TFA 25 Year Reform Fest — And I’m Going

Five years ago I attended the TFA 20 alumni summit, as I had the 15, the 10, and even the 5.  I suppose I’m one of only a handful of people, at most, who attended all four of these events.  Being around the organization for so long, and being involved for a lot of years in presenting workshops at the various institutes, I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who attend these things.

People who read this blog may not know that until the 20 year thing, five years ago, I was blissfully unaware of the the ‘reform’ movement and the havoc it was wreaking on America’s public schools.  I was horrified and, I suppose, a bit traumatized when I realized that an organization that I identified with for twenty years had become a part of the problem.  Before that conference, this blog was about tips for new teachers, mainly.  Since that conference, I’ve focused on exposing the various lies that the ‘reformers,’ many of them TFA alumni, have been telling.

I wrote an open letter to Wendy Kopp about 3 years ago in which I said I wasn’t sure I felt welcome at a TFA event like the 25th anniversary summit.  She wrote back and said that TFA needed to work on balancing things out like this and that there was some balance at the 20th which I wasn’t aware of and that there would be more in the future.

When I got the invitation, I thought about it for a while.  Why should I go somewhere where I’ll likely be frustrated by what I’m seeing, where there will surely be some people there who really don’t like me and have even written complete blog posts about what a terrible person I am?  But then I thought that I certainly have at least as much a right to be there as someone like Whitney Tilson who never taught a day in his life.  I also thought about how I could have some opportunity to ‘engage’ with some people who I disagree with on Twitter and maybe come to some kind of common understanding.  It’s pretty easy to have a fight on Twitter and say some pointed things that you would never say to someone else face to face.

An added bonus, since I’m a teacher, TFA waived the $100 registration fee and also sent me a nice extra $250 check to help offset the cost of a hotel room.  So I RSVPed and now, barring some kind of emergency, I’m planning to go.

At the 20 year, I did not like the focus on charter schools and how most of the invited speakers were excited about shutting down schools and firing teachers.  They even had a Waiting For Superman panel discussion with Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Dave Levin, Geoffrey Canada, and John Deasey.  The keynote speaker was Arne Duncan and it was in his keynote that he lied about how he shut down a school and had it reopened as a charter with the ‘same kids’ and how the school was thriving.  Based on that anecdote I wrote my first ‘school debunking’ nearly five years ago.

I reached out to the summit planning team for this upcoming summit and volunteered to participate by being on some kind of panel.  They said that there were so many people volunteering that there wasn’t a spot for everyone so I would have to be just an audience member though they were working hard to have the kind of balance I suggested and that I would have lots of sessions I would like.

Well, the preliminary list of sessions and speakers is out and based on what I’m seeing, I’ve been duped.

Of the 200 speakers listed so far, there is only one ‘reform critic’ I see, Los Angeles Board President Steve Zimmer.  Then there are about 150 people I’ve never heard of, but who are mostly from different ed companies or charter schools, and then there are about 50 A and B list ‘reformers’ and charter leaders.  These include Jeremy Beard (YES Prep), Karolyn Belcher (President of TNTP), RiShawn Biddle (Dropout Nation), Tim Daly (Former President of TNTP), Mike Feinberg (KIPP), Heather Harding (former VP of research at TFA, now with Gates), Kevin Huffman (former Tennessee Education commissioner and former husband of Michelle Rhee), Michael Johnston (State senator in Colorado who got a teacher evaluation law passed where 50% of the evaluation is based on value-added), John King (current acting Secretary of Education), Dave Levin (KIPP), Kira Orange Jones (New Orleans Board Member), Paymon Rouhanifard (Camden Schools Superintendent), Alexander Russo (Writer and reform cheerleader), Hannah Skandera (secretary of education for New Mexico), Preston Smith (CEO Rocketship Charter schools), John White (State Superintendent of Louisiana), Joe Williams (DFER and now Walton).  Not yet on the speakers page, but listed on some of the panels are Joel Klein (Amplify and former chancellor in NYC), John Deasy (Former head of Los Angeles Schools), Jon Schnur (Architect of Race To The Top), Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart (blogger who I’ve sparred with on Twitter), and, of course, Michelle Rhee (StudentsFirst and star of Waiting For Superman).

Many of the sessions also have a ‘reform’ slant.  There’s a session called ‘Becoming an Education Influencer on Twitter’ that I think I’d be an ideal candidate to be on.  But instead of me there’s ‘Dropout Nation’s’ RiShawn Biddle and Alexander Russo.

There’s one called “Alumni Trailblazers’ Perspectives on the Path to One Day in Our Lifetime.”  The panelists are the queen reformer Michelle Rhee, the prince, Louisiana Education Commissioner (for now) John White, and KIPP founders Mike Feinberg, and Dave Levin.

Joel Klein is moderating a panel called ‘What Will It Take To Reach One Day?’ and on the panel are Kevin Huffman and Kira Orange Jones.

One with an intriguing title is “What should we do when the whole school fails?”  It is moderated by the husband of TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard, Jeremy Beard, who has apparently left his post at Houston Independent School District leading their failed turnaround program ‘Apollo 20’ and is now the head of YES Prep Charter Schools in Houston.  On this panel is Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart, who has been known to accuse me of being a racist from time to time.  This panel also has the one and only ‘reform critic’ that I know of, Steve Zimmer, who is the head of the school board in Los Angeles.

Michael Johnston is on a bunch of panels.  One is called ‘What Works and What Doesn’t in Education Policy”  I think he is an expert on the latter as his horrific ‘accountability’ plan in Colorado where 50% of teacher evaluation is based on value-added scores has accomplished absolutely nothing in terms of test score increases.  On that panel is ‘Chief For Change’ Hannah Skandera, New Mexico Secretary of Education , and Jon Schnur, ‘architect’ of Race To The Top.

Perhaps the craziest session is called ‘Exploring the Role of Joel Klein as Mentor and Role Model:  A Case Study.’  The CEO of TFA, Elisa Villanueva-Beard is actually the moderator on this one.  Most of the people who Klein mentored are no longer in power, the most recent to be forced out was Cami Anderson in Newark.  I’m hoping that John White in Louisiana will be out by then and then there will be a full turnover of the Klein mentees.

There’s even one called “Leadership, Partnership, and Politics:  A Chicago Case Study” with the president of Illinois Network of Charter School participating.

Eva Moskowitz has her own session “Success Academy Charter Schools in New York:  A Case Study.”  I wonder if anyone will ask her about the “Got to go list”.  Or why she doesn’t allow first year TFAers to be lead teachers at her schools.

I suppose the funniest panel there, and one that I must attend, is one called “Tennessee:  A Story of Change at the State Level.”  The panelists — this is TOO much — are Kevin Huffman who resigned in disgrace as commissioner of education three years into the job before he got fired, Chris Barbic, who resigned in disgrace as superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District three years into the job after realizing that district had made almost no progress, and, get this, Matt Kramer, who resigned in disgrace as co-CEO of TFA after about two years into the job, before he got fired.  I think I’m going to go to that one and sit in the front row with the biggest tub of popcorn you’ve ever seen.

There are many other workshops that are on more neutral topics, but I don’t think there are any that really can balance out the ‘reform’ heaviness of the panels described above.

Saturday evening there are various happy hours, nearly all of them sponsored by different charter school networks including KIPP, Rocketship, and Success Academies.

I searched and searched for something that I could feel welcome at and then, at the end of the list of programs I found something.  This conference begins on Friday and ends Sunday.  There’s a big party Saturday night and on Sunday morning at 9:00 AM there are various ‘interest groups’ brunches including one for ‘Critics of TFA’.  The description is “Critics Not Haters:  A community for “TFA People” who engage in thoughtful criticism and seek change in TFA.”  While I appreciate that there is at least one planned thing for people like me, I think it is a bit too little, and definitely too late.

I’m not sure how many critical alumni will be at this event.  Many people I know who were disgusted by what occurred at the 20 year thing have decided not to go to this one.  Perhaps I will be the only one.  But if, by chance, there is a group of people who are TFA critics, it would be useful for us to meet up earlier in the weekend so we could maybe coordinate how we are going to make our voices heard at this thing.

As for me, I’m going to have to decide if I’m going to go to panels where the panelists will be lying so much and I’ll be sitting there trying to keep myself from heckling.  I’m sure that I’ll want to ask them some questions in the Q and A time, but I suspect that TFA will be very controlling about what questions get asked and who gets to ask them.

It I’m on my own as a lone TFA critic, I suppose I’ll use the experience to blend into the woodwork, converse with people who have no idea who I am, get information, and write a series of blog posts about the conference afterwards.

If I’m feeling a bit more ambitious, maybe I can coordinate with some fellow bloggers and create some kind of ‘Subversive TFA 25th’ website in which my team of bloggers can track tweets from the conference and do fact checking, the hashtag #TFActcheck25 could be used.

Another possibility is that I could, with the help again, of fellow bloggers, create something with ‘fact sheets’ for each of the panel discussions — what sorts of things we expect the panelists to say, what the real story is, and maybe even a list of questions that people attending these panels could ask at the end of them.  In the best case scenario, word would get around, especially as some of the participants who are ‘on the fence’ get the sense that they are getting a very one-sided picture of what’s going on.

I suppose there is a chance that I’m recognized by some TFAers who really don’t like me and maybe they will confront me.  I don’t think this is likely, but there’s one guy, Citizen Ed, who seems a bit obsessed with me to the degree that he wrote an entire blog post about how evil I am called ‘The Misanthropy of Gary Rubinstein’ and even took the time to create a photoshopped Andy Warhol piece of art using my likeness.  And the thing he was so upset about was that I used public data to show that Louisiana AP scores are, despite all their supposed improvements, still among the worst in the country.  There are a few other TFA people who really don’t like me and have taunted me on Twitter from time to time.  This guy Ned Stanley is one and then he and some other guy were teaming up on me a few months back.

If you are reading this now and you are a reform critic who is a TFA alumni who is going to the summit, let me know and if there are enough of us, maybe we can figure out a way to coordinate, at least by attending different panel discussions and sharing our notes about them.  If you are a disgruntled TFA alum who was not planning on going to the summit, maybe reading this will inspire you to register and help increase the representation of reform critics at this event.  Reach out to me on Twitter if you want to try to find a way, at least, to have a meet-and-greet sometime before that brunch Sunday morning.

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11 Responses to TFA 25 Year Reform Fest — And I’m Going

  1. Steve M says:

    Gary, please encourage all of your (reform-critic) associates to attend. The country needs more than one level head/ready reporter to be present at the meeting.

    Re: Zimmer

    As a teacher in Zimmer’s flagship high school, and as a person who has watched Zimmer’s board career fairly closely, I’d not necessarily call him a “reform critic.” He still refuses to directly criticize TFA, or the organization’s policies. Instead, Zimmer seems to keep a relatively open mind and to steer a (purposefully) neutral course.

    I’d call him an intelligent, discerning guy. But, he is (unfortunately), a political animal…and one always needs to be wary of that.

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  3. Christine Langhoff says:

    I suggest a TFA Bingo game and, borrowing from The Edushyster, a wine box. You’re a brave man, Gary, and a thoughtful one. Thanks for taking one for the real teacher team.

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  5. Old Teacher says:

    Don’t do any kind of drinking game, you’ll die of alcohol poisoning. I’ve always believed my measure as a man is in part the type of enemies I have. You sir have a fine collection, may your stomach and patience be intact. I can’t wait to read about it, but you’d have to pay me substantially to be there.

  6. Yvonne says:

    You are great Gary. TFA is so stupid. They know you have devoted some serious effort to criticizing them and yet they waive your registration fee AND give you a $250 stipend.They know who you are and still gave you money. They are pretty dumb. You really pulled one over on those dummies.

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  10. spottedtoad says:

    My sense was also that TFA was trying to incorporate more voices critical of reform, though for different reasons:
    https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/02/13/tfa25/

    I didn’t make it down to the event.

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