Teach For America co-CEO Matt Kramer has announced that he is ‘stepping down.’ His partner in crime, Elisa Villanueva-Beard, will be promoted to sole CEO. I expected some kind of top-level shakeup and predicted six months ago that one of them was on the way out.
When Wendy Kopp resigned and they took over in March of 2013, TFA’s stock was at an all time high. There were over 6,000 new corps members, TFA alumni like Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, and Cami Anderson were shaking things up at StudentsFirst, Tennessee, and Newark. Like a giant ship with a lot of momentum, it seemed like it didn’t matter who was steering it — just keep your foot on the gas (not sure that ships have gas pedals, but surely they have something that serves that purpose) and don’t make any sudden movements with the steering wheel.
I found the co-CEO arrangement very odd. For a company bringing in over $300 million a year, the person, or people, in charge need to relocate to the city of the home office, in this case New York City. Yet Kramer remained in Minnesota and Villanueva-Beard remained in Texas. Whereas Wendy Kopp made around $400 thousand as the sole CEO, Kramer and Villanueva-Beard made, combined, over $700 thousand as co-CEOs.
I started monitoring their activity right after their appointment. I then met up with them on their ‘Listening Tour’ and gave them a piece of my mind (Don’t worry, I had plenty to spare). Kramer was much more friendly to me than Villanueva-Beard was. He told me that he liked reading this blog, which I appreciated. Then over the next year and a half I really didn’t see much substance in either of them in their public appearances.
I didn’t expect much from Kramer. He’s never taught. The only time he ever sees a school is when he is some kind of honored guest where the kids are on their best behavior (the students with behavior challenges, in some schools, could be warehoused elsewhere when there’s a guest at some charter chains). He just never had a feel of how difficult teaching is. Villanueva-Beard, in her public comments, seems to have forgotten how difficult teaching is also. Both of them seem to cling to the over-simplistic view that the biggest problem in education is that too many teachers have ‘low expectations.’ This is part of why they are both so enthusiastic of the supposedly raised expectations of the Common Core.
I guess this goes back to the so-called Pygmalion effect “Children will rise to the expectations of their teachers” and conversely the Golem effect that children will do poorly it their teachers have low expectations.
How I wish that low expectations were the main difficulty in education. It would be so easy to improve. Teachers would just raise their expectations: Teach a little faster, assign a little more homework, make the tests a little longer, a little more difficult — more ‘rigorous’ if you will. While I’m certainly not an advocate for low expectations, I think it is definitely naive, and even a bit dangerous, to too blindly believe that the act of just having high expectations will cause students to learn more.
I suppose if I overheard a teacher in the lounge saying something like “I don’t assign homework anymore. I used to, but they never did it, so why waste time with that?” I’d think that that teacher’s students suffer from his low expectations. On the other hand, I pride myself on not giving an extreme amount of homework. I think that you hit diminishing returns after a while so a few well-chosen problems in Math serve much more of a purpose than assigning page 117 1 to 39 odds.
As a teacher, one of the most important skills to have is known as ‘scaffolding’ where you break down a skill into sub-skills and then teach the kids those sub-skills which you then build up to the big skill. Is that not some form of low expectations? If I’m an English teacher I suppose I could tell my class to read ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ in one night. That’s setting some pretty high expectations. But will this work? Or will it discourage kids by asking them to do an unrealistic task. So I guess I’m an advocate for appropriate expectations, something that a teacher is best able to gauge. I definitely don’t see ‘low expectations’ as a major reason our country isn’t at the top of the PISA scale, nor do I see ‘high expectations’ as something that will cause us to be at the top of the PISA scale anytime soon.
Yet this is pretty much all I’ve heard from Kramer and Villanueva-Beard. Do they ever talk about fair funding for schools? Do they ever talk about the need for wraparound services so that kids can be less distracted from their learning? How about that month long hunger strike in Chicago to save a public high school? Do they have any feelings about that? Not much. No, it’s all the lazy teachers faults with their low expectations.
I don’t think there is anyone out there who really believes that Kramer just ‘stepped down.’ In his open farewell letter he says
While I believe this is right for the organization at this stage in its development and for me personally, it was nevertheless a difficult decision, and one I make humbly and with gratitude for my incredible journey here.
What does that mean? He feels that this is ‘right’ for the organization so, in other words, TFA is better off without him? Basically he’s saying “TFA should fire me but they don’t want to so I’ve decided to leave.”
Every step of the way, I’ve tried to be conscious about the experiences I bring to this work and the ones I don’t. Importantly, I’m not a Teach For America alum, a teacher, a student of corps members, or a graduate of urban or rural public schools. I believe deeply that this effort will never succeed without a diverse leadership force, inclusive of people who share the backgrounds of our students and those who come from more privileged backgrounds, of alums and non-alums, and of teachers and non-teachers. I also know that my background requires that I approach each day seeking to understand the perspectives of alums, educators, students, and parents. I’ve strived to honor that, and also take strength from it—I’ve found that, for me, embracing the assets and blind spots that come from my experiences is the best path to doing this work in a way that is sustainable, authentic, and consistent with my deepest values, and it guides me in challenging moments.
Yes, we need a ‘diverse’ leadership force, which means include people who know a lot about education and others who know nothing at all about education.
It’s been a privilege to lead alongside Elisa, and our partnership has produced many benefits, but co-leadership comes with real costs too—we spend a lot of time maintaining alignment, and we often speak in a voice that reflects our daily compromises. Ultimately we determined that Teach For America will be best served in the period ahead by a single CEO—who can act more decisively, speak more authentically, and evolve more rapidly.
Here we hear that there were some behind-the-scene conflicts between the two co-CEOs. As a result of this divided front, they have had to present weakened compromised messages. How I would love to see what some of these supposed conflicts were. Basically you had two people each making nearly $400 thousand a year. They each got to telecommute from their respective homes and, I believe, they were basically two puppets of whatever the nebulous TFA board told them to say. So now that Kramer is out, how will things be so different? Instead there will be just one puppet leader. But the forces pulling the strings are still the same. Are we to believe that Villanueva-Beard whose $400 thousand salary may seem like a lot, but isn’t such a large percent of the $300 million annual TFA budget, has the power, now that Kramer isn’t around to undermine her anymore, to finally grab the reins of this horse and see where she can take it?
More than ever, TFA needs competent leadership. I believe that TFA would like to have fired both Kramer and Villanueva-Beard, but it would have been tough to present something like that as them both voluntarily stepping down. So instead Kramer can ‘step down’ and then a few years from now — need to at least wait until after the 25th anniversary celebration, Villanueva-Beard can ‘voluntarily’ step down too and TFA can bring in a new leader, someone who is a little more savvy in the messages he or she conveys, intentionally or not. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Wendy Kopp return to her old position, kind of like when Jay Leno returned to the Tonight Show after Conan O’Brien started to take a nosedive in the ratings.
I’d like to see Wendy in charge again. She has always treated critics like me with respect and, even now, quickly answers any emails I send her (I maybe email her once every two years, but still). On the other hand, Kramer and Villanueva-Beard won’t even take the few seconds it would take to respond to my Twitter taunts. Wendy even responded to my open letter to her while Kramer and Villanueva-Beard blatently ignored the one I wrote to them. I think that Wendy understands that even though I’m just one person, I’m certainly some sort of ‘litmus test’ where if I’m content with the direction that TFA is taking, then many other people will be also, so even if I may seem unnaturally obsessed with the improvement of TFA, the energy that I’ve invested in this task does matter.
I actually have no ill will toward Matt Kramer. He does seem like a nice enough guy. I feel a little bad for him that he was set up for failure, taking a position he had no qualifications for. Being fired (or asked to voluntarily step down — whatever you want to call it) is certainly a bad feeling, something that will surely take a little while for him to come to terms with.
As another piece of unsolicited advice to the nebulous TFA board: You can fire all the CEOs you want and replace them with other ones with different names and faces, but the problems that TFA is currently facing will not improve as long as they are following the same script as the ones they replace. TFA is struggling because they have attached themselves to dishonest education ‘reformers.’ Each time ‘reformer’ lies get uncovered, TFA’s reputation takes a hit. This is why the corps size is down. This is why cities are canceling their contracts with TFA. This is why most the TFA alumni who were once leading various districts and even states have resigned recently. TFA need not go down with the ‘reform’ ship. But this can only change if they are able to admit that this is what is currently happening.