Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 2: Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer

On February 12, 2013, founder and long time CEO of TFA, Wendy Kopp, stepped down.  Two new co-CEOs were appointed, Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer. Elisa was a 1998 corps member and Matt had never taught.  Both were working as very high administrative positions in TFA before this recent promotion.

I was pretty surprised by this announcement.  I did not expect Wendy to ever not be the CEO of Teach For America.  I was also puzzled that neither of the new co-CEOs were required to relocate to be near the national headquarters in New York City.

Over the past four months they have co-written three blog posts on the ‘Pass The Chalk’ site which had points of view that I definitely object to.  The first was about a bogus study ‘proving’ that certain TFA teachers teach significantly more than their non-TFA counterparts (I analyzed that report here).  The second was about a bogus interpretation of the recent NAEP gains ‘proving’ that corporate reform strategies are working (I wrote about NAEP ‘gains’ here).  The third was about their support for the common core (Me and others have written a bunch about the problems with the common core).

I’ve ‘followed’ them both on Twitter and also had an opportunity to meet them both at the national TFA headquarters this past spring when I was invited to participate in a round table discussion with other TFA alumni at the New York City stop of the ‘listening tour’ that Elisa and Matt went on when they began their new positions.

Before the meeting I greeted both of them.  During the meeting, I had a chance to speak to the group, and I tried to use my time efficiently.  Matt commented that he reads this blog, which was nice to know.  After the meeting, I first approached Elisa and said something simple like, “It was nice to meet you.”  Then when I was saying good bye to Matt, who was a few feet away from Elisa, he engaged me in conversation a bit more.  I said, in the short discussion, something like “I’m sure we have a lot of common ground about things,” and he agreed, saying something like “I don’t think that poverty doesn’t matter.  And I’m sure you don’t think that great teaching doesn’t matter.”  I agreed, but added that it is important for people involved in discussions about education to acknowledge that schools have a limited amount of influence in combating all the “out of school” factors that some kids face.  At this point, I was surprised, Elisa had overheard me say this and she looked kind of annoyed and said something like “Schools can make a huge difference in kids’ lives,” which is something I don’t disagree with either.  I said something like “That’s true,” and that ended my one and only time face-to-face chatting with the new CEOs.

My observations, so far, have resulted in five blog posts:  Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss?, Good Kopp, Bad Kopp, My experience at a #TFAListen event, TFA co-CEO’s vs. The Boogeyman, and Villanueva-Beard Strikes Back.

I’d say that I ‘know’ Elisa and Matt the least of all the people that I’ve written these letters to.  But as I have met them both and chatted briefly with each of them, I do think that they qualify as people I can include in this new series.  As this marks the almost one year anniversary of one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written, my open letter to Wendy (which she was good enough to publicly respond to), I thought this might be a good way for me to conclude my 2013 year of blogging.


Dear Elisa and Matt,

In my letter to Wendy last year, I called her the ‘Darth Vader’ of education reform.  I see you two as much less dangerous — perhaps the ‘Milli Vanilli’ of education reform.

I know I might seem antagonistic, but I see it as the same sort of group dynamic that occurs when students get a new teacher.  I freely admit that I am ‘testing’ you.  (Matt:  I know you were never a teacher, so you will have to trust me that this is something that new teachers have to deal with.)  Why do kids test new teachers?  Well, I think it is because a new teacher makes kids uncomfortable.  They aren’t sure if they should trust the new teacher so they are defiant and force opportunities for the teachers to ‘prove’ themselves.

When I heard that you were taking over as co-CEOs, I had mixed feelings.  As I have been encouraging TFA to make changes over the years, this certainly qualified as one.  Maybe some ‘new blood’ would help speed up the type of change I was hoping for.  But I also worried that appointing you was a strategic way to make it seem like change was on the horizon while it really was just an illusion.

Based on what I’ve seen in this first year of your appointment, I am not encouraged that the issues I have with TFA are improving in any way.  In your language and your writings I see the same kind of unsophisticated logic that I see in the rhetoric of people like Michelle Rhee and Steve Perry.  Things about the ‘status quo’ and about the power of ‘raised expectations.’  As someone opposed to the kinds of strategies that Rhee and Perry promote, I know that my resistance has nothing to do with a desire to preserve the status quo, nor do I think that very many teachers have unreasonably low expectations for their students.

I have no particular attachment to the ‘status quo.’  But I’ve done a lot of research about what is now called ‘reform’ and I fight against it because I believe that it will, if permitted to gain  momentum, make education in this country much worse.  My prediction is that teachers will flee the profession even faster than they already do under the stress of the new brand of ‘accountability.’  And I’ve seen this start already in California where there are fewer teacher candidates to fill the vacancies.  This will exacerbate if market-driven reform is not curbed.  I think college students would be crazy to pursue teaching in this current anti-teacher climate.  I’d wager that you are already seeing the effects of this, even among TFA corps members.  A few years ago, the statistic was that 60% of TFA corps members taught for a third year.  Recently I saw an article celebrating that South Carolina, I think, had about 40% stay for a third year.  I believe that this is not going to be abnormal and you will see fewer TFAers stay beyond their two years.  Teaching was already a pretty stressful job before the standardized test mania infected our schools.  Now, for many, it is unbearable.

I do not believe in ‘low expectations.’  I also know that ‘high expectations’ is a very weak silver bullet.  Expert teachers know how to set their expectations at an appropriate level to maximize student learning.  Even where I teach, Stuyvesant High School — where the average SAT score is nearly 2200, I am careful in how I set my expectations.  If I make things too hard, the students don’t maximize their learning.  This isn’t pessimism, it is part of understanding how the student mind works.  When I taught in Houston, my expectations were lower than they are now at Stuyvesant.  Why?  Because you have to take students from where they are and make a plan based on that.

I remember that small interchange with both of you about the limitations of school to overcome all of those ‘out of school factors’ that plague students.  Steve Perry would summarize my views as “poor kids can’t learn.”  But I hope you know that my view is much more complex than that.  Yes, when kids are distracted — and this goes for rich kids and for poor kids alike — they have trouble learning.  If a rich kid suffers from depression and self-treats that depression with a serious cocaine habit then that student is going to have trouble doing his Geometry homework and will have trouble concentrating in school and will likely perform poorly on the class tests.  This has nothing to do with poverty, but with the limitations of schools — great teachers and all that — to work miracles.  That is not to say that great teachers are not better than lousy teachers.  Everyone knows that.  So, yes, poor kids disproportionately suffer from ‘out of school’ factors than rich kids thus schools will struggle to get those kids to reach their potential.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t have potential, however.

You recently penned a blog post in support of the controversial common core standards.  Of course Randi Weingarten is one of the biggest common core cheerleaders in the country so it is not like you came out in favor of school closings, for instance.  But still, it was interesting to me that you would take a side on this.  What does it mean to be ‘for’ the common core?  Does it mean that you wholeheartedly  believe in the 7th grade math standard which states:

CCSS.Math.Content.7.NS.A.2a Understand that multiplication is extended from fractions to rational numbers by requiring that operations continue to satisfy the properties of operations, particularly the distributive property, leading to products such as (–1)(–1) = 1 and the rules for multiplying signed numbers. Interpret products of rational numbers by describing real-world contexts.

(Note:  If you don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t worry.  Most people don’t know that math majors in abstract algebra, during junior year of college, learn that rather than justifying that a negative times a negative is a positive, informally any number of ways, you learn that since -1 * 0 = 0, which means -1 * (-1+1) = 0 (since -1+1=0, additive inverse property) and then, by the distributive property (which says a * (b+c) = ab + ac) (-1) * (-1) + (-1)*1 = 0, but since 1 is the multiplicative identity, (-1)*(-1) – 1=0, but then if you add 1 to both sides, you get (-1)*(-1)=1, Q.E.D.)

Or do you just mean that you approve of school being more than just memorizing a bunch of shallow facts, but having opportunity for deep thought-provoking learning opportunities?  If that’s what you mean, is is really necessary to spend billions of dollars on new textbooks and new ‘common core aligned’ assessments for this?  Isn’t this the first thing we learned at the TFA institute (not you, Matt, but I’m sure you get the idea still), that we need to get kids to the higher levels of ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’?  Elisa, when you taught in Arizona did you not try to teach to a deep level because the common core had not been invented yet along with new assessments which would make sure you were accountable for getting your students to achieve that type of deep mastery of those standards?

Coming out in favor of the common core, the way you did, was, from my perspective, just a cheap shot at common core critics, just dismissing all of the fears of all the educators I know and respect who are have not jumped on the common core bandwagon.

The most frustrating thing about TFA, and something I was hoping you would help change, is the myth that certain schools — particularly charter schools run by TFA alumni — refuse to use poverty as “an excuse” and have demonstrated that schools are actually not limited in what they can accomplish absent any other support to combat the out of school factors.  I think this is a dangerous myth as it has resulted in hundreds of schools being shut down (or ‘turned around’) so that the miracle “no excuses” schools can flourish.

Yes, market-driven reform may cause the narrow metric of standardized test scores to increase marginally.  This is something the two of you celebrated recently with the D.C. and Tennessee NAEP ‘miracles.’  I’ve studied D.C. more than I have Tennessee, and I’d caution you from using D.C. as any sort of model for national reform, despite their NAEP gains and the fact that a TFA alum is the chancellor.  Their scores, even with their gains, are so low that you should be careful about assuming that strategies which raises their test scores marginally will work just as well for other places that are already scoring so much higher.  It is like taking an exercise and diet regiment that helped a 500 pound person to lose 20 pounds and assuming that the same regiment would help a 200 person to lose the same 20 pounds.  I noticed that in your blog post about the NAEP gains in D.C. and Tennessee, there was no mention of the lack of ‘gains’ in Louisiana, which also has a corporate reform TFA alum leading it.  It can’t just be about reporting the information that makes TFA, and the market-driven reform movement in general, look good.  The job of TFA should be to provide all the relevant information so that the public can make informed decisions when they vote for politicians who promise to go in this direction or that with education reform.

Though I don’t see the two of you tweeting links from StudentsFirst, I do see a lot of forwarding of posts from Tim Daly and TNTP.  To me, they are just as bad as StudentsFirst as they generate their own ‘research’ to defend the sacred cows of market-driven education reform.  Michelle Rhee, Tim Daly, Kevin Huffman, John White, Cami Anderson, and other TFA alumni leaders, are controversial not just because they are attacking an entrenched ‘status quo’ which is benefiting the “adults” at the expense of the “children.”  Do you think that someone like Camika Royal — one of the most open-minded and learned alumni in the history of Teach For America — cares more about union protections than about honestly educating children?  This is what you imply when you allow the organization you run to shine a spotlight on alumni who spout this nonsense.

If you are so enamored with the strategies of Rhee, Daly, Huffman, White, and Anderson, why don’t you use them, yourself, in helping TFA maximize its own ‘value added’?  This would be pretty easy to implement.  First you would publish an annual A-F report card on the different TFA regions.  One of the best metrics would be the ‘quit rate’ — the percent of corps members that quit before completing the two year commitment.  Though the national average for all the regions is somewhere around 10%, there are some regions that have much higher quit rates.  I believe that Kansas City and Detroit are two regions where around 25% of the corps members don’t complete their commitment.  Regions like that would get an ‘F’ and after two ‘F’s or something, they would get shut down using the market-driven reform strategies.  Then, for recruiters you could track the test scores of the students of the corps members that each recruiter recruits.  Some recruiters will fare worse than others on this metric and those recruiters would be labeled ‘ineffective’ and fired.  The various staff at the institutes could also be rated by tracking the test scores of the students of the corps members they trained.  Basically, you would want to change the culture of TFA management to one which assumes that all TFA employees are lazy and don’t care about doing a good job and can only be motivated by the fear of being fired.  If you admire the TFA leaders mentioned above so much, it would be hypocritical to not use their methods with your own employees.

Maybe you were chosen since your views aligned with the old TFA party line.  As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke,” which at least from a financial point of view TFA certainly isn’t, “don’t fix it.”  I’m also not sure if, even if the two of you were somehow convinced that TFA needs to change course, if you actually have the power to do anything about it.  To use an analogy, it might be like you are on a ship and you each have a steering wheel, but since you are not using the steering wheels to make any significant moves, you assume that the steering wheels are actually functional while they actually are not.  I’d be curious to know what the most radical thing you have tried to accomplish as co-CEOs so far.

I’ll admit that you have only been on the job for less than a year and I don’t know much about what sorts of things go on in TFA behind closed doors.  But as an outside observer who has kept up with the evolution of TFA for the past twenty-two years, my sense is that you may be good leaders, you may be very smart leaders, but so far I don’t see you as very bold leaders.  But my sense is also that you weren’t chosen to be bold leaders who would rock the boat and usher in a series of paradigm shifts.  Perhaps I am wrong about this, but it does seem feasible to me.  You were chosen, it seems to me, because you were “on board” already and would “stay the course.”

But I’ve seen a shift in the landscape over the past year where TFA might need you to be the bold leaders that you were hired, I think originally, not to be.

TFA will also have to deal with the fact that the research about TFA teacher ‘effectiveness’ (based on standardized test scores) is very mixed.  That report that you recently celebrated about secondary math teachers getting an extra 2.6 ‘months’ of learning is quite misleading.  Are you aware that ‘months’ are not a true unit of learning and that when looking at the raw scores of the TFA teachers vs. the non-TFA teachers, it likely equated to just one more question correct on a 50 question multiple choice test?

With all the negative critiques coming from all kinds of people who are not me, TFA is going to need a plan that is very bold and, at the same time, very honest.  The rickety tower of lies that surrounds TFA public relations is really starting to crumble.  Pittsburgh is just the beginning.  There have been several very close calls.  Also it seems like the era of school closures is, for now, ending in New York City.  I think that when it comes to mass school closures, people in the know are either outraged that they are happening or outraged that they are not happening.  The fact that TFA, as an organization, didn’t come out against school closings before should mean that, as an organization, they should be outraged at this “proven” reform being halted.  But it is unlikely that you will be writing a blog mourning this “disruptive” strategy wielded so efficiently by the former deputy chancellor and keynote speaker at TFA fundraisers.

How you will navigate these rough waters is going to take a lot more than some tempered blog entries about how research has shown that TFA teachers are better than non-TFA teachers, about how places with market-based reforms are getting faster gains than other cities, or about how the common core is the very expensive missing piece in the puzzle of improving schools.

If TFA is going to try to convince people that it is now neutral about different reform strategies, especially charter schools, that is going to take an incredibly risky campaign that could alienate the reform allies TFA has built over the years.  I hope you have both the courage and the permission to lead this effort.

Besides complaining about TFA, I’ve, over the years, posted a lot of concrete suggestions for improving TFA.  Maybe you’ve seen these, maybe not, but here is a sampling:

1/29/11 What TFA should do with the $100 million

5/21/11 What happened to my TFA?

6/9/11 Why does TFA value quantity over quality?

8/8/11 @2011s My Framework: Teaching As … Teaching

11/22/11 How I’d Fix TFA

3/19/12 Why Some People Like TFA Somewhat Less Than Others Do

7/8/12 The man who saved TFA

3/3/13 Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

4/30/13 The Three Biggest TFA Lies

6/8/13 My experience at a #TFAListen event,

Up until about three years ago when I attended the fiasco known as the 20th anniversary summit, the ‘coming out’ party where TFA finally admitted that they were all about corporate reform and charter schools, I was one of the most active alumni around.  You may see me as just one person, and since nobody can please all the people all the time, you can cope with the idea that I will be tough to ‘win back.’  But I’d say that since I am part of the TFA ‘family’ I should be one of the easier people to do this with.  My sense is that if you can’t make me believe that you are serious about presenting TFA as, at least, neutral on some of these reform issues, I don’t think you will have any chance of re-gaining the trust of the overall education community.

“I just want to tell you both, good luck.  We’re all counting on you.”


Gary Rubinstein

Houston 1991

This entry was posted in Open Letters Series, tfa rants. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 2: Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer

  1. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein on TFA and CC: Plus Predictions for 2014 and 2024! – @ THE CHALK FACE

  2. 2012er says:

    [wouldn’t let me post on regular site]

    I appreciate that you ended on the issue of neutrality, as this is the source of my greatest discomfort with TFA at the moment. Like you, I believe TFA should do everything it can to remain neutral across all the issues swirling through education policy discussions [charters, Common Core, etc.). While TFA undoubtedly supports certain “sides” more than others, due to financial contributions, corps member placement and alumni affiliation, I would love for 2014 to be the year where the organization refrained from publicly supporting any particular issue.

    I also wanted to thank you, Gary, for presenting the various stances and arguments that you do throughout the year. I fluctuate in terms of my agreement with them, and wish that you could adopt a less-biting tone in most of them, but I believe that all perspectives are needed at the table in order for us to get where we need to go–and your voice is certainly one of them. Please continue doing what you do.

  3. Tennessean says:

    Please take a look at the NAEP results from TN. It’s hard to say market driven reforms contributed to any gains when it appears that very few charter schools took the tests that indicated the NAEP gains.

  4. Some good stuff here but like 2012er expressed the antagonistic tone is really not helpful at all.

  5. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: An Open Letter to the New Leaders of TFA | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. Peter says:

    Some really good stuff here. I especially look forward to TFA using VAM internally. I do think you may have overlooked one point-

    ” My prediction is that teachers will flee the profession even faster than they already do under the stress of the new brand of ‘accountability.’ ”

    While I have no doubt this is true, I suspect (as they say in the software biz) it is a feature, not a bug. For many reformers, having teachers leave the profession is just fine. Who needs them? We can turn over 30-50% of the staff every year with TFA or TFA-style content delivery specialists. It will keep costs way down and staffs manageably compliant.

    For many reformers, the dream is a day when schools are no harder or more expensive to staff than a McDonalds.

  7. Kellen says:

    Gary’s tone is addressed in the first couple of paragraphs and it’s meant to challenge the recipients/readers of the letter. It’s also the tone that naturally develops when you try unsuccessfully for years to be heard using well reasoned arguments and a civil tone. Unfortunately, TFA has made little if any changes to their rhetoric over the past few years and continues to be a disruptive and misleading agent in education policy. Listen carefully to critics and perhaps adopt a less triumphant/arrogant tone in your own rhetoric and such antagonism would not be necessary. This former KIPP teacher knows how important Gary’s work is, and others like him. We need challenging voices out there. Thank you, sir. Keep up the good work in 2014!

    • garyrubinstein says:

      Thanks so much for the comment. I guess my frustration is beginning to show a lot more, but my sense is that this is the right tone to take right now. I appreciate the support and I do hope to do some good blogging in 2014.

  8. gitapik says:

    Watch the movie, “Lincoln”, and tell me Thaddeus Stevens should have been more neutral.

    It’s always important to respectfully listen to another’s viewpoint that conflicts with your own. To carefully consider and research the other’s thoughts and sources. Especially when the subject matter is of serious importance. But, if after reviewing the facts, I see lies and deceit, then it’s time to call the trickster on his/her game and make it clear that you see through them and their true motives and aren’t at all happy. Then follow through with “why” you’re not happy. Everyone wants to know “why”…regardless of how obvious the reasons might be.

    If you’re angry all the time, nobody listens. If you’re passive all of the time, nobody listens. Just like in a classroom. The kids will listen to a teacher who gets mad when it matters but first tries to understand. And they’ll walk all over someone who will let them. It’s a matter of respect for others and yourself.

    This is an excellent letter. Kudos, Gary Rubenstein. Saving our public education system is the Emancipation Proclamation of this era. Teachers have been blasted since I first started teaching, 20 years ago, and now it’s at a critical point. Enough is enough. I’ll listen to and debate anyone who’s in favor of the “reform movement”. If I lose the debate due to knowledge that I didn’t have, previous, then so be it. But if my opponents try to use lies, distortions of the truth, and slander to further their points, they’re definitely going to get an earful from me.

  9. Pingback: Let’s Help NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel Forsake His Common Core “Guessing” | deutsch29

  10. Pingback: Let’s Help NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel Forsake His Common Core “Guessing” – @ THE CHALK FACE

  11. Pingback: TFA tries, yet fails, to honor teachers | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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