My experience at a #TFAListen event

TFA has two new co-CEO’s, Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer.  Since they have started a few months ago, they have been going on a ‘listening’ tour around the country.  Based on Tweets I had read about the tour and also from a montage video I had seen, the tone of the meetings could best be described as ‘chipper.’  To me this meant that either there was an effort to get a pro-TFA audience, or that TFA was just choosing to share the least contentious parts of these tour stops.

In a recent post I had written about the two new co-CEOs of TFA, I had mentioned that if I were invited to an event on their TFA listening tour, I’d go, even if it was some sort of mass invite instead of a personal invitation.

Well, a few days ago I did receive an email that Matt and Elisa want to meet with some alumni from the 1990s when they are in New York City.  The event was scheduled from 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM, so it was pretty early and quiet when I arrived at the TFA national headquarters.  I don’t know how many people were invited, but a small group of seven alumni were there for this pretty intimate setting.

Without identifying everyone by name, in addition to me there was a man who worked for the college board, a former staff member who is now a public school parent, a current high school principal of an ‘A’ rated school who was going to host Matt and Elisa at her school later that day, a school leader from a school that is featured as a ‘miracle’ public school in Wendy Kopp’s last book, and which gets mentioned at fundraiser events, a 1990 alum who has been teaching for 22 years, and a former TFA staff member who now works for the New York City Department of Education.  With this group, even though I did know a few of them already, I suspected that this might be a TFA / corporate reform love fest with plenty of cries for higher expectations.

Matt asked if we would go around and respond to the questions:  1) How do you think New York City is doing with education currently? and 2) What do you think of TFA’s role?

The first person to respond was the alum who now works at the college board.  Though he tried to be diplomatic, he was definitely cautious and even wary of how TFA was using this opportunity they have to influence school reform.  This was, for me, a good sign.  The public school parent spoke a bit about inequity in schools, nothing really specific about TFAs role.

Next was the principal and she talked about how ed reform is over simplified and that TFA should do more to address the complexity.  Though she felt that this reform movement has incorporated more ‘accountability’ and that charter schools have shown ‘what’s possible’ she seemed generally frustrated with the way that TFA always highlights charter schools, particularly KIPPs.  She felt pretty strongly that the TFA commitment should be raised to three years especially since it is so competitive to get in.

When it was my turn, I had about five minutes, which is tough for me because I had a lot to say and wanted to make what I said count.  I said that I don’t think the reforms in New York City have been improving schools.  Certainly the national tests don’t show improvement compared to other big cities.  As far as TFA is concerned, I said that while I felt that TFA may have earned ‘a seat at the table,’ it seems like they have been given more seats than they deserve and that they have not been responsible with this influence they have been permitted.  For New York, I said that TFA should be actively opposing all the school closures that have been going on here over the years, that some of these schools are schools that employ TFA teachers and even TFA administrators.  When I pointed out that the main NYC DOE employee who is shutting down the schools is a TFA alum, himself, they said that they don’t tell him what to do, and I reminded them that he was recently the keynote speaker at a large TFA fundraiser.  I also expressed frustration that TFA is still putting a spotlight on all the other prominent alumni corporate reformers.  Maybe not Michelle Rhee anymore, but definitely the rest of that crew (Huffman, Barbic, White, Anderson, Johnston, Feinberg, Levin, and Daly).

I wanted to end with something positive since I did appreciate being invited to this thing so I spoke a little bit about how young TFAers can have a very positive influence on their schools.  I talked about how me and the two other TFA teachers at my school in Houston were very involved and active in volunteering to be on school improvement committees all the time.  Of course this is true for new non-TFA teachers too, but I did want to say something positive.

After me was the school leader at the public ‘miracle’ school who I’ve known for a while and who was very sincere about what they have and have not accomplished at his school.  He felt that TFA was also missing an opportunity to help spread best practices, particularly how teachers can work together as a team.  He also spoke about the complexity of the issues and how it seems that TFA tries to simplify things.

Next was the 22 year veteran teacher.  She spoke about how tests are important, but how we lose the ‘soul’ of what education is about when we focus too much on data points and not enough about what kind of people we want our students to be.  A lot of heads were nodding in agreement as she spoke.

Finally, the former staffer who now works for the New York City DOE spoke and he, too, was not very enthusiastic about how TFA was supporting the teachers that were involved in his district.  Though we were all polite, even I really tried to be, I think it was clear that I am not alone in my concerns about the things that TFA is doing.  I believe that there are more alumni who feel the way I do than there are people who believe the corporate reform movement has the right idea.

Matt and Elisa were definitely thinking hard, and furiously scribbling in their notebooks, throughout the meeting.  They looked tired, and not just because it was such an early meeting.  I could be projecting how I’d feel if I were them, and I’m certainly no expert on body language, but how could they not be frustrated trying crack this dilemma they face:  For about five or six years the TFA ‘message’ was pretty easy — charters and Michelle Rhee.  And it was working out pretty good for TFA as they now raise over $300 million a year.  But it seems clear that the ‘tide is turning’ and TFA is going to have to be strategic to make sure that they don’t get left out when the pendulum of ed reform shifts back to things that actually work and people who actually know about education.  But if they stray too far from what has been working for TFA, they risk their funding.  I’m sure they do not want to be the ones who ran the organization into the ground — killing the goose that lays the golden eggs — by trying to be more diplomatic.  Honestly I don’t even know if they have the power to make any significant changes without first consulting the board, which is led by Wendy Kopp.  I don’t envy their task.

I also don’t know if this meeting was typical of these listening tour stops.  The snippets and tweets I had seen and read about made it sound like there were certainly some improvements that people felt could be done, but that people were generally satisfied with how things were going.  Perhaps the audience in this one, teachers who have been at it for nearly 20 years, had a very different, and in my opinion, more informed, view.

Since this was a ‘listening’ tour, Elisa and Matt only made a few remarks afterwards.  They were very nice and quite humble.  They seem to be very hard workers and I think they genuinely care about improving education in this country.  Elisa said that she could see how there is a perception that TFA is on a ‘side’ of the reform debate, but that TFA does recognize how complex the issues are.  Matt, when he spoke, even mentioned that he likes reading my blog.

After the hour was up, Matt and Elisa had to leave for another meeting.  Before they left, I chatted with each of them.  It was a bit strange talking to these two people who, for me, have been abstractions for the past few months.  I found them to be very likeable, just as I have for other TFA staffers I’ve met throughout the years.

I left the building and had to take a few minutes to process what had just happened.  I can’t say for sure that we accomplished much.  I guess it will depend on what sorts of changes that they implement based on these conversations.

I only spoke for about 5 minutes at the table and then for about two minutes to each of them afterwards as I didn’t want to monopolize the meeting with my ideas.  But assuming that they will read this blog entry, I’ll offer some ideas of what changes might quiet some of their critics while not alienating their funding base.  Now I don’t know if they want to hear these ideas, but I think it will be useful to write them up anyway.  Five years from now if TFA continues to lose support around the country, they can look back at this post to answer the question, “What could we have done to prevent this?”

1.  Make TFA a 3 year commitment

Now I know that this is a suggestion that has been around for about twenty years, but now is an important time for TFA to revisit it.  The reason against doing this is that the three year commitment could scare away potentially great teachers — ones who might even stay way beyond three years once they get the bug.  I do understand that argument.  It would be better for the kids if those teachers don’t get scared away by the long sounding commitment.  But if this argument is really valid, why not make it just a one year commitment for all the potentially great people who are scared away by the two year commitment?

I think that this would improve the quality of the corps members, but even if it wouldn’t, this would be a wise move from a PR point of view.  It would be an incredible political move to silence their critics.  If they were to do this, the worst anyone could say about it would be that it was ‘a step in the right direction.’  The best part about this is that it would cost TFA virtually nothing to do this.

The only tricky part would be how to phrase the press release so they don’t look like they should have done this years ago.  I’d say that they could just say that the landscape has changed from ten or twenty years ago and now the urgency of the problem requires that they have their corps members commit to more years.  This would be huge news in the education world and would be something concrete to help reverse the growing resistance to TFA.

But what about the people who are terrible teachers, even after two years?  Do we really want more kids to suffer through their third year?  Well, just like around 12% of corps members don’t make it through the two years, there would be people who quit before the three year commitment ends.  Realistically, you can’t force anyone to teach more than they are willing to.

2.  More Transparency

For an organization that claims to be ‘data driven,’ they are sure secretive about sharing that data.  An example of this is the quit rate.  Nationally this rate has been around 12% for the last few years, though most people are not aware of that.  But even more secretive is the quit rate for the different regions.  I once read that in Kansas City about 25% of the people quit.  I think Detroit has a very high quit rate too.  But this is speculation since this data is not publicly available.  I know that it wouldn’t be great for recruitment if people knew that one out of eight people quit overall and that in some regions one out of four do, but concealing information like this is misleading.  The same is true for the very mixed results of studies about the effectiveness of TFA teachers compared to non-TFA teachers.  Yes, there are some studies in which TFA has done well, but plenty have said the opposite too.

Now I understand that it would be bad business to highlight the weaknesses of the organization, but if what’s good for TFA is bad for the country’s education system then it is quite irresponsible for TFA not to give the whole story so legislators can make informed decisions about, for example, whether or not to spend millions of dollars of tax payer money to bring more TFAers to their districts.

3.  Slow down the growth of the corps

The number of new corps members each year has exploded from about 1,000 ten years ago to 6,000 this year with a plan to raise that to 10,000 in a few years.  Can you say ‘law of diminishing returns’?  This is way too many corps members.  The cost of training and supporting all these corps members does not seem, to me, to be the best use of TFA’s annual $300 million budget.  Use the money to improve the program rather than grow it.  The reason I say this is that I know that the first year TFAers are generally surviving, at best.  They are not closing the achievement gap.  Probably widening it a bit.  Now I know the idea is that even if most of these first year teachers are pretty bad, if 1% of them go on to become major players in education reform then having 10,000 will lead to 100 leaders while having 5,000 will only lead to 50 leaders.  It seems like the price that having so many students suffer while a first year corps member tries to figure out how to manage a classroom is too big to balance out those 50 potential leaders.

There is an ideal number of new corps members.  Some critics would say it is zero, but I’d say that it is around 3,000.   Ten thousand is absurd.

4.  Stop placing special education teachers

No explanation necessary.

5.  Shut down a few regions

Given what is going on in Philadelphia and Chicago with schools getting unfairly shut down, I’d start by shutting those two down.  Teachers there are very frustrated with this kind of education ‘reform’ and TFA is just another branch of that reform which will not be welcomed by most teachers there.  There are other regions, however, where there really are teacher shortages and where schools really need people who are willing to commit even two years.  Send them there.  Don’t add salt to the wounds of these suffering cities.

6.  Stop fixating on test scores

There are TFA alums who are principals of regular non-charter schools who are doing fantastic jobs, even though they are not getting the kind of miraculous test scores that the big charter chains lie about getting.  I’d like to see TFA give some attention to those other schools.  It would be a nice break to hear about a school that is doing other things besides test prep — maybe they are doing something positive for the community or they have a chess team.  Really anything but test scores to celebrate.  The nice thing about this is that it would allow TFA to ‘take credit’ for even more successes.  But this would require acknowledging that ‘success’ can take many forms beyond proficiency percentages on very poorly made state assessments in reading and math.

7.  Find some new heroes

There are so many alumni doing so much that isn’t directly related to having ‘no excuses’ and beating up on teachers.  Find some of them and give them the spotlight.  Yes, if they know anything about education they are likely to say something negative about the policies supported by the eight or so TFA celebrities we have been hearing about for the past ten years.  Some of those TFA celebrities are sure to be blacklisted when the media finally wakes up to what damage they have caused.  It would be smart to diversity your portfolio of heroes so when the corporate reform movement collapses in the next couple of years, you’ve still got some more stable heroes to claim.

One unsung hero is 1990 alum Steve Zimmer.  Recently he ran for re-election for a Los Angeles school board seat.  His opponent was a non-educator who was heavily funded by corporate reformers from DFER (Democrats For Education Reform).  Zimmer pulled of the upset despite millions of dollars funneling into his opponent’s campaign from people like Mike Bloomberg.  But TFA couldn’t even offer a congratulatory Tweet to their own success story since TFA is one of the darlings of DFER.  My advice:  Just because DFER likes you, doesn’t mean that you have to like them back.  They really don’t know anything about the complexities of education.

OK.  That’s all I’ve got for today.  I hope I didn’t break some kind of unwritten code by reporting about this meeting.  If I’ve portrayed anything inaccurately, I invite Elisa or Matt, or anyone else who was at that meeting (there were also about three other current staffers there) feel free to respond in the comments.

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23 Responses to My experience at a #TFAListen event

  1. Educator says:

    I have to commend Elisa and Matt for going on a listening tour. (I guess no one will know if they really listened unless they consider ideas they’ve heard and potentially make changes, assuming enough alumni have said the same things and they think they’re good ideas.) But at least they didn’t talk at you. And I believe TFA does have insightful people who are trying to do good and TFA self reflects a lot.

    I attended an event with Rhee that was billed as a discussion with teachers, but she spoke 90% of the time. It was moderated by a Students First staff member who asked her questions. The teachers asked a few of their own questions, and that’s it. No real discussion. The teachers had to listen to her share her ideas, which we could have read on the Students First website. Looking back, I wonder if she had to check off her to do list that she had a discussion with teachers and we were duped. And I wonder if her staffers knew that teachers would be there asking difficult questions so they didn’t want to provide that opportunity.

    If TFA changed to a 3 year committment, it should also be noted that in general teachers leave teaching at high rates – 50% within 5 years leave teaching is what I keep reading by policy makers. So in fairness to TFA, if they shift to 3 years of committment, they would have higher attrition rates.

    I’d like to see TFA maintain their power (Because they have a lot of influence with people who don’t have a clue about education. Many of these people trust TFA, but they don’t trust traditional educators), but then implement some of the changes you mention Gary. But there’s the funding dilemma for TFA – are these funders really in it for the kids, or are they in it to promote policies that would speed us to the day to privatize public education and turn it to a profit center?

  2. veteran says:

    Thank you Gary and the other alum who spoke at this event.
    I think TFA needs to come out and respond to the critiques about the organization and express their positions on the reform movement. As an alum I am not really sure what to believe about what TFA really stands for anymore.

  3. wyrm1 says:

    I’d go further on #5. Stop placing teachers where there are not shortages, such as Washington DC. Pushing out experienced teachers so that DCPS can meet there TFA quota makes them fairly unpopular.

    • DC Chillin says:

      At the worst schools in DC, teachers leave in droves. These schools would not survive without TFA because few people want to teach there!

  4. Michael Fiorillo says:

    TFA will not extend its teaching commitment, because a major reason for its existence – aside from being a training academy for future “leaders” of privatization – is to facilitate the transformation of teaching into temporary, at-will employment for everyone.

    Ditto for not placing teachers in districts hard hit by austerity. Entering TFAers, whether they know it or not, are among the pawns of Shock Doctrine austerity.

    As for Matt and Elisa’s listening closely and taking notes on people’s comments, my guess is that it’s all about developing PR strategies for responding to the fact that people are increasingly aware of how pernicious this organization is, and the critical role it plays in the hostile takeover of the public schools.

    • jcg says:

      Exactly Michael F. If TfA was genuinely concerned about educating children they would extend the teaching commitment to 5 years. Teaching is a practice profession that requires more than a BS in something and 5 weeks of preparation. All professional educators need grounding in theory, pedagogy, and assessment followed up with years of practice and application. To pretend otherwise is dishonest.

      If TfA was genuinely concerned about educating children they would stop influence peddling their graduates in Congress, governor’s mansions, state houses, and school boards. How many superintendent seats and commissioners of education has TfA bought? TfAers in power positions enact authoritarian policies to usurp school board decision making, promote poor educational practices, and believe in a dogma of assessment that, under scrutiny, is fraudulent.

      As a Tennessean I’m watching TN education choke to death under TfAer Kevin Huffman’s reign of terror. Frankly, I wish the organization would go away or completely redefine its mission.

  5. Steve M says:

    Very nice post, Gary.

    I like that you mention Steve Zimmer as someone to highlight. He has been a low-key, local advocate of students in Los Angeles since 1992 [although I don’t know why he was originally placed at Marshall High School, a school in LAUSD that never needed TFA members to complete its staff…bullet #5 from your post…since it has always been fairly high functioning. There are/were literally 50 other high schools in LAUSD that had more pressing needs back in 1992. We’re talking about schools with substitutes in classrooms the entire year].

    Gary, the big challenge I have for you is something that I mentioned a while back:

    You…yes, YOU, need to reach out to Zimmer and other old TFA alumni (like the ones that you mention were at the meeting you attended) and get their ON THE RECORD opinions on current “reform”, and on the direction that educational reform should really be heading today. Collectively, you guys have the gravitas to effect some change.

    Zimmer is certainly a nice guy, but he is now a politician. Perhaps he will step up now that he has a (perceived) independent voice. However, if YOU can get the ball rolling on “real” 1990’s TFAers producing some policy statements, I think that you’ll be able to effect some change on a national level (and hasten the crash of corporate reform).


    • Educator says:

      I think we could all help Gary by promoting this blog. It does get press, but I wonder if it’s only a small fraction of those in power who read this blog. I’d like the education reformers to read this blog and I think if anyone reading this blog knows people in their circles of influence, they ought to point out this blog as a well thought out one.

      Lots of reformers dismiss Ravitch as a “hater” but this blog is powerful because it comes from a TFA insider.

    • Educator says:

      And I hope actual TFA employees are reading this blog. I’m finding that many people who work for TFA have very little teaching/education experience (maybe their 2 year commitment and that’s it, if at all) I’m sure there are veteran educators who have transitioned to TFA, but I haven’t run into many. And I acknowledge that outside perspective can be useful (For example, Boards of Directors usually have people outside of industry to share perspectives.)

      But I’d like TFA employees to ponder this: Are the policies that TFA promote better for the educational system because they’re thought up by people with little to no education experience who have a wealth of outside knowledge to bring into the education system, or are the policies that Gary promotes better because he has…what is it…almost two decades of education experience…and might know what teaching and schools are like? You can try to dismiss him as protecting the status quo, or maybe you can consider his and other educator’s views because they have a wealth of knowledge and experience. I’d also like to ask education reformers why they left teaching, and if the policies you are promoting are making teaching more challenging (example: You’re fired if your test scores are “low”)…are you really helping to change the system for the better? Why do education reformers promote policies that they themselves couldn’t handle? I know some education reformers feel like they needed to do greater, more impactful, transformational change because “30 students a year wasn’t enough”….but honestly, ask yourself…was it because teaching was too difficult for too little pay and prestige?

    • Absolutely agree that Steve Zimmer is someone who should get more attention nationally–and not just from the TFA crowd. He’s a real example of someone who knows that being on a school board is not about sitting in boring meetings or schmoozing at events. It’s about getting on in the community and talking to parents, teachers, and kids. Building the relationships with folks and always making sure they know he serves them–they don’t serve his political aspirations.

      As for Marshall, yes, they have the winning academic decathalon in the magnet, but it’s not the same story for the home school right now. And in 1992, before Silver Lake started gentrifying, Marshall definitely had its share of struggles, particularly for ELL kids. Also, keep in mind that TFA used to primarily place where there were low income kids and teacher shortages and Marshall certainly fit the bill for both.

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  7. Sandy says:

    As a recent alum, I agree with most of your ideas but none more than #4. I’d like to add an addendum to #4– do not place teachers below third grade. I was a first grade teacher who was originally supposed to teach high school English, so I received minimal training in literacy at Institute. The primary purpose of first grade is learning how to read and write. I did a disservice to the children I taught my first year, and that’s something that both my students and I have to live with. Unless the incoming corps member was an elementary education major in college or the literacy training at Institute improves substantially, I truly believe first year corps members should not be placed in early primary classrooms.

    • Educator says:

      “Unless the incoming corps member was an elementary education major in college” <– But I thought the whole premise of programs like TFA is that studying education is a waste of time. Hence, the 5 week Institute.

  8. Cynthia Nagel says:

    Thank you Gary, for your words and your thought. As a passionate educator, voices of reason are something I am always searching for in the darkness. I love teaching. I want something better for all of us but for kids most of all. Thank you for dedicating yourself and your blogs to that.

  9. Maggie Peterson says:

    Great post, with great suggestions. I have to echo the sentiment that TFA should not be putting teachers into districts where there are no shortages, pushing out experienced teachers and blocking traditionally trained new teachers from being hired. My most highly motivated Elementary Education students are applying to TFA with education degrees, to be more likely to get teaching jobs. As an alum, the main reason I can live with the substandard, but passionate,teaching I did in those first years is that there was no one else who wanted my job.

    Still, if we really believe, as you suggest, that our Special Ed. students need professional teachers, shouldn’t we require the same for all students? I’m guessing there is not enough listening in the world for TFA to make that change in the program.

  10. Ravi says:

    I think people who are new to the issues surrounding TFA might need an explanation of “#4: Stop placing special education teachers.” I can speculate on why you think this, but maybe at least a link to someone else who has written about TFA and special ed teachers?

  11. Patricia H. says:

    Why do we even need TFA? There are plenty of other institutions that people with good intentions and little knowledge can infiltrate. How about Banking For America? Let’s see if do-gooders are welcome there.

  12. Mr. K says:

    I think #1 and #3 are critical and related. TFA has the capacity to expand to a three-year program, as long as it’s okay with decreasing its growth and scale. In fact, I think the first year should be in a supporting role for second- and third-year corps members. Districts wouldn’t even have to foot the bill; I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the 2011 Annual Report and found that with the savings picked up by the decreased recruitment pool and corps size (going with Wendy Kopp’s “applicant pool fell in half” and your 3000 number, respectively), TFA could afford to pay each first-year CM a ~$23,000 stipend (modulo one-time costs related to changing the structure of the organization so dramatically). This would make everyone’s life easier: first-year CMs could focus on gaining context and learning skills (instead of keeping their heads above water), while struggling second- and third-year CMs could get an extra hand in the classroom. Attrition rates would go down, student achievement would go up, and TFA would even get to keep their “prestigious” acceptance rate. Win-win?

    • candidelabelle says:

      Mr. K, I must say I really like that idea! As an alum, I can see how that would help. I also like the idea of a third year, though I wonder how it would work out. Number 4, absolutely! I had trouble dealing with my sped students even with the sped teacher in the room, so I don’t know how a first year teacher with little training can be successful.

  13. Stefanie says:

    Thank you for #4. It is atrocious that TFAers are placed in special ed, and this is from a former TFAer who now teachers special ed. If a special ed class has a teacher with no special ed training as their primary teacher, they are not receiving the services that they are entitled to according to their IEP. It doesn’t have to do with whether or not the teacher is a good teacher (though as you’ve pointed out many times, the first year of many, if not most, corps members is horrible. I know mine was), it has to do with kids getting the services that they need according to the law.

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