When teachers in a school district decide to go on strike, Teach For America corps members who teach in public schools in that district have a decision to make. This happened in the 2012 Chicago strike, the recent Los Angeles strike, and the upcoming Denver strike.
Teach For America says, and they have to as a non-profit, that they cannot take a position, one way or the other, on the strike. They can neither encourage nor discourage their corps members from participating in these strikes, by law.
So it seems, then, to be a pretty easy decision for corps member. Considering that they would be risking becoming pariahs in their own schools after the few days of the strike, it would not be worth it to cross the picket line. But there is another caveat — Teach For America corps members are also part of something called AmeriCorps, which provides them additional money, I think $10,000 over the two years. Now AmeriCorps has some additional rules and one of them says that you cannot participate in a strike when you are getting credit for AmeriCorps hours.
In 2012, during the Chicago teacher strike, Teach For America made it very clear that corps members who strike would not be penalized in their AmeriCorps grant because the number of hours that they teach is so far beyond what is required by AmeriCorps that they will still have plenty of hours left so they just won’t be able to log those hours when they were striking, but it would not come at a financial cost to them.
The statement from the TFA executive director in Chicago, Josh Anderson, said:
“In the event of a strike, the normal schedule of classes will be cancelled. It is up to you to decide what you do during the strike day(s)…The choice is truly and fully up to you and we hope you will give it thoughtful consideration. Being a TFA corps member does not prohibit you from making any specific choice.”
“We’ve heard several people ask the question of whether being an Americorps award recipient means you cannot strike or picket. The simple answer to this question is that being an Americorps member does not prohibit you from striking or picketing. The only stipulation is that you cannot count strike days towards your Americorps hours. This is not a problem because you will work more than enough time to qualify for your award.”
But when it came to the recent Los Angeles strike, Teach For America told the LA corps members that it is their choice whether or not to strike, but they would lose AmeriCorps money if they choose to strike.
They sent this as part of an email to all alumni:
No one has inspired me and my team more than our 2017 & 2018 corps members who work in LAUSD schools. They’ve had to make a near impossible decision. With few exceptions, they are eligible to enroll in AmeriCorps and receive an AmeriCorps Education Award (a federal grant funded by taxpayer dollars), at the end of each corps year, as many of you did. However, federal law requires that AmeriCorps members not engage in specific prohibited activities, including hindering or participating in union organizing activities and engaging in strikes. In addition to these federal limitations, corps members faced immense pressure to either cross the picket line or participate in the strike. Ultimately, as private citizens, corps members made the decisions that are unique and personal to their own beliefs and circumstances, even if it meant sacrificing a portion of their AmeriCorps award.
This week at TFA LA, we’ve prioritized our corps members’ ability to make the choice that is right for them and their students ahead of everything else, and we support any and all decisions they’ve made. Many of you also had to make hard choices and we support those, as well.
The corps members in Los Angeles made their decisions based on the information that TFA gave them — which was that they would suffer financially if they joined the strike, even though when the same situation happened in Chicago, they did not lose money.
I was asking around on social media about what exactly TFA was telling the corps members and I tweeted about the Chicago precedent when one of the 50CAN/TFA guys who likes to challenge me from time to time, said that the LA strike was completely different because unlike the Chicago strike where the schools were completely closed down, the LA schools remained open. This was an interesting legal argument, but the 50CAN people are sometimes kind of loose with the truth so I kept looking into this.
Since there might be an Oakland strike any day, it seems that a group of TFA alumni drafted a letter to TFA explaining that AmeriCorps actually leaves it up the discretion of Teach For America whether or not to penalize their AmeriCorps grant in the event of a strike. The letter also says that other groups that have AmeriCorps grants have thought of ways to not punish their members for participating in the strike.
Now it might seem like TFA is in a tough position. As a non-profit, they say that they cannot discourage nor encourage their corps members to strike. All they can do is provide information so the corps members can make the decision that is best for them.
Well, in researching this, I came upon some videos from TFA in Colorado, which makes it very clear about how they are manipulating their corps members to not strike by not only threatening their AmeriCorps money, but by providing them very biased information about the issues involved.
I have four examples below. You can watch or listen to each, the first three are only a few minutes long while the fourth one is about twenty minutes. I’ll comment after each one.
So there is going to be a town hall. He makes it seem like this is going to be a balanced discussion because one of the panel members is going to be from ‘the union.’ What he doesn’t say is that there are going to be five panelist. Four of the five are going to argue against the strike. Even though this is just one minute long, there are two things he says that are worth noting: One of the issues (and not the only one as the panel will make it seem, the main issue is teacher pay in general) of the strike is a merit pay system where teachers in low-performing schools that are showing ‘growth’ according the Colorado growth calculations currently get bonuses under some plan that voters voted on a few years back. So when this guy says a few seconds in “The central question is whither and how we value are teachers” and then again at the end “what are the issues for deciding how we value teachers here.” As will become clear in the panel, especially based on who TFA chooses to invite to be on the panel, the current plan is trying to value the teachers who are supposedly more effective because of their growth scores. This might sound good if you don’t know how arbitrary those growth scores are and even the process of deciding which schools qualify for these bonuses is based on wildly inaccurate value-added growth measures.
So here he again says that by law, TFA cannot take a position. But does it not count as taking a position, when you provide incomplete and skewed information to the corps members, especially the ones that attended the town hall or, even worse, the ones who watch the highlights reel from the town hall which I’ll look at next?
Also look at his expression when he says that while you can make your own choice, “there may be implications for your AmeriCorps award.” He says that they are trying to find out more information, but to my knowledge, Denver TFA teachers currently believe that they will lose some AmeriCorps money if they strike.
The best part is where he says that it is tempting to sort people into us and them and how kids’ interests are divergent with teachers’ interests. Of course this is the StudentsFirst/TFA philosophy that they’ve been at least suggesting for about ten years. But they can’t take a side right now, though he slips pretty badly when a few second later he encourages us “to find those intersections, however narrow, where kids interests and teachers interests are actually overlapping.” So obviously TFA still believes that there is a very narrow intersection between teacher interests and student interests.
These are the highlights of the panel. This panel was very one-sided, and the highlights made the union guy look like a fool. The first thing the union guy says makes the merit pay sound like a great thing. The second guy from ‘A+ something or other’ describes the merit pay as “you get more money for making a bigger impact.” We don’t hear about how arbitrary the math calculations are that determine who gets bonuses. The woman from the district talks about how this pay scheme has caused an increase of 6% retention at those schools. So there are 30 schools that the teachers get bonuses at. What about someone who teachers at the 31st most challenging school? Of course retention goes up at those schools when you pay them more. It still doesn’t mean that the system was implemented fairly.
The TFA guy asks a leading question about how this is about teachers feeling valued. It implies that the merit pay system values teachers while the other way only values years of service.
When the union guy explains the salary step that most districts use salary steps, it really comes off as sounding lame. It sounds like there is this exciting thing that helps kids that the unions are against and instead they want something that only helps teachers.
The student then says something about putting “Students First.” Since this is a 3 minute summary of an hour long meeting, it is interesting that TFA managed to edit in a “Students First” I wonder if Michelle Rhee gets royalties on that.
The other people sounded passionate and reasonable and really caring about the kids and those kids getting the best teachers and how this merit pay scheme helps kids. Does TFA know that with all the ‘reform’ that Denver and Colorado in general has had over the past ten years, their achievement by test scores has hardly changed?
And it ends with the TFA guy saying that “most importantly” the students are going to be watching. This is, I think, a subtle way of saying that if you strike, your students will be learning something negative from you.
There is also a 21 minute, longer highlight audio reel from that town hall. In that one, we get the same sort of bias. But at least in that version, the union guy makes some more important points about how teachers want the stability of knowing how much money they are going to make each year. The 21 minute version also gives the ‘A+ blah blah’ guy more time to make it sound like he has research backing the idea of merit pay.
What I find interesting is that TFA fails to release an unedited video of the entire panel discussion. There is the 21 minute recap and the 4 minute recap, but no hour or two hour video showing the whole thing in context which would include questions from corps members. So TFA seeks to control the narrative once again, and the choices they make about what to show and, more importantly, what not to show reveals their biases.
It is clear that TFA is against the strike. The only question is whether or not they are breaking the law or if they are subtle and ambiguous enough to get away with it.