I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss Michelle Rhee.
Back in the day I could always count on her or some other reform rockstar like Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, Cami Anderson, Kevin Huffman, or so many others to say something really bold yet completely ignorant about what’s wrong with schools in the country and how to improve them. It was so easy and also so satisfying and rewarding.
But more recently I’ve noticed that the outspoken education reformer has become somewhat of an endangered species. And with the exception of Eva Moskowitz, there have not been any charismatic reformers to take the place of those who have gone into seclusion.
And I think this was, whether or not this was intentional, a good decision by reformers. Now that the reform movement has been mostly revealed to be a fraud, the only way that they can continue what they are trying to do is to do it behind the scenes without making controversial statements that can so easily be challenged. So instead you have these milder nondescript reform leaders like Derrell Bradford Vice President of 50CAN, Carolyn Belcher, president of TNTP and Elisa Villanueva-Beard, CEO of TFA.
When Wendy Kopp created TFA twenty-eight years ago, a long term plan was that eventually the organization would become experts in the issues of education in this country and would be able to mobilize an army of informed alumni to help improve education based on their combined wisdom. So here we are twenty-eight years later and although there have been some TFA alumni who have amassed some wisdom about education, I find that TFA ‘the organization’ continues to have a view of education that is extremely naive. This simplistic view on the complexity of education was on display in a speech and question and answer session by Villanueva-Beard at The City Club of Cleveland last summer.
And though Villanueva-Beard is not necessarily the definitive voice for what TFA ‘thinks,’ I found this speech to be an interesting case study of how the wrong organizations and the wrong people have been giving way too much power and influence in the education debate in this country.
At around the five minute mark of her remarks, Elisa Villanueva-Beard says something that she has been saying in nearly all of her speeches and written published pieces.
Once kids are in schools they face even more barriers because the truth is that our system does not expect kids in low income communities, children of color to perform at the absolute level of their more affluent peers.
We find that in low income communities we have low expectations of children.
President Bush called it the bigotry of low expectations.
Channeling the wisdom of George W. Bush on education is never a good sign.
She then supports her argument by saying that she struggled her first semester in college due to the low expectations her teachers had for her (but surely her success after she adjusted to college had nothing to do with what she learned from her teachers before college, presumably).
Who is it that has these low expectations? Well, she doesn’t ever say that it is the teachers of the students just that it is ‘a system’ that has the low expectations. But that really doesn’t make much sense. If ‘low expectations’ is indeed the problem then it must the the teachers who are negligent in setting these. I don’t think there is any teacher out there saying “I would like to have higher expectations, but ‘the system’ just isn’t letting me.” No, the level of expectations is set by the teacher so though she never says it explicitly, it is at least implied that teachers are the culprits. As a teacher, myself, I know that I use my professional judgment to decide what my expectations are. I don’t think it would be good to have expectations that were too low — my students would get bored and restless. I also don’t think it would be good to have expectations that were too high — my students would be confused and restless. Teachers generally set expectations at the appropriate level to best serve their students.
Besides being a teacher for nearly 25 years, I have also been a parent for the past 10 years. And I know that I would not want my own children’s teachers to set expectations that were too high. I remember when my daughter was doing chess club once a week after school when she was in kindergarten and first grade. She was learning the rules pretty well and liking it at first. But then when the instructor began with the ‘theory’ part where there were supposed to learn how to perform different checkmates with different pieces, she stopped liking chess and eventually gave up on it. It was an example of the expectations being too high for her when she wasn’t ready yet for that level of ‘rigor.’
During the Q and A session after the speech, there were two very revealing things Villanueva-Beard said.
The first was in response to a question about TFA corps member effectiveness in district vs. charter schools. She stared with:
Nationally what we have found where we’ve been placing about a third of our corps members across the country teach in public charter schools and then the rest are in traditional public schools
We actually find in terms of data and performance, you know in the charter schools you usually have just a certain culture that expects a certain rigor and you know, level of teaching that is you know necessary for us to ensure that we’re doing what we need to for kids and so you do see that teachers are held to just a very high bar and have to deliver on results and if they don’t then, you know, they’re in trouble.
What is especially ironic about this is that her husband Jeremy Beard is the school leader for YES Prep Charter Schools in Houston. Though they are often cited as some kind of gold standard of charter schools, once receiving $1,000,000 from Oprah, I’ve found that two out of the twelve middle schools her husband is in charge were ‘F’ rated by Texas.
So if charter schools, she thinks, are generally higher performing because of their high expectations, how does she come to terms with the fact that one out of six of her husband’s own middle schools are ‘failing’ by the Texas state definition?
She goes on to say that the corps members in traditional public schools are also doing incredible work things because “at every school there’s always people working to be their best and do their best.” Then she says that on average they don’t see huge differences between charter school corps members and traditional school corps members. Finally she says that the difference is really that the teachers at the charter schools feel a lot more pressure from their administrators while the teachers at traditional schools have to put the pressure on themselves.
Another question she answered was about TFA’s relationship with teachers’ unions:
In terms of the relationships with the teacher unions there are national unions and there are local unions and so they vary across the board. I would say that on average you know as I said earlier we believe that we need diverse coalitions and people that are working together to find the common ground to you know make the progress necessary um there are sometimes there is dissonance in the relationship on certain aspects but we work really hard to make sure that we are focused on the positive and the things that make sense to do work together and so nationally I would say we have a strong relationship with one union and another union I would say it is not as healthy but we continue to work to figure out how to find the common ground because at the end of the day we are all in this together and trying to just make sure we are providing the education that our children deserve.
She could have answered this question by pointing out that throughout the country there are many TFA members who are not just union members, but who are very active members. One of the most high profile union leaders in the country, the leader of the Los Angeles Teachers’ Union, Alex Caputo-Pearl, is a TFA alum, for example. And also in Los Angeles, Steve Zimmer is also a TFA alum, who recently lost his board member seat to a reform backed TFA alum. She could have mentioned them and others and it would have supported the idea that TFA has a diversity of opinions among their alumni. Instead she promotes the idea that TFA alumni have diversity of thought about some things, but on other things, like opposition to teachers’ unions, we are all unified.
In December, Villanueva-Beard was interviewed on two podcasts, one with RiShawn Biddle at Dropout Nation http://dropoutnation.net/2017/12/04/the-conversation-teach-for-americas-elisa-villanueva-beard/ and another with Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute https://edexcellence.net/commentary/podcasts/the-politics-of-teach-for-america
On both of these she was challenged by the hosts about whether or not TFA, by taking sides on political issues like DACA and Black Lives Matter, is abandoning its mission to focus exclusively on student achievement. Her response is that TFA alumni have a wide diversity of views on these issues.
But like in The Blues Brothers where the waitress at the counter says they have “both kinds of music, Country and Western.” Villanueva-Beard would have us believe that TFA has two kinds of alumni, pro-charter school anti-union reformers who think issues like DACA and Black Lives Matter are part of our mission, and pro-charter school anti-union reformers who think that issues like DACA and Black Lives Matter are not part of our mission.
So while she is right that TFA alumni have a diverse set of views on different issues, she works to conceal that this diversity of opinions is a lot more than TFA would like it to be.
Though it was more exciting to do takedowns of the higher profile ed reform rock stars a few years ago, I do think it is good for the cause of public education that those people are no longer in the spotlight. Though I do think that some of those people are still working in the shadows — it was just over a year ago that Michelle Rhee was interviewed by Trump and, from what I understand, offered the job of education secretary — I do think they they will have less impact in those shadows. Who could still think that Michelle Rhee is embodying the premise of StudentsFirst? What about her life and actions that the public can see, at least, demonstrates that she is so passionate about helping students in this country that she puts the needs of the students above all else?
The disappearance of the reform rock stars and replacement by this new breed of bland understudies was a first step in the collapse of the reform movement. Trump and DeVos surely have not helped Democrats continue to embrace ‘school choice’ as a viable solution. Then, you knew it had to happen eventually, Bill Gates recently came out and admitted that teacher evaluation reform didn’t work as well as he had predicted so he is going to instead work on curriculum development. Whether or not the reform movement is merely ‘playing possum’ right now and playing dead while really planning their next wave of attack (some are giddy about the upcoming Janus Supreme Court case), I suppose we will find out in the years to come.