TFA tries, yet fails, to honor teachers

Last week TFA held their annual educator’s conference in Las Vegas. TFA claims that 2/3 of the 30,000 alumni are still ‘in education’ so one would expect this event to have quite a turnout. My understanding is that about 1,000 people came, some of them brand new 2014 corps members. Maybe this is considered to be a good showing, I don’t know.

The last TFA event I attended was the 20th anniversary / corporate ‘reform’ love fest in 2011. I do plan to attend the 25th anniversary, too. I have a lot of TFA alum friends who I have much respect for, and I do like to reunite with them. I also have no problem attending the reunion since I sincerely believe that my frustration with TFA is that they have strayed so far from their original vision and that I actually have more of a right to be there than all of these ‘reformers.’

Though I did not attend this conference in Las Vegas, I followed some of the live streaming and the twitter feed and have a pretty good sense of what went on there. I do think that TFA tried to do a better job of not celebrating teacher bashing at this event, but they just don’t seem to get it. Perhaps my analysis will help them do better next time.

The thing I watched with the most interest were the two speeches by co-CEOs Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer, followed by a Q and A with them. This was streamed live and also archived on YouTube.

The text from the two prepared speeches is also available here.

Less than a year ago I wrote Villanueva-Beard and Kramer one of my ‘open letter’s to which they have not (yet?) responded to.  About four months ago I last critiqued speeches by Villanueva-Beard and Kramer when they spoke in Tennessee.  I felt that Kramer generally stuck to safe uncontroversial material while Villanueva-Beard spent much of her time arguing against straw man positions against ed reform.  So when I watched these two speeches, I was hoping that they would show improvement, particularly in the case of Villanueva-Beard.

Elisa went first, and she began with a story about a 2012 Houston CM who just completed his second year at Kashmere High School.  TFA has been sending CMs to Kashmere since they started in Houston in 1991, and it has always been a very tough school.  She explained how at this very low-performing school (the average SAT scores are under 800 combined on the three sections) the TFAer, Adeeb Barqawi, was honored by the mayor because his physics students had the highest percent of students passing in the entire Houston Independent School District on the physics district level assessments.

Reading up on the guy, he does seem like quite a dedicated teacher, but anytime I hear a miracle story, I do have some concerns.  Since these tests were given in the Fall of 2013, Barqawi had only been teaching some of the students for one year and two months and others for just two months when this miracle occurred.  Surely there were other teachers who had taught the students before him that deserve some of the credit for this success.  Another thing I noticed is that Kashmere now has a STEM magnet program.  To apply to this program you have to submit previous year’s test scores and report cards, presumably for screening.  I’m not sure when this program was created, but it could explain the miracle test scores a little.  Also since his students were 11th and 12th graders, and since this school has 160 9th graders, but only about 100 11th graders and 100 12th graders, these students were the top performing students from their cohort.  I’m not trying to dismiss any of the hard work of Mr. Barqawi, but when a speech by a TFA CEO begins with a miracle story, I do have to investigate a little.

Later on in the speech Villanueva-Beard says “There will never be superheroes in education, and you cannot change a system overnight,” yet of course her opening anecdote contradicts that.  As in all TFA PR about a super-teacher, he takes low-performing students and turns them into top-performers in as little as two months.  Still, it is a step in the right direction for her to say this.

Then she starts defending against the anti-reform straw men.  My favorite quote from this part is “Folks will tell us it’s irrational to try. Folks will tell us it’s irrational to teach.”  Who, exactly, is saying not to try or not to teach?  Nobody I know.  Certainly not me.

Near the end of the speech, she says:

We know the dropout rates and the ACT scores. The chances of college or a criminal record. Some folks see those statistics as a life sentence. Poor kids, black kids, brown kids, Native kids, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander kids– the statistics say they can’t make it—they won’t make it.


They said I wouldn’t make it. They said many of you wouldn’t make it. But we’re all here today—all of us—saying, screw the statistics. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Elisa often uses herself as an example of someone, a Latina from a border town, who ‘they’ said wouldn’t make it, and how she is living proof of how wrong ‘they’ were.  I don’t think there is anyone out there who says that every student who is born poor is doomed to remain poor for their entire lives.  Statistics do seem to say that a lower percent of poor students go on to graduate college and that they generally get lower standardized test scores.  And maybe ‘they’ sometimes pick a specific person and predict that that person will not be successful financially.

Elisa did grow up, as she says in the Q&A period in McAllen Texas, and graduated in 1994.  And of the two high schools in McAllen, McAllen High School and McAllen Memorial High School, there seems to have been about a 50% dropout rate in that year, as both schools had about 700 9th graders, but only 350 12th graders.  Now all those kids who didn’t make it had the same teachers as Elisa did, so it is not clear what Elisa’s success proves.  Was it the high expectations of her great teachers?  If so, why did so many kids not make it with the same teachers.  Of course some of the kids who made it to graduation also went on to graduate college.  Who would be surprised by that?  Elisa mentions during the Q&A that only two adults from her hometown had college degrees, and that one of them was her father.  So if I were asked to predict back in 1994 which of the high school seniors had the greatest chance of graduating college, I would have predicted Elisa, knowing that the child of a college graduate is much more likely to also graduate college than the child of someone who did not graduate college.  This is not to take away from what Elisa has accomplished in life.  Certainly she’s done a lot better than me, and both of my parents graduated college.


Matt Kramer made his speech second.  I’ve met Matt and he seems to be a nice enough guy, but he’s about as unqualified to be the co-CEO of TFA as Arne Duncan is to be the Secretary of Education.  He speaks carefully, knowing, it seems, that he could be prone to putting his foot in his mouth.  Just like the speech in March, I thought this one was good.

I liked when he said “Exceptional teachers are a singularly important part of the solution. But not the only part—if nothing else changes, it isn’t sustainable to ask teachers to bear the brunt of so much societal dysfunction.”  I’ve heard other ‘reformers’ say things like this, but it is an important point.

He spoke about TFA’s diversity, something they have been working on for the past few years.  Supposedly 55% of new CMs ‘identify themselves’ as either people of color or low-income.  If this is true, I applaud that.

Responding to a big criticism about TFA, he says “Teach For America—the organization—is not and should not be trying to control the policies or priorities of education reform.”  I’m not sure if I buy this, but it is a good thing to say.  TFA has built up so many alumni ‘leaders’ and promoted them and used their connections to get them into high level jobs.  And, as I’ll describe later, they continue to parade these ‘leaders’ out at public events as the heroes of TFA.

He mentions early in the speech “if you read too many blogs, it can seem like there’s a lot we’re fighting about, that people are taking sides, and that we’re all pretty dug in.”  Later addresses this by saying:

And to help sort fact from fiction in all the discussion around our work, we’re taking a more proactive approach to sharing our story in our own words, and we’ve launched On the Record, an online portal that gives you the tools to answer hard questions about what we do.

So this ‘On the Record’ is a somewhat comical column on the TFA blog where they do PR spins on negative press.  The most recent one responds to something Diane Ravitch wrote about the irony of Obama launching an initiative where all kids will get highly qualified teachers, and how if taken literally, this would disqualify first year TFAers from teaching.  In the response, they say that:

Our teachers are considered highly qualified under current law. We support rigorous enforcement of this law, which requires alternatively certified teachers like our own to be considered “highly qualified” only if they receive high-quality, sustained, and intensive professional development as well as participate in a program of intensive supervision with structured guidance and regular ongoing support (see paragraph (a)(2) in link above).

The do not mention that TFA helped lobby to make sure that that ‘current law’ defining ‘highly qualified teacher’ included TFAers.

Generally, the two speeches were better than the two speeches back in March.

In the Q&A period, when asked “What gives you hope?”  (Like a slow ball down the middle of the plate.)  Elisa tells a story about a miracle school district, IDEA academies, which her husband co-founded, and which had 100% of its graduates go on to college.  Not mentioned, as I researched previously, some of their cohorts lose 62% of their students between 6th and 12th grade.  Yet these numbers are what she says have convinced her about what is possible.  Unless they acknowledge their attrition numbers, there can’t be an honest conversation about what the IDEA academies have proved about what’s possible.

Also during the Q&A, Matt defended his and Elisa’s decision to come out in strong support of the Common Core Standards.  He said that TFA tries to stay out of the politics, but when something is grounded in their values, they will come out in favor or against something.  Like TFA was in favor of anti-bullying laws since TFA is so opposed to bullying.  But Matt also says that they support the common core standards because TFA believes in high standards.  I’d argue that you can be for high standards yet against the common core standards, like I am.  If there is something good about them, there is nothing stopping teachers from using those aspects of them even if the common core standards are not mandatory.  And the stuff that isn’t good, no teacher should be forced to teach something for which there is no evidence that it works.

So these speeches and Q&A did show an improvement over what I’ve seen before from TFA.  But whatever good will they earned by saying some of the right things and by toning down the nonsense, they gave it all away and more by their choice of keynote speakers.

Surely the very worst person they could have brought in to inspire the educators, particularly the teachers, would be Michelle Rhee.  Even TFA knows not to do that.  But who do they bring in instead, the two next people on the list of who teachers don’t want to hear from:  Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, commissioner of education of Tennessee, Kevin Huffman, and Michelle Rhee’s former deputy chancellor for DC, and now current chancellor, Kaya Henderson.  Of course Tennessee and DC are currently the thing in ed ‘reform’ since they had NAEP gains even though other states that do the same sorts of ‘reform’ didn’t get those same gains.

For TFA to bring these two in really makes me worry about what sorts of things they still don’t get.  In Tennessee, Democrats and Republicans are calling for his resignation.  He has lowered teacher pay, tried to take away teacher tenure, and has been a blind follower of the power of standardized test scores to calculate value-added.  He is one of about 15 ‘chiefs for change’ some of the most despised people in public education by teachers.  I think 10 of those ‘chiefs’ have already resigned or been fired, and it is likely Huffman will be gone fairly soon too.

Here’s something that Matt Kramer tweeted during Huffman’s speech

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 3.25.53 PM

Like Rhee with her “I’m a ‘radical’ and proud of it,” and even Villanueva-Beard in her speech talking about how it is ‘irrational’ to dream big in education, Huffman is despised in Tennessee because he has ‘guts.’

Kaya Henderson does seem to be better than Rhee.  She has scaled back the percent of value-added in teacher evaluation from 50% to 35%.  Also she recently called a charter school “cannibalistic.”  But she is still all about the test scores and even quoted a ‘research’ paper from The New Teacher Project which claimed that merit pay was working in D.C. because 92% of their ‘highly effective’ teachers have not quit yet.

I could get that number up to 100%.  Just make the evaluation system so that just one person is rated ‘highly effective’ and give that person a $100,000 bonus.  Surely that one person will come back to teach next year and then you will have 100% of your ‘irreplaceables’ returning.

About the common core tests, Henderson said, according to Matt Kramer live-tweeting, ”

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 3.16.39 PM

This isn’t a very positive thing to say.  And since DC generally is at the bottom in ‘achievement’ on national standardized exams, why should we expect them not to be near the bottom on the national common core tests.

That’s all I gleaned about this conference from the video and the various tweets.  Maybe the next conference will be better and maybe much closer to New York City, and then I can give a live report of it.  I probably won’t be a keynote speaker, just yet, but you never know.


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2 Responses to TFA tries, yet fails, to honor teachers

  1. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Gary, you are a career teacher whose work has mattered in the lives of many hundreds of young people; Elisa Villanueva Beard is the duplicitous co-head of a scab recruitment agency.

    Only according to the degenerate moral calculus of the so-called reformers can she be said to have done “better” than you.

    As for for everything else you report, it sounds like the same old TFA: dissembling, half-truths, straw man attacks on critics, arrogance (now couched in fake humility for PR purposes), and their usual, insipid self-congratulation.

  2. tlmerrie says:

    So where’s the transformational change at Kashmere High?

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