TFA has been recently taking a beating in social media. Whether in response to this, or if it is just something that’s been planned for a while, the two co-CEOs Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer were part of a live webcast tonight called ‘What’s Next at Teach For America?”
This was an hour long live show broadcast out of Nashville where TFA alum Kevin Huffman is commissioner of education and another TFA alum Chris Barbic is the superintendent of the Achievement School District, which is like the Recovery School District in Louisiana.
As is everything with TFA, this was carefully scripted and controlled. It began with a high school student. This Latino student embodied everything that TFA believes in. She is obviously quite a gifted speaker and she has a TFA teacher as one of her teachers right now. Of course she proves that ‘poverty is not destiny’ and that every student who is poor and who did not go to college would have if they just had the chance to be taught by a TFA teacher. Hearing this student speak, I have a feeling that she was going to make it to college even if she had all traditional teachers. Let’s give the kid some credit, here.
Huffman was next on the bill. He reminded everyone that on the latest NAEP results, Tennessee had the most ‘growth’ of any state. Just like ‘miracle schools’ that have jumps in test scores, the trend is often that these scores don’t continue to increase at the same rate, and many of them revert to their old scores. I guess we’ll have to wait two years to find out. Plenty of other states, like Louisiana, with corporate reform strategies didn’t make any gains so I’m not sure how much we should read into the Tennessee gains.
Huffman talked about how TFA is such a self reflective group and how unlike some other organizations they really want to know what they’re doing that’s working so they can do more of that and what they’re doing that’s not working so they can do less of that. Though this sounds good, one of the things that TFA seems to be doing a lot is lying, and that’s not working for them as much lately. The rest of the program will give us an idea of whether or not they are going to do less of that.
Co-CEO Matt Kramer came and in his speech (whole text here) said that TFA always asks ‘are we the best we can be?’ and ‘how can we change to get better?’ Stop lying so much would be my suggestion, but unfortunately he quickly segued into familiar territory — the results of the alumni survey. Claiming that 85% of alumni responded to the survey he rattles of the familiar numbers: 1/3 of the 30,000 alumni are still teachers, 2/3 of alumni are full time ‘in education,’ and, a new one, ‘Nearly 90% of the 32,000 alumni of Teach For America are working full time for our kids.’ What can I say? These numbers are either false or they are half truths. I challenge TFA to pick a random sampling, say 2,000 alumni and track them all down and see what they are up to. Is there any alum pre-2010 who can say that 2/3 of the people that they have done the program with are still ‘in education’? I doubt it. What about all the people who take advantage of the post-TFA opportunities at Goldman-Sachs?
He said that TFA actually has changed a lot in the past 24 years. For example, the new corps members are more ethnically diverse with 39% ‘identifying themselves as being people of color.’ I’m not sure how much I believe this new highly touted statistic I hear in every one of the recent defenses of TFA. I suppose that this is a number that TFA has a lot of control over. They do get a lot of applicants so they can choose more people of color to get that percent up. I think it is good to get that number up, so I don’t have a problem if they’re actively trying to do that. Recent corps members that I know have told me that the corps, at least where they were training, didn’t seem all that diverse. Perhaps people are bending the truth a bit when they ‘self-identify’ to give them an edge in getting in? I don’t know. 39% just seems high to me. Maybe I’m wrong about this.
In response to people saying that TFA isn’t taking a stand on political issues, Kramer said something about supporting ‘common sense learning standards’ presumably his and Elisa’s blog post about how they support the common core — more on that later when Elisa speaks.
Kramer then announced two new initiatives. The first is an opportunity for college juniors to apply to TFA and then to have their training begin during their senior year. I’m not sure how this will work or how extensive this will be, but certainly anything that expands the training is something I approve of. I’m wondering if anyone would actually take them up on this offer. Senior year of college is a once in a lifetime sort of thing. You get to take all the electives you had been shut out of. You get to be big man/woman on campus. I’m not so sure many people when given the choice between 5 weeks of training, which they are assured that it was enough for 30,000 people already or having a year of training while they are finishing up their degrees — like I said, I’d like to see the logistics on this. I once suggested that TFA be a 3 year program where the first year is being a teaching assistant and then two years of teaching. I still think that would be a better system for everyone.
The second initiative was somewhat vague. It had to do with supporting alum who remain in the classroom. My sense, though, is that most second year TFAers don’t really want much support from TFA so why would third, fourth, and beyond TFAers suddenly now want it? Again, it was vague and he mentioned that they were going to try many different models to see which of them seem to work. I’m not opposed to this initiative either. I’ll have to see some more specifics before I can judge it.
In general, Kramer did a decent job, I thought.
The disaster of the program, however, was the other co-CEO, Elisa Villanueva-Beard. She is the one with the teaching experience, so when they were appointed about a year ago I had high hopes for Elisa. I even met her once and found her to be quite pleasant in person. Her speech (text of speech here) highlighted all that is wrong with TFA. I actually feel a little sorry for her for blowing what could have been a good opportunity to forge some ‘good will’ between TFA and the growing number of TFA critics.
I’ll let people read some excerpts from the speech first (or even read the whole speech here) to form some of your own judgements before I make my own observations:
“Joining Teach For America shaped me. Teaching does something to the heart that no book or lecture could ever do. I taught beautiful, talented, and incredible children for 3 years in Phoenix, Arizona, and their potential and ability was undeniable.
After that, I headed back home to the Rio Grande Valley to lead Teach For America and grew it to scale. I saw the incredible work that staff, corps members, and alums —some at my very own high school – were doing with so many others across my community. They did good work.
These are the things that have shaped me. That’s my truth, and I’m living it.
And it’s why I will not back down from my beliefs. I want to tell you about them, tonight—the things I won’t back down from. I know I’m not alone in what I believe.
I will not back down when folks say the education system is ‘fine’ as it is. It simply is not. It does not support all children to reach their full potential. It wasn’t designed to do that. It was designed to reproduce the status quo. It was designed in willful exclusion of students of color, and it was designed to prepare kids for an economy that’s long since changed.
So when people say it’s fine as it is – I won’t back down. I know better, because I know my own story.
And I know this: according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress –
In a class of twenty-five Latino fourth graders, twenty won’t meet proficiency in English.
By eighth grade, nearly 90% of African-Americans don’t reach proficiency in Math.
Pacific Islander students are half as likely to graduate from high school than the national average.
Native students are more likely than any group to not have access to AP classes.
And, nationwide, fewer than one in TEN students who grow up in a low-income community will make it through college.
The facts tell me clearly that things are not fine – so I won’t back down from that.
I will not back down when folks suggest that some kids — (not their own, of course) — don’t need high standards, because “they are probably not going to college anyway” or “We’re just setting them up for failure.”
I’ve seen what my students Laura, Brianda, Carlos, Anayeli, and Oscar could do — so when it comes to high standards and high expectations, I will not back down.
When folks tell you that kids of color can’t reach the same levels as white kids — do not back down.
When folks try to tell you that kids in low-income communities can’t reach the same performance as affluent kids—do not back down.
Yes, poverty is crippling. Poor healthcare is debilitating. Child hunger is all too real. We know kids need good healthcare and nutrition. We know they need safe cities. This doesn’t mean we STOP teaching with high expectations. It means we must KEEP teaching with high expectations.
It means we must advocate for our students’ basic needs being met, and unmask the violence of this inequity. But we must keep teaching. Keep our expectations high. Keep finding the systemic solutions and game-changing innovations. We must do everything we can – within education and outside of it—to help them reach their dreams.
Our kids are not numbers. They are not statistics. They are children. And they need hope, inspiration, and unwavering belief in what they can do. Teach For America was built on that belief. We will not back down now.
We can reach educational equity in our lifetime — it must be done. So when folks try to tell you it can’t, do not back down– because we know better. You know your kids. You know your truth.
But we’ve got evidence that all students can learn. We’re hearing more success stories each day, and you don’t have to take my word for it —
Visit any of the hundreds of public schools who are putting children of color from low-income communities on a different path than the naysayers ever expected. Tell them to visit your classrooms. When folks say it can’t be done – we will not back down.
And as for Teach for America’s role in all of this…
We are a force for good. We will not back down from that, either.
We are acknowledging our shortcomings – and are starting to work to address them. We are not perfect; far from it! The thoughtful, critical feedback we get is a gift, and it’s helping us evolve. But I am certain of this — we are a force for good.
I want to be clear — with every step, we remind ourselves that we are not saviors. We are not martyrs. We are not the solution—we are a part of a powerful movement that started long before we got here. There is a deep history and context we have to respect, and our communities are our greatest assets—parents, families, veteran teachers, neighbors. Teach for America must stay true to that vision.
Because we’re all pushing toward “one day.”
And so I want to tell you all, tonight, that I believe in you. I believe in us. I believe in Teach For America.”
OK. So the obvious thing to notice is the common refrain of “Won’t Back Down,” of course the Michelle Rhee promoted film two years ago which is one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. The only way she could have identified herself more with the corporate reform movement is if the motif was “Waiting For Superman.” But putting that aside, the problem with this speech is that it just angers critics more as their beliefs are presented as inaccurate straw man arguments.
“I will not back down when folks say the education system is ‘fine’ as it is.” Who, exactly, feels this way. Nobody I know. I certainly don’t feel this way, and I’m one of the biggest ‘anti-reformers’ there are. I even wrote a big post recently about how I think the math curriculum in this nation accomplishes almost nothing and needs to be scrapped. The issue isn’t whether or not schools need to be improved, but whether the way to do that is the Arne Duncan way of investing billions of dollars in standardized testing and value-added teacher evaluations, or to use actual research by people who understand schools. So I do resent being lumped in with a non-existent group of people who thing the education is ‘fine’ as it is. I will say that I am more optimistic about than Michelle Rhee, who recently gave the country an average of a ‘D.’ I will admit, though, that I’m someone who thinks that without addressing the out of school factors, you’re never going to close the ‘achievement gap.’ So if test scores are your metric, I think that we can get those test scores up in a genuine way, but not way up. To put things into oversimplified terms, Rhee says our country gets a ‘D’ since we’re 26th in math, or something, and we’d only deserve an ‘A’ if we were 1st in math. For me, I’d say that our 26th in math means that we’re something like a ‘B-‘ while if we really streamlined things and made school more meaningful for students, we may, as a side effect, get up to something like 20th in math, which would earn us an ‘A’ in my book (but not because the test scores went up, but because the way learning was more meaningful — this is very oversimplified, I just know someone is going to quote me on this, but this is the gist of how I feel.)
I will not back down when folks suggest that some kids — (not their own, of course) — don’t need high standards, because “they are probably not going to college anyway” or “We’re just setting them up for failure. When folks tell you that kids of color can’t reach the same levels as white kids — do not back down. When folks try to tell you that kids in low-income communities can’t reach the same performance as affluent kids—do not back down.” I tried very hard in my (unanswered) open letter to Elisa and Matt to explain that opposition to the common core standards does not mean that critics are racist. I have a daughter in kindergarten right now and I have seen the ‘maps’ of how she is going to be ‘college ready’ and I’m really praying that these standards continue to implode. I just read a second grade writing rubric that requires that the kids write like seventh graders in order to get a high score. I also hear the stories from the other parents at my daughter’s school about how the reading materials are too difficult or inappropriate for other reasons and how teachers do not have the flexibility to use reading materials that they know are best for their kids because they have to choose from the common core ‘menu.’ Common core, I think, will make many students less ready for college. Any curriculum written in a vacuum by non-educators who don’t understand developmental levels is going to be unsuccessful. It doesn’t mean, though, that I favor ‘low standards’ either, and I resent the implication that I, and other critics, agree with ‘The Bell Curve’ or something like that. Either Elisa doesn’t understand the counter argument, or she pretends not to, I hope it’s just that she’s pretending to not understand.
“But we’ve got evidence that all students can learn. We’re hearing more success stories each day, and you don’t have to take my word for it — Visit any of the hundreds of public schools who are putting children of color from low-income communities on a different path than the naysayers ever expected. Tell them to visit your classrooms. When folks say it can’t be done – we will not back down.” Well, I did visit one of those ‘hundreds of schools,’ the KIPP high school in NYC, and what I saw with my own eyes was highly mediocre. Admittedly, the KIPP might be an anomaly where the hype didn’t match reality, but I’ve read other first hand accounts of the miracle schools and they’ve corroborated what I saw at KIPP.
“We are a force for good. We will not back down from that, either. We are acknowledging our shortcomings – and are starting to work to address them. We are not perfect; far from it! The thoughtful, critical feedback we get is a gift, and it’s helping us evolve. But I am certain of this — we are a force for good.” This reminds me of Bruno Kirby’s classic line from ‘Good Morning Vietnam: “Sir, in my heart I know I’m funny.” Except everyone knows that he isn’t. Perhaps TFA was once a force for good, maybe they will be one once again some day. But right now I am certain that they are negatively impacting American education. The PR and the lies and the spin have created alumni-gone-wild — educational tornadoes wiping out schools and teachers and getting very rich doing this. Perhaps if TFA would disassociate themselves from Rhee and the other ‘radicals’ like Huffman, they could say that they don’t control their alumni. But the issue is that there is such a symbiotic relationship between TFA and their alumni leaders, not to mention their political allies, like Duncan and Gates. What a mess.
After the debacle, came the Q and A period. About five questions were chosen by the moderator. The first question was for Kramer to re-explain the two new initiatives. Why do we need to hear about this again? He already explained it. The second question was about how they recommend CMs and alumni respond to critics. They said, basically, that pro-TFAers need to spread their stories more, presumably on social media.
An interesting fact came out during the Q and A that the number of applicants, they say, is down from last year and that there will be, according to Kramer, nowhere near the 6,300 corps members they expected. I don’t know how to interpret this. It could be just some underdog TFA spin to make us feel bad for them — boo hoo, we’re losing our friends. They still have over $300 million a year. I think they can invest in more recruitment and get the numbers up, or, of course, they can just accept a larger percent of those 50,000 applicants (assuming that a significant number of those ‘applicants’ aren’t just people who filled out a two minute form expressing interest.)
The next question was about Newark where TFA hero Cami Andersen is wreaking havoc and will likely be fired in the next few months so she doesn’t bring down Chris Christie with her contempt for the Newark community. Elisa answered saying that she read a lot of perspectives and doesn’t know all the details, but you want to hear both sides of the story before making a judgment, or something.
There were a few more questions, nothing really worth writing home (or blogging) about.
All in all, this was a typical TFA orchestrated PR event. The announcement of the pilot program for seniors to get more training was the highlight, for sure, if it is for real. The low was the cartoonish speech by Elisa, painting critics as racists who believe that only white kids deserve ‘high expectations.’ TFA needs to use some of that $300 million to hire some new higher priced publicity people. Either that or they can start telling the truth. Which will cost them more?