tests

        It’s not a terrible idea to want students to grow and learn. But the TFA way of instruction is a very dictatorial method of education. There is no talk about whole-child and other development that many others want (especially high income parents who send their kids to private schools)

        So to summarize — the danger is really smart and well connected leaders, with good intentions, doing very short sighted things to everyone else.

      • Cosmic Tinkerer says:

        The danger is that people with 5 weeks of training and a couple of years of “sink or swim” experience as a novice teacher are telling genuine experts in the field of education what to do. Those are no potatoes and that would not be tolerated in any other profession.

      • Cosmic Tinkerer says:

        Sorry, meant to say “Those are no small potatoes.”

        I think this lie is the most abhorrent, because it does the greatest disservice to millions of true stakeholders in education: children, parents, communities and career educators. The ruse is only to the benefit of TFA and their corporate and political sponsors, who use TFAers as tools to promote their neo-liberal agenda to privatize education.

        TFAers like Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman and John White are culpable as well, since they are supposed to be “the brightest and the best” and yet they buy into the lie and proudly bolster themselves, as if charlatans deserve to be in top jobs that they are not qualified for, in order to line their pockets and further their careers.

        Of course, the promotion of these imposters is is all made possible with a wink and a nod and financial support from the other non-educators calling all the shots in education today, like Gates, Broad, the Waltons, Duncan and Obama, who have colluded in order to execute this business plan with the misnomer of “education reform,” but TFA and their propaganda (i.e. lies) are integral to the grand sham.

      • Cosmic Tinkerer says:

        Sorry, meant to say, “Those are no SMALL potatoes.”

        I think this is the most abhorrent lie, because it does the greatest disservice to millions of true stakeholders in public education, children, parents, communities and career educators. The ruse is only to the benefit of TFA and their corporate and political sponsors, who use TFAers as tools to promote their neo-liberal agenda to privatize education.

        TFAers like Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman and John White are culpable as well, since they are supposed to be “the brightest and the best” and yet they buy into the lie and proudly bolster themselves, as if charlatans deserve to be in top jobs that they are not qualified for, in order to line their pockets and further their careers.

        Of course, the promotion of these imposters is is all made possible with a wink and a nod and financial support from the other non-educators calling all the shots in education today, like Gates, Broad, the Waltons, Duncan and Obama, who have colluded in order to execute this business plan with the misnomer of “education reform,” but TFA and their propaganda (i.e. lies) are integral to the grand sham.

      • Michael Fiorillo says:

        I think we are basically in agreement that, after having a cup of coffee in the classroom, certain (particularly aggressive, opportunistic, deceptive) individualsTFAers are identified and groomed for leadership positions.

        TFA is many things: a vehicle for re-configuring labor relations in K-12 education and turning the profession into temporary, at-will employment: replacing senior, unionized teachers: an insidious way of manipulating the idealism of young people in the interests of the neoliberal Overclass: a self-congratulatory cult, etc.

        But as Wendy Kopp herself has said, though not in so many words, it is primarily a training academy for those managing the hostile takeover of public education.

      • Michael Fiorillo says:

        Sorry, the above was intended as a reply to Cosmic Tinkerer.

      • Cosmic Tinkerer says:

        Michael, I can see where we agree. I’m wondering when Wendy Kopp has said or implied that upfront. Is it in her book?

      • TFK says:

        A few years ago my school got a new principal (replacing the one who retired after what seemed like 140 years), a really nice guy, really enthusiastic, really tied to data. He came from one of the bigger charter school companies (we are an urban public district without charters). After a few days, he admitted to me he knew little or nothing about ESL (my field), as the kids in his school got “ESL” with the breakfast monitor during breakfast time…OK…that’s what you call ESL? He was a TFA grad, went straight to administration (only need three years of classroom teaching in my state to get the admin license), and now he was in a school that had to take EVERYONE…the severely disabled, the behavior kids, the huge number of ESL kids, the nutty parents who couldn’t be bothered to make sure their kids went to school, etc.

        Well, after one year, and actually, before the year ended, he tendered his resignation and ran back to the charter school company. I guess it’s easy to be an urban ‘no excuses’ educator when you don’t have the student issues, the parents are on board, and you can work your staff to the bone and make them believe that THAT is how it’s done.

  5. lance hill says:

    Excellent point about how teaching trainees that the key to teaching is “high expectations” means anyone can become a great teacher without any formal training. One wonders why TFA has any educational requirements for trainees if all they need is, as the song says, “high hopes.” On the flip side, this method also provides trainees with an excuse when they fail in the classroom: the blame is assigned to parents who have low expectations. “High expectations” method also relieves TFA novices from having to understand how to motivate and inspire students which requires knowlege of their cultural rewards system. This explains why TFA training is devoid of any intercultural communication training and ignores the need to listen to and learn from parents and community.

    • NewarkTFA says:

      Although I’m most thoroughly disillusioned with TFA, in my experience (2006-2008), they did NOT encourage corps members to blame “parents who have low expectaions” for a lack of student achievement. Instead, they encouraged new, minimally trained teachers to take absolute personal responsibility for every, single, non-wonderful moment that transpired in their classrooms. (You’re the teacher, so it’s all your fault.) They also at least attempted to foster “intercultureal communication” and emphasized “the need to listen to and learn from parents and community.” However, most TFA training occurs during the Summer Institute, which, in my case, involved such extreme sleep deprivation that my focus eventually narrowed so much that I became incapable of thinking about anything beyond my own personal (physical) survival–not an ideal circumstance for learning much of anything.

      • Michael Fiorillo says:

        Sleep deprivation is typically used by cults to maintain conformity, as is restricting access to alternative viewpoints: numerous reports and anecdotes have related how TFAers are actively discouraged from union activity or even intacting with senior teachers in the schools where they teach.

        All teachers experience total exhaustion during their first years of teaching; that’s to be expected. What sets TFA apart is the arrogance and condescension with which it attempts to colonize schools and districts, and the use of corps member exhaustion as a means of ideological control.

  6. Educator says:

    Rather than piling on about how terrible TFA is, how about we figure out what things they can do to change to make things better? I think Gary has blogged before about this, but here are a few thoughts I have (And I know some just want TFA to go away, but I don’t think that’ll happen. They’re too wealthy and have too many connections right now. But, I do think, like any corporation, they need to change in order to survive. As more TFA-ers speak out and tell the truth, maybe they’ll start self reflecting even more. Maybe the funders who have good intentions and are actually trying to make a positive difference will start questioning where their money is going.)

    – Lie # 1: The training is adequate – this seems easy to fix. Provide more training. It might cost a lot of money for TFA, and they might have to scale back, and this could be difficult administratively, but I’m sure they have a lot of smart folks who can figure it out.

    – Lie # 2: High Expectations – another easy fix. Be honest about how difficult it is to teach, even for “superstar campus leaders” they recruit.

    – Lie # 3: The existence of miracle teachers/schools/districts –> This will be harder for them to address, because they have a lot of alumni who have very entrenched interests in convincing the public/politicians/press/funders that they are doing miracles, and these alumni are good PR for TFA. What would happen if they were really honest. Instead of promoting IDEA schools as some sort of miracle, why don’t they just tell the truth: “Yes, 100% of our seniors went to college, but a whole lot of folks dropped out before reaching graduation. We have no clue where they are or how they’re doing, and they didn’t succeed and we didn’t either. You won’t see them in our marketing materials. Educating students in low-income areas is freaking difficult. Let’s try and figure this out together, teachers, parents, community, business.” I wonder what would happen if more people knew what was really going on? Would they not pay attention to education anymore because it’s too difficult a problem and potentially too expensive? Or would they instead try to find better solutions?

  7. Why wouldn’t a significant number of people believe Lie #2 about expectations when our most recent past president, George W. Bush, mouthed words someone wrote for him about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”? I bumped into those words repeatedly in the Math Wars from certain notoriously anti-progressive folks. These are often people who like to talk about “liberal racism” and act as if they, not progressives, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the ’60s. They have been actively creating a Newspeak world in which everything is upside-down, words like “reform” get co-opted to mean in fact “deform,” and the long-time bad guys remake themselves as heroes.

    It’s all transparently cynical. TFA is popular with such folks for very good reasons.

  8. Cosmic Tinkerer says:

    TFAers would be wise to read this BBC article, as it is just as applicable to Americans and their missions to serve both here and abroad:

  9. TC says:

    TFA should be teaching a semester of education related courses to its recruits in the year prior to their start of teaching. They have the resources and the applicant demand to do it.

  10. gkm001 says:

    Gary, as always, your blog raises important questions. I have a few questions I’ve been contemplating, provoked in part by this and your other entries:

    Who teaches?
    To what purpose?
    Under what conditions?
    With what education and experience?

    Question #1 was thoroughly considered in your exchanges with Matt Barnum and your readers’ responses.

    Given your analysis of TFA’s training as inadequate, I wonder whether you or your readers would be interested to take up question #4. What would an ideal teacher education and induction look like? Post-induction, what experiences would promote the continual development of expertise and craft throughout a teacher’s career?


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  13. Lynn Allan says:

    Our large “underperforming” public high school had a charter school open up almost directly across the street. A former teacher from my school ended up as the principal there. I didn’t want to be judgmental so I took a summer enrichment program job in the charter school to see for myself. The students talked casually about the high turnover of TFA staff. Almost the entire teaching staff had turned over in the four years she went there. The incoming scores of the freshman were much higher than the district average, and the “counseled out”, the off the hook students, the students with special needs, the ELL students , and the transient students that come and go…they all stayed with us in the true public school. The thing that stuck me the most though, was how the school, the parents, and the students themselves believed and stated how much better they were than our school. There was this mythology that pervaded the school culture about how they were “going places”, and across the street in the public school was bedlam, danger, and failure. The same mythology that pervades the news.

  14. Owen says:

    The central lie TFA spouts is that it’s a civil rights organization. It’s absolutely the furthest thing from a civil rights organization. I don’t recall the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee receiving millions hedge fund cash.

    I remember walking into orientation the first day and being floored by the realization that nearly every individual in the room was white. In my corps of 80 some-odd corps members, there were two black corps members, a few hispanic teachers, and the rest were white, like me, and Asian. Obviously quotas and racial benchmarks are inappropriate, but you’d assume an organization truly concerned with “the civil rights issue of our time” would be cognizant enough to recruit at least a representative plurality of corps members who looked like the folks they were to be teaching.

    The “diversity and awareness” training corps members receive is an exercise in colorblind post-racialism, a sort of ostrich-in-the-sand approach to lines of difference. Some sessions would pass without the words “white” “black” or “privilege” spoken. It was stunning to go through an entire course in race in education without discussing Brown v. Board, busing, the increasing segregation of public schools, mass incarceration, etc. TFA has virtually no ties with existing community organizations, rights groups and minority coalitions.

    In the end, the whole civil rights act is just a rhetorical shield for TFA to hide behind as it implicitly and explicitly supports free-market corporate reforms. It gives the liberal corps members something to feel self-righteous and devoted about without enacting the actual practices of civil rights work: grassroots leadership, organizing, protest, challenge to establishment interests, radical systemic critiques. As the foot soldiers of the neoliberal assault on public education, corps members have exactly the opposite interests.

    • Pretty well jibes with my impression of them.

    • Educator says:

      In fairness to TFA, they struggle with recruiting minorities like almost every other institution in America.

      • Owen says:

        That’s fair, but when you compare the teaching force in an average urban school district to the TFA teaching force, you get two very different-looking groups. The reasons probably have a lot more to do with where and how TFA chooses to recruit and a lot less to do with their civil rights concerns. TFA recruits by the very same “meritocratic” guidelines that have perpetuated such deep racial inequities as it is.

      • Educator says:

        Good point. There’s an article in the most recent Education Week about TFA and New Orleans and they talk a little about this.

        Gary, there’s also an “Advice to TFA” editorial from a TFA insider. But I was disappointed that the insider was a corps member who lasted nine months in the classroom. I hope Education Week can do a little better and provide you some space for an editorial.

      • Megan H says:

        I have always thought that if TFA was serious about improving schools they would invest in the teachers already teaching in the schools (you know, the “bad” ones). I worked in a Head Start on the South Side of Chicago and watched my co-workers, age twenty-six to fifty-six, struggle to work full-time and go to school for their Bachelor’s Degree and teaching certificate. I left my school after three years; I have a feeling many of my co-workers will be there until the school is closed down (which could happen any minute with these budget cuts).

        They would have benefitted from having someone in their corner demanding certain hours so they could go to class, or the Americorps money to put towards their degree.

        My point is, rather than supporting someone who will leave after two years, why not invest in someone who is committed to that school and community for life?

        Don’t worry, that’s a rhetorical question. I know why TFA isn’t interested in investing in the communities they “serve.”

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  16. Liz Hart says:

    Yes, TFA does a very good job at not telling the whole story, in particular, the ending of the story. Spoiler alert!

    I know first year corps members who were hired to teach in a failing elementary school, one slated for closure. This was the first time TFA had partnered with the school. These CMs began the year in September with illiterate children and by June all of their students had learned the alphabet, could read, write a complete sentence, and add two numbers up to 10. Additionally, these CMs were very well-liked by the other teachers. The first-year principal dismissed them both at the end of the school year which precluded their working in the district the following year. These CMs loved their job. They missed two days of school during the year. They improved the climate at the school with their enthusiasm, attitude and reliability, and both said that they were working harder than they ever had in their lives. THEY DID NOT QUIT!

    It was obvious that the principal/administrators had no intention of forging a partnership with TFA. And what advice did TFA give to them? It advised them to opt to say that they “resigned” from TFA because it would look better on their TFA record. TFA basically threw up its hands and said it could not offer any alternatives or assistance.

    So, this how the story ends. TFA offers zero support to CMs in this situation; it basically leaves them flapping in the breeze. What a waste of resources and talents.

  17. Educator says:

    Just a thought —
    How about a blog post: The 3 Most Dangerous Lies
    I think a lot of ed reformers don’t consider how their half-truths can actually hurt children. Instead, they get more defensive and say “You don’t like this reform because you’re the status quo and you are self-interested and don’t put students first. Won’t back down!”

    • CarolineSF says:

      They say whatever will keep the money flowing to them. Again, assume no sincerity. They don’t care to notice how their half-truths hurt children as long as the paycheck/fellowship etc. continues. Truly, I’ve been following the “reform” sector since the days when for-profit Edison Schools was the magical miracle run by saints that would save public education. Your bull**** detectors need to be at full operating capacity.

  18. Jeff Ward says:

    I hate the bragging from these miracle teachers (or downright lies, if you will). I remember when I was at institute and they had the kids up there with their notebooks reading their stories like they changed the freaking world in their first year of teaching. I used to strive to be a miracle maker. Now I have settled into reality that there is really very little variation among good teachers (ones who show up and try hard). I realized that if I work hard and do my best, my students and I will feel satisfied and successful, even if manna doesn’t come down from heaven during the STAAR test.

    • TFK says:

      Read some of the ‘profiles’ of teachers and administrators that are posted on charter school websites (the ones from KIPP are a hoot!). There are so many discrepancies and just impossible or easily manipulated statistics that these educators tout that is will almost make you laugh. For instance, on one site, the principal allegedly helped his students make two years of gains…in two different cities. WOW, that’s amazing! And I love how that claim of two years of gains is made, well, over two years, and the teacher LOOPED with the students.

      Please. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes, and no one wants to admit the man is naked. Where is that little kid when we need him?

  19. KitchenSink says:

    The dc expulsion story belies your point about high expectations; abuse of the “privilege” to expel (which all public schools have under Goss v. Lopez, if they are willing to do the work) is one thing, but accepting unacceptable behavior is another. If parents who encouraged anti-social behavior in their children found the same message at every school (“that is not acceptable here”), they would have no choice but to change.

    What you are saying appears to be, “Since some kids and parents want McDonalds, it’s not fair that other kids get to have access to fresh farm to table food (unless they are rich and not in the public system in which case they can do whatever the hell they want of course).”

    • Educator says:

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you are arguing that if all schools held the same high behavioral expectations that some schools do (charters?), then all parents and students would get the same message and behavior would change. I don’t know Goss v. Lopez, but I know in California when it comes to charters vs. traditional public schools, that traditional public schools must follow education code (a massive series of laws that set rules for students, parents, and educators and the system in general). But charters are exempt from much of the education code! Most people don’t realize that.

      Therefore, traditional school systems must go through a very lengthy process in order to expel behaviorally difficult students. Charters don’t have to go through this.

      If I understand education code, the lawmakers purposely created these rules so that school systems wouldn’t expel difficult students so easily. But since charters are exempt, you get what happens at many charters – students leave / transfer out / counsel out / kicked out.

      There are obvious advantages for charters in not having to follow education code in this particular instance. It gives them greater autonomy to do as they please…to innovate…to do what they want without having to report to a publicly elected school board. And, I’d say yes a lot of charters do innovate. But I don’t see the honesty about the costs that are involved. And it gets dangerous when charters say “Hey look what we can do with high expectations vs you lazy traditional educators” when charters have different, arguably easier rules.

  20. CarolineSF says:

    No, that’s not a fair analogy, KitchenSink. The equivalent would more if one family had enough money to afford only McDonald’s, and the other was handed enough to afford fresh farm to table food, and then the one that got the generous handouts was showered with praise for its “superiority” and the poor one was heaped with disparagement for its poor food choices.

    If some schools are imposing behavioral requirements that students must meet to attend, they and their cheerleaders don’t get to then lie about that and then claim that they magically turned problem kids into angels.

  21. DeeplyAmbivalent says:

    As a TFA alum teaching chemistry for my 6th year in a district that desperately needs math/science teachers, I do see that TFA fills openings that otherwise would be filled by a long-term sub. In fact, we regularly can’t even find TFA-ers to fill math/science positions.

    Having said that, I want to thank you for clearly articulating some issues I have been feeling for years about TFA.

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  23. Gwynhwyfarama says:

    Mr. Rubenstein,

    As much as I enjoy reading your posts and books, I have a few issues with a couple points you are trying to make. I have learned a lot from your book, “The Reluctant Disciplinarian.”

    1. I have gone through TFA Summer Institute. I’m not sure what training you’re talking about when you say that TFA CM’s train with a classroom of less than 12 kids for less than 12 hours. I taught every day during summer institute, for multiple hours, with classes of 35 students (and more on the roster). So your critique really does not parallel my experience at all and I don’t really understand it. I actually have less students in my classes now than during training institute.

    2. I have a hard time listening to a lot of your critiques because although I am a CM, I plan to stay in education and teaching for years to come and I truly want this to be my career. I love reading your ideas but I do feel offended because I feel like, although you don’t know me, I feel like you are saying that just because I am from TFA I must just inherently suck. I want to be a career teacher and educator and I feel like your commentary completely ignores any TFA teachers that feel this way. We’re not all bad, awful, completely incompetent (although I have many days where, as a new teacher, I definitely feel this way) teachers that just want a “break” between finding out what we really want to do.

    3. I have gone through traditional teacher training and TFA training, and I have to say that my TFA training was much more hands on and impact specific than my college training. I felt more prepared with tools I could use day to day while teaching, rather than armed with college of Ed. theories. I think the two compliment each other well in terms of teacher training. However, I have no illusions about my own personal failures and challenges during my first year of teaching. I am no “miracle” teacher, however my struggles seem to be really similar and aligned with the struggles of other first year teachers at my school who are not affiliated with TFA. I’m not really sure how TFA makes me an extraordinarily different educator than other first year teachers.

    4. Mostly, I just don’t really identify with much of what you are saying about TFA. While there are many people I can think of who fit this TFA stereotype, we’re not all bad, awful, uncaring pseudo-educators. Some of us want to be better teachers really badly and plan to stay in this struggle for the long haul and want to continually learn to become better educators.

    5. I hope that after almost 20 years in education, I’m not looking back at my TFA experience and judging it and others that I don’t know. I hope I’m researching educational best practices to help my students and supporting education in my community, fighting for what’s right for all of our students. If I am wasting my time criticizing a program I was a part of 20 years ago instead of helping my community’s educational outlook, becoming a better teacher myself, or helping others to grow, please shoot me.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I don’t think that I’ve criticized the corps members at all. I’m talking about lies of the organization. For (1) I’m going on what people are writing to me about their experience. Also I’ve had conversations with high level TFA people about this and they say that it is something they wish they had more control over, (2) I never said that some, even many, TFAers don’t stay in teaching or that many are selfishly doing the program for their own resume, (3) I’m not quite sure why someone who went through traditional training would need TFA training or why they would want someone who has gone through that, but I also never said that I was thrilled with the quality of some other teacher training programs, (4) I never said that TFA teachers are ‘all bad, awful pseudo-educators’ just that the organization lies about how good they are, (5) I don’t think that I’m wasting my time. TFA is not just a small program with limited influence anymore. Critiquing TFA is critiquing the overall education reform movement, which I find to be misguided. I certainly don’t want anyone to shoot me, nor do I think that I deserve to be shot for this. The fact is that for whatever reason, this seems to be what I’m ‘destined’ to do at this point in my life. Sometimes I do wish that my ‘calling’ had been something else since this is quite tiring and frustrating at times and does not make any extra money for me and my family, but it is something that I feel that I’m good at and I do have a lot of people rooting me on so it has also made me feel like I’m part of an important team fighting against destructive school reforms. Maybe it is not what you hope to be doing in 20 years, and that’s fine, you certainly should be free to do what you want.

  24. Teacher says:

    I struggle summarily with point number one for a multitude of reasons. But, I will stick to mentioning that I worked in a school where 8 of the 9 secondary English teachers, including myself, were alternatively certified. I actually had more training than they had before they entered the classroom, albeit I would never say Institute is preparation enough because in a profession where one must push themselves constantly and always be growing there couldn’t possibly be enough. BUT, no one ever questioned the validity, quality, or expertise of my alternatively-certified teachers, nor did I. Yet, I feel that this is never part of the “TFA” conversation.

  25. Glad to be Gone says:

    I can attest to the lies about miracle workers. TFA constantly tell stories about miracle working teachers. The rub is you never actually meet those miracle workers or see any evidence of their success. It’s just one unverifiable anecdote after the next. YOU are the problem if you can’t do the same.

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