You always know just what to say

Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a change in strategy in the way many ‘reformers’ have been presenting themselves publicly.  It seems that they have begun to realize, especially with the release of the new Ravitch book, that the public is wising up to their antics and starting to get very frustrated by the arrogance and complete lack of any willingness to engage in an authentic discussion about what is and isn’t working.

An example of this is a recent Michael Petrilli column about teacher evaluations in which he wrote:

No, future historians are far likelier to wonder about the motivation behind the evaluation obsession. Was this a policy designed to identify, and remove, America’s least effective teachers? Or was it a kinder-and-gentler effort to provide critical feedback to instructors so they could improve their craft?

If the latter, as some reformers now claim, historians will wonder why we were so insistent on attaching high stakes to these evaluations—determined to “make human-resource decisions” based on the results, as the parlance goes.

And if the former, historians will ask: What the heck were they thinking? Did they really believe that teacher evaluations alone would be enough to push bad instructors out of the classroom?

People who don’t know a lot about me might be puzzled by the zeal with which I write about TFA.  What they probably don’t realize is that the source of my frustration comes from the fact that I have been clashing with this organization for OVER TWENTY YEARS.  That’s a long time.  And though I’ve had email discussions with various TFA executives over the years, and have even been up to the national office a few times for discussions, my suggestions have been generally ignored.  But as TFA grew and grew and people needed someone who was an ‘expert’ at analyzing TFA, suddenly the very specific skill set that I developed over the years was in high demand.  After twenty years of frustration, suddenly my ideas are being read and shared, and even, at times, analyzed on other blogs.  It feels good to know that some people think that my ideas are worthy of thinking about, at least.

I don’t know if the two co-CEOs of TFA, Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer, regularly read my blog.  This will sound arrogant, but I think that if they don’t read it, they are making a big mistake.  With all the criticism of TFA coming in from every possible angle, TFA is experiencing a public relations nightmare.  But in different posts throughout the years I’ve offered very specific suggestions on what would make me ‘come around’ and maybe even get some new TFA T-shirts.  And while it is true that there are more vocal critics than me, Katie Osgood is the most spirited of these, I think, getting me to start supporting the organization again would take at least some of the wind out of the TFA resistance.

But I don’t believe that EVB and Kramer take my criticisms very seriously, nor are there any discussions about winning me back.  In the scheme of things, I believe that they view me as pretty insignificant — a pest, but not a real threat.

In my discussions with TFA executives over the years, they have always been very good ‘listeners.’  They tell me how much they value my input.  They thank me for my passion and tenacity.  Usually when I’ve left the national office I’ve felt, at least for the moment, validated.  But the moment ends, as moments do, and weeks pass and I feel like I’ve been duped.  Because they can listen all they want and tell me what I want to hear, but they never actually do anything.  They never change anything.

Over the summer the TFA vice president of internal communications, Justin ‘Juice’ Fong wrote a blog post which I considered pretty offensive telling the people at the TFA resistance conference in Chicago that they are wasting their time since “TFA isn’t going anywhere.”  I commented on this a bit on my blog and then he “reached out” to me on Twitter.

One thing about TFA staffers is that they generally have no sense of humor, at least from an objective point of view.  I think when they are with each other, they laugh a lot since they are in the same we-take-ourselves-way-too-seriously mindset and they do make each other laugh, but they are just extremely unfunny people.  Juice, at least among that group, is actually mildly funny.  Sometimes he tries a bit too hard, I think, but with the proper guidance I do think that he has the potential to be pretty funny.

So we had a big public dialogue on Twitter which some people really liked.  It confused some people, looking for meaning in it.  Some people even begged me to stop engaging since it seemed like I was being set up for some kind of a trap.  He invited me to have lunch with him at the restaurant of my choice.  Having taught in Houston for four years, I developed a love for barbeque, so we met at a great place in New York City called The Mighty Quinns.

He was a lot more serious in person than he was on Twitter and after talking about how good the food was and small talk like that, he got out his notebook and started asking me questions about what my main issues were with TFA.  I learned some things about him too, like that he was once a principal of the ‘Harlem Village Academy’ charter school, and that at the school he brought in some reputable curriculum consultants to make their math courses more than just test prep, but higher level thinking math.  He even once presented some kind of talk called, I think, ‘Charters 2.0’ about how the ‘no excuses’ model is limited in what it can accomplish and it is time for charters to evolve to have more of a whole child approach.  I appreciated hearing that.

When I told him about some of my concerns, like about how TFA was expanding in Chicago while CPS was shutting down schools and firing teachers, and he told me, as he did about a lot of my concerns, that the the staff had actually recently had a big conference call about just that issue and that several of the staffers shared my view.

I told him that I appreciated that they were discussing these issues among the staff, but as nothing ever seems to change, I wanted to know what would have to happen in order for TFA to make a large change, like to shut down the Chicago region or to make TFA a three year commitment.  Who would be the person to authorize such a big controversial call?

Either he didn’t know or he just didn’t want to tell me, but that was a question that I didn’t get answered.  This reinforced my feelings about TFA that they have become such a bureaucracy that they are incapable of large change.  I certainly don’t think that EVB and Matt Kramer have the clout to authorize anything so radical.  Where the buck stops, nobody seems to know.  My guess that Wendy still has veto power over any large proposed changes.

Though I don’t know if anything will come of it, other than another fleeting sense of feeling ‘validated,’ I enjoyed my lunch and talk with Justin Fong.  He even wrote an analysis of the meeting on his own blog.

Co-CEOs, Elisa and Matt, sent an email to all TFA alumni recently in which they wrote:

We’re excited about the energy we’ve seen from our staff in the past few months.  Since our listening tour, there’s been a renewed appetite to make us the best Teach For America we can be.  Our five commitments:

  • Being better listeners to both our friends and critics
  • Leading with heart and not letting data obscure the human element in our work
  • Engaging more consistently and authentically with the communities in which we work
  • Tailoring our growth to the needs of each individual community
  • Investing more heavily in training and support for corps members

Again, this is quite a good list of five things that if they really did anything about them would improve the organization, at least from my perspective, and would help halt the flood of criticism coming now from many vocal alumni besides me.  But I will wait until I see some action before I praise them for their leadership.  I suppose that TFA has made an effort to distance themselves from Michelle Rhee, at least publicly, but they still focus on the Rhee-ettes, people like John White who is in very hot water in Louisiana, Kevin Huffman who is staving off a revolt where half the superintendents in the state have signed a letter demanding his ouster, and all the others.

Actions, as they say, speak much louder than words.  I’m not quite sure if anyone in the organization has the will and the courage to stand up against some of the damage that is being done by their allies:  School closings ordered by prominent TFA alums, poorly conceived — even ridiculous — teacher evaluation systems that have done nothing to raise student achievement anywhere, lobbying so that ‘Highly Qualified Teacher’ can be defined as someone who taught under ten students for under twenty hours in a grade level and subject different from their eventual placement, spreading lies about miracle success stories that make for good PR and fundraising opportunities but then get used as ‘proof’ by policy makers that non-TFA teachers generally need to be fired.

As the reform movement continues to collapse over the next couple of years, TFA might not be able to simply talk or write about how much they respect the viewpoints of their critics.  For the sake of their own survival, I believe that TFA will eventually change for the better, whether they want to or not.  I would be better, though, if they changed because it was the right thing to do, rather than the thing that enables them to keep the cash flowing.

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14 Responses to You always know just what to say

  1. Educator says:

    The criticism you have of TFA sounds a lot like the criticisms reformers had of the educational establishment! It’s the new status quo.

    I agree that TFA and other reform organizations need to reform. More and more articles are being written in the press critical of ed reformers and charters and the like. Previously it was mostly from ed bloggers like yourself or by teachers unions, but these people are easily dismissed. Now it’s getting interesting as newspapers and even Newsweek start publishing stuff on charters and the drawbacks.

  2. KrazyTA says:

    “The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” [Jim Hightower]

    Thank you for speaking out even when the numbers were against you. Too often people ‘go along to get along.’ I hope others continue to follow your example.


  3. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Love the body language in the photo: someone who knows they’ve just been given a fraudulent pitch, and a clueless salesman who thinks he’s closed the deal.

  4. August says:

    Great piece and thanks for your work. One thing I’ve noticed among reformers lately is their use of the term “messy middle.” I’ve seen this from three or four different people–KIPP’s Dave Levin, Andrew Rotherman, and a couple of others. They say, “Don’t listen to the extremists” (by which they mean those questioning reform), “listen to us. We’re realists. We work in the messy middle.” Having promised silver bullets for so long, they’re having to run for cover.

    • Michael Fiorillo says:

      Yet anther one of their many lies.
      Rather than occupying anything remotely resembling the “middle,” these people have a radical project to reconfigure education in their interests.

    • Cosmic Tinkerer says:

      It is abhorrent that charter school proponents like Dave Levin of KIPP are trying to get away with characterizing their military style education, with drill sergeant teachers, for poor African American and Hispanic children in poverty, as “middle” ground.

      They claim their methods promote ‘character development’ so that kids ‘learn middle class values’ and develop ‘grit.’ But any way they spin it, that does not change the fact that requiring poor children of color to blindly obey their primarily white teachers, by walking on a line, eating meals in silence, SLANTing all day long, etc., is oppression and keeps minorities in their place. It is not “middle” of the road, nor is it how middle class kids are taught values.

      Considering most of the people promoting this put their own children in private progressive schools, it’s clear that this kind of strict discipline and indoctrination is only for other people’s children and very far from being the undisputed “middle,” no matter how messy it is.

    • CitizensArrest says:

      The “messy middle” is a false dichotomy, a smoke screen meant to obscure the difference between a fact and research based let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may approach and one that is driven by profits, political power and ideology. This is also being used to redefine and reposition those who oppose the hostile corporate takeover of public education such that they can then be used as whipping boys

  5. Cosmic Tinkerer says:

    TFA has a commercial airing these days about a former TFAer turned principal. It looks like they are doubling down on the leadership trajectory of minimally trained TFAers with limited classroom experience. The promotion looks like they are trying to get America to think it’s perfectly fine that TFA has effectively become Principals for America, Superintendents for America, State Chief School Officers for America, etc., despite the abysmal track records of Michelle Rhee, John White, Kevin Huffman et al. Considering America has been wising up to the role TFA has been playing in corporate “reform” and the privatization of public education, that kind of blatant PR spin is very likely to backfire on them.

  6. veteran says:

    Are they shying away from Rhee? In the last ONE DAY issue ( TFA alum magazine). They did a nice piece on the TFA governing board member in LA ( sorry his name escapes me) . I was super impressed that they showcased a different viewpoint of someone in education. But then, a few pages later was an article on Rhee and her new book. Urghh!
    Nice post as usual Gary!

    • CitizensArrest says:

      Rhee has a NEW book? Was the abject failure of her last one to gain any traction not a big enough hint? What else could she say that isn’t a cut and paste of her previous deceptions?

  7. veteran says:

    “Radical” was the book- not necessarily a new book anymore

    Also the great article in the TFA alum magazine was about Steve Zimmer. He was allowed to express some very interesting opinions including
    There are a lot of different ways to approach this work that help us get every child to ‘one day.’

  8. Caitlin Y. says:

    When’s the next TalkingEd?

  9. Allison says:

    Here’s an article I just saw with responses from your lunch mate.

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