Bait-and-Switch For America

It’s that time of year again when the first crop of new TFA recruits receive their acceptance letters.

Screen shot 2014-11-03 at 9.25.09 PMOver the past year, TFA has taken quite a deserved beating in social media.  Its been so bad that they have created a spot on their website to respond to all the articles.  They need to update this site nearly daily lately.  It’s actually a good place to go to catch up on the most up to date TFA criticisms.

As a result of all the negative publicity, TFA has seen their number of recruits at some of the their main target schools drop sharply.  At Brown, the number of graduates going to TFA has dropped from 49 to 17 in just the past 3 years.

Talerico_TFARankingsDrop_MonicaMendozaStill, there is a lot of exuberance among the newest graduates just learning about their acceptance.  My sense is that if this group was not discouraged by all the negative press they must have already learned about during the application process, then what good will one more plea accomplish?  Well, it could just be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  We’ll see.

If you’ve just been accepted into TFA or are thinking of applying, I hope you’ll read this post.  I’m an old timer TFAer, 1991 Houston.  I’m now a big critic of what the organization has become, particularly in the past four years.  I’m a teacher and I’ve taught 17 of the past 23 years.  I’m not opposed to TFA because they challenge some kind of ‘status quo’ that I’m comfortable in.  I understand that there is some good that comes out of TFA but that good, unfortunately, is balanced out by way more bad.  If you want to get a feel for my conflicting feelings even about whether or not my first year of teaching was a failure or not, read this post I wrote which I’ve been proud of for its balance.

Joining the 2015 TFA corps is a terrible mistake.  Two years from now everyone will know this, but right now TFA has managed to get a few last lies out of their well-oiled PR machine and lure a few more unsuspecting kids into their trap.  But here’s the problem with TFA:  They are a bunch of self-serving liars and anyone who joins up with them is an accomplice to any of the damage that this lying results in.

Take a claim, any claim, from TFA.  It’s either completely untrue, or just extremely exaggerated.  I’ve debunked so many of their claims, I’ve lost count though you can go through my archives if you want.  As their lies get uncovered, TFA has changed their message.  The big thing they say now is that TFA is not a teacher training organization, but a leadership pipeline, or something.

So here’s the way that works:  They get 6,000 new recruits, you being one of them.  These 6,000 recruits teach a total of about 250,000 students.  Think of TFA as a big meat grinder and the recruits and the students all go into it.  And what comes out of that grinder?  Well, about 10% of the TFAers don’t make it though the first year.  Those teachers weren’t changing many lives.  Then, if you imagine a bell curve of effectiveness, there must be another 10% who are hanging on for dear life, certainly not doing a very great job.  About half of TFAers stay for a third year and then it drops to about 25% for a 4th year and then under 20% for a fifth.  Some of the TFAers who stop teaching after two or three years go into a fast track leadership training route.  TFA helps them with this.  A small number of those become high profile leaders, the ultimate by-product of the TFA meat grinder.  And maybe, just maybe, you will be one of those.  The problem is that the high profile TFA alumni ‘leaders’ are some of the cruelest most vicious education dictators in the country.  Here’s one of them, Newark’s Cami Anderson.  When she’s not speaking at TFA fundraisers she’s getting this reception from her constituents.

Do you really want that to be you?

Cami Anderson is not the only famous TFA alumni leader.  Some other notable ones are John White in Louisiana, Kevin Huffman in Tennessee, and, most famously, Michelle Rhee.  These are people who are generally despised by teachers.

The reason I can’t get behind the way these leaders try to lead is that their ideas are so half-baked, they never had any chance of working.  And now that they have had the opportunity to test their ideas in places like New Orleans and Washington DC, the results were inevitable — they are complete failures.  But TFA will do anything to maintain their reputation as the brilliant saviors of education so they have to lie about what these leaders have accomplished.  The oversimplified spin that TFA and the self-proclaimed ed ‘reformers’ create about these leaders is that they have the guts to hold the teachers ‘accountable’ for their results.  And of course that sounds fair enough to the layman.  The issue, and I’m not going to get deeply into it here, is that the way they want to measure the quality of the teachers with a crudely flawed computer program.

Improving education should be a serious science and there is no place for lying in science.  Teach For America, with their inflated influence has a responsibility, I think, to be honest about what they have and have not figured out.  Instead they withhold important information that would be useful to the public in deciding if TFA and their prominent TFA alumni leaders know what they’re doing.  Instead they spin their data and hide what they can until it gets uncovered.  And then they go into damage control mode.  Just read this recent article in The Nation about a leaked memo about how to deflect criticism against the organization.  Most of their responses to valid critiques are to change the subject.

You’ve had some interaction with TFA staffers, I’m sure.  Maybe just a campus recruiter.  My experience has been that there are three types of staffers:  There are the very naive ones who don’t seem to even understand why anyone would be critical of TFA who is just trying to help out.  Then you’ve got the group that is a bit smarter than that first group, but less ethical.  These are the liars and the spinners.  I’ve reached out to some of these staffers with the most simple questions, something with a basic number as an answer and they pretend they don’t even understand what I’m asking.  I try to clarify but again they pretend they don’t understand.  Of course they understand but they must protect the queen bee at all costs, and if sharing data puts the hive in jeopardy then that data must be kept secret.  There is a third type of TFA staffer, but that one doesn’t last very long.  They quit, I figure, when they start building tolerance to the medication that helps them sleep at night.

I know that joining TFA seems like a good way to ‘give back’ to society.  And it is true that being a teacher, even the below average teacher you are likely to be for the first year, is an opportunity to get to work with kids who can use all the support they can get.  And, yes, even below average teachers can influence kids’ lives in a positive way.  Maybe you will start a chess club when there wasn’t one at the school before, or something.  Being a teacher does give you the chance to do something like that and maybe make a big influence for doing a small thing that happened to be the small thing that some kid happened to need.  So, in that way, if you join TFA you are not going to make a huge direct negative influence on this county’s education system.

But there is a much bigger picture.  TFA is a lot like the candy store that serves as a front for the racketeering outfit in the back room.  That candy store isn’t a dangerous candy store at face value.  They don’t poison the candy, for example.  And working at that candy store might seem like an innocuous thing to do, selling candy, keeping the place as tidy as you can.  But what’s going on in that back room is causing a thousand times more damage than any of the good that is coming from your work in the front.  But they need that candy store and they need workers there so you’re going to have to decide if you really have to be one of them.

I know that it is tempting to join TFA.  Everyone knows that it looks good on a resume and that TFA has many connections with some very big companies like Google and Goldman-Sachs.  But one thing to keep in mind is that if you are one of the 12 to 15 percent of people who get accepted into the corps and end up quitting, it can be quite an annoying thing to overcome.  And if things start to go sour for you, don’t count on TFA to be much help.  TFA is great when they are recruiting you.  That’s when they want something from you.  When you are useful to them — helping them meet their recruitment targets, getting them some nice “Yay! I made it” tweets for them to retweet.  But as soon as you’re having problems, they suddenly don’t have as much use for you any more and treat you as such.

Over the years when TFAers have problems with TFA and have nowhere else to turn, some seek out me for advice.  I went through my emails and easily dug up some relevant examples:

One was from a corps member who had a vindictive principal.  She wasn’t going to be allowed to return to her school despite the fact that she was well regarded by the other teachers in the school.  She asked TFA if she would be permitted to transfer schools and they said they’d get back to her and then … they never got back to her.  She texted her TFA mentor and called but she never got any response.  How TFA can just ignore someone in need like that is baffling to me.

Another email was from a non-traditional TFAer, a single mother, who was having a lot of trouble in the classroom and decided that her only option was to quit.  This was a tough decision to make and for sure the awful TFA training was part of what led to her being in this predicament.  Well, after quitting and trying to put her life back together, she received an invoice for something like $6,000 that she apparently owed to TFA for their training.  Isn’t that ironic?

But the big one that truly shows how TFA will treat you when you are no longer useful to them is the case of one of the most enthusiastic TFA recruits you’ll ever meet.  Spencer Smith is a former TFA 2013 Detroit corps member.  He was a TFA campus coordinator when he was a senior and he was a member of Students For Education Reform, which is  an organization that believes that Michelle Rhee is the second coming of Christ.  About two months into his first year, Spencer got into a horrible car crash that nearly killed him.  TFA posted a blog about the accident when it happened.  Spencer defied the odds by walking again and regaining his brain functioning.  His dream throughout his recovery was to return to the classroom.  But in order to return to the classroom, he would need to transfer his region from Detroit to Ohio so he could be near his doctors and his family.  Now TFA does not like to field transfer requests.  They think that once they let the cat out of the bag that transfers are even possible, every corps member will be asking for one.  So they did not make an exception for Spencer.  When he blogged about his frustration in trying to regain his TFA corps member status, they reached out to him, but it went nowhere.  He just wasn’t of much use to them anymore.  TFA is truly a heartless organization.

What’s incredible to me, though I can understand why this happens, is that the first year corps members do not speak out against TFA very much.  All those enthusiastic recruits that TFA likes to retweet after they get accepted, I’ve checked and nearly all of them go completely off the grid during their first year.  They don’t tweet.  They don’t blog.  Maybe it is because they don’t want prospective employers to see that they had struggled with something.  Maybe it is the way that TFA reacts to corps members who struggle — blame them for not having enough determination or high enough expectations.  Whatever the reasons, the silence of the new TFAers is very eerie to me.

I joined TFA in 1991 so I could make a positive difference for kids.  And I think I have.  I’m actually still in touch with some of my former students, through Facebook, from my Houston days in the early 1990s.  And twenty-three years later I’m still motivated by the need to make a positive difference for not just my current students anymore, but for the country.  For each person I dissuade from accepting an offer from TFA, I’ve contributed that much more to helping diffuse the out-of-control cyclone that TFA has become.  Don’t fall for the TFA bait-and-switch.

Note:  Click here to see an archive of more of my thoughtful TFA rants.



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7 Responses to Bait-and-Switch For America

  1. “Well, after quitting and trying to put her life back together, she received an invoice for something like $6,000 that she apparently owed to TFA for their training. Isn’t that ironic?”

    Especially considering that $6000 is pretty close to the “finder’s fee” TFA charges school districts (despite their $50 million annual federal subsidy.)

  2. Joe Nathan says:

    Gary you write about making a difference. You’ve chosen to work at a school which is only for kids who can pass the kind of traditional academic test you often criticize.

    Growing numbers of African American and Latino parents are sending their children to charter public schools, some of which use TFA. This clearly bothers you.

    Some progressives are delighted to see new options available. It’s also disappointing to see some “progressives” accepting quasi private public schools that have rigid admissions tests.

    You advocate for all kinds of students. But you have chosen to teach at a “public” school which rejects students who can’t score at a high level.

    Another approach that is attracting some teachers is the teacher led school idea – which would be real power in teachers’ hands – as part of a district or charter public school. One of the strongest advocates for this is the new Executive VP at American Federation of Teachers, Mary Cathryn Ricker. She’s great, and an increasingly important national voice.

  3. jw says:

    This is a very enlightening piece. It’s disappointing to see how “Teach for America” works more as a public relations firm and temp worker recruiter than an actual device to help educate children. I would like to see federal subsidies geared more towards helping student outcomes rather than feeding bureaucratic systems like “Teach for America.”

  4. Christine Henson says:

    Gary, thank you for this eye-opening report. I’m in the application process for TFA and started to have second thoughts. At first, it appeared that TFA was funding new teachers via grants for moving expenses and the institute. Apparently, this is not the case. I didn’t like the idea of the institute to begin with, it seems more geared towards young college grads. I served in the Army for 14 years and have 2 masters degrees. I’m 46 years old and I don’t think I need this full immersion-brain washing institute on my dime while not getting paid. Your blog confirmed that my gut instinct was right, and I am now withdrawing my application. Thanks again!

  5. KB says:

    Gary, I am curious as to why you believe it’s important for TFA to provide all of their data and numbers, yet you don’t provide much data at all in support of your critique of the organization. You cite the Brown University recruitment data and TFA retention rates, but there is nothing about about first-year TFAers vs. first-year traditionally trained teachers. There is nothing about TFA’s out-of-this-world negative impact on students. And while I do appreciate the personal anecdotes of each of the former TFAers in your rant, I do think it’s important to realize that we – and probably you – have only received a small bit of the details surrounding those situations. I feel for those people and am so sympathetic to their struggles, but I also feel like it’s important to remember the old tale of “There’s two sides to every story.” Additionally, I find TFA and its staff members differ so much from region to region. There are good stories too. For example, a friend of mine received a grant/loan package from TFA to support her living expenses during summer training. She gave birth between summer training and the start of the new year, which is when she was supposed to begin repaying the loan portion of the package. Because of her circumstances and complications with both her and her child’s health, TFA waived her repayments all together. I hardly call that heartless. Finally, I must address your point of first-year teachers not speaking out. I am currently in my first year as a TFA teacher (gasp, the horror!), and I am open about both the positives as well as the very real struggles. And there has been so many struggles. Was I underprepared? Absolutely. Am I a savior for my social-emotionally disabled students or for my school? Absolutely not. But do I care about my students so much that I spend every waking hour trying to better myself and my craft for them? You bet I do. And lastly, am I any worse than my fellow first-year teachers (even those who are not TFAers)? After several peer observations, I can confidently say that that answer is also a no. Now, I know what you’re thinking… That’s not a very high bar. And it’s not. But can any teacher – or any other professional for that matter – look back at their first year and think, “Wow! I was incredible.” The difference is, Teach For America HAS provided me with support. I’ve attended discipline workshops, content area professional developments provided by third parties, and am learning so much from a very prestigious University. All of this was set up by Teach For America. They hardly abandon you when you’re in need. Here’s another example: I was placed in Special Education and hired by my school principal to teach sub-separate math. I have a learning disability in math, which makes it extremely difficult to understand mathematical concepts much less explain Algebra II concepts to students. I knew it wasn’t fair to my students to have me as a teacher, so I went to my TFA mentor and my region’s director. They set up a meeting with my principal and me, and we all discussed our best course of action. I was then moved to an English classroom where I am much more comfortable and much more able to assist my students and really help them engage with literature and writing. Notice I said I moved to an English classroom, which means that a week into school and there was still a vacant position in a social-emtional/behavioral program in my school. There were many more vacant positions that my school and my district were unable to fill without the help of TFA. That’s why I believe you’re wrong about them being all bad and contributing to the demise of public education. In some places, TFA still exists to fill in gaps that school districts cannot fill themselves. The bottom line is this: TFA certainly has many, many cons, but they have pros too. In some places more than others, they are a vital part of a school/district community, and they DO make a difference in the lives of some kids who desperately need them.

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