I joined Teach For America in 1991 as part of their second ever cohort. Over the past 28 years I’ve had a relationship with them that has had various ups and downs. For a short period of time I was someone that they would invite to address groups of corps members. I was even once on staff at the summer training. But for the past seven years it’s mostly been negative. I call them out for supporting some policy or for lying about some education research and a bunch of TFA zealots attack me on Twitter.
For the past two years, TFA — along with other ‘reform-minded’ people — have gone under the radar. They have realized that the reform agenda pushed at first by George W. Bush and then continued by Obama with Arne Duncan has become toxic. Even reform pundits have been writing about how reformers have to reboot and rebrand since they have not been able to deliver on the lofty promises they made when they took control of education policy about ten years ago.
Teach For America has generally taken on a more neutral tone in their social media. They even recently shared an article about how some TFA alumni are union leaders including Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of the Los Angeles teacher’s union.
But TFA occasionally lets it slip that they are still very much rooted in the reform ideas advanced by people like Michelle Rhee. Anytime the current CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard is interviewed for a podcast or makes a speech she is sure to say something about how one of the biggest problems in education is that teachers have low expectations for minority children. This is really just a less hostile way to say that teachers are lazy — why else would they not just raise their expectations?
A few days ago, TFA tweeted their “list of must-reads and must-sees.”
This list, written by ‘The TFA Editorial Team’ contained as one of the dozen recommendations for learning about issues in education, the 2010 documentary ‘Waiting For Superman.’ This is how they describe it:
This emotional documentary follows the lives of five students as they traverse challenging educational experiences. With clips from educational advocates like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee woven in, this film gives an honest portrayal of education in America today.
Considering that Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee have faded into obscurity — Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools have done very poorly and then he became an executive for a failed ed-tech company that was led by Joel Klein. Michelle Rhee left D.C., started StudentsFirst, then all but disappeared, shut down StudentsFirst and went to work as a board member for Miracle Gro. Her legacy in D.C. is one of a cheating scandal and more recently a graduation rate scandal. One of her top deputies, Jason Kamras, became superintendent of Richmond and did not try to implement the controversial IMPACT teacher evaluation program he developed with her in D.C. — it is a stretch to call them ‘educational advocates.’
The movie Waiting For Superman is not generally quoted or referred to, even by prominent reformers, they know how absurd the claims in that movie were. The biggest whopper occurs 24 minutes into it when the narrator says “For generations experts tend to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods. But reformers have begun to believe the opposite — that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.” This movie makes so many false claims — they bring in ‘experts’ to say that money doesn’t matter in schools or that 90% of students in certain states cannot read at grade level even though NAEP proficiency is not, and is not supposed to be, the same thing as ‘grade level.’ It really has taken about eight years to undo the damage done by that movie and all the media blitz that accompanied it — Oprah, Obama, NBC’s Education Nation Week.
I’m not so surprised that Waiting For Superman is still gospel to the TFA staff. What surprises me is that they are so dim that they would not realize how dumb it is to admit this in their 2018 must-see list. This list was written 5 days ago and to me it shows how TFA has learned nothing from the failures of Michelle Rhee and other TFA allies over the past eight years.