Does TFA (Illegally) Take A Side On Recent Teacher Strikes?

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.

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9 Responses to Does TFA (Illegally) Take A Side On Recent Teacher Strikes?

  1. Gnostradamus says:

    The NEA should be taking legal actions on this.
    And they should hire researchers to do this kind of job.

  2. deutsch29 says:

    Reblogged this on deutsch29 and commented:
    Former Teach for America (TFA) corps member-gone-NY-career math teacher, Gary Rubinstein, explores TFA’s efforts to pressure its corps members not to participate in teacher strikes in the districts in which they are temporarily assigned. Really informative perspective from Rubinstein.

  3. Jack says:


    Thanks for reaching out!

    However, having read your output above, I’m going to offer you a little pushback, and suggest that you carefully grapple with and watch your upspeak, and instead, first do some pre-work where you focus on a workable action plan that allies your vision with the goals that are both transformational and truly path-changing for our under-served students, who … let’s face it … will be the ones most affected by a strike in Denver.

    While, on the one hand, I’m excited to jump into this conversation with you, we nevertheless have to set some norms before continuing this confab.

    First off, let’s start with a clarifying question. How’s your PPA? Also, can I get the AM-EX for the upspeak which you’re sharing through this reaching out which you’re now executing on your blog?

    Do you really think writing this anti-TFA pushback was a good use of your time?

    After all, regarding the above videos relating the impending Denver teacher strike, all TFA is doing is putting their stake in the ground, and deciding where TFA has to be different in order to bring out transformational change for our students.

    How does that resonate with you?

    I mean really, Gary. Let’s role play this role play. Are you truly owning what you shared above, because what you wrote shows a glaring lack of pre-work on your part. Are you hearing me?

    I hope so, because before you decided to execute this push back on what the CMA and CS believe, and which contradicts the ongoing inputs and outputs from the DTL and the LT, as well as that of the folks back at the IMT, you first should have considered your own brio and PPA.

    Indeed, you could have initially found a thought partner to yammer this out, then, in concert with that thought partner, you then could have — instead of writing this blog piece — done a deep dive into the issues and effects on students related to teacher strikes, and then, and only then should you bucket out the transformational conclusions that arise from this reaching out to your thought partner, so that you can then apply all this correctly within a school ecosystem’s pedagogical paradigm.

    It’s this way that you can then capture some of that low-hanging fruit, and get some big wins for our under-served students, and in the process, formulate a powerful response to a potential strike in Denver.

    In conclusion, what I hear you saying is …. you want to push back on what our TFA folks are sharing in Denver.

    Respectfully, I have to counter by asking: Will your doing so will really lead to Denver teachers hitting their big goal of eliminating the achievement gap?

    No, I didn’t think so.

    Are you on board with what I’m sharing? Because getting you on board is why I needed to do this little pushback to your own pushback.

    To anyone still reading this drivel, all I did was string end-to-end Wendy Kopp’s asinine TFA jargon contained in this internally-produced TFA video (BELOW) where actual TFA Corps Members are ridiculing Wendy’s invented cultic TFA-speak pseudo-language.

    Writings this parody took me all of 15 minutes. I just played the video on another open tab and typed away.

    Watch this video and then loop back with me on it:

    So in the end, you need to loop what’s on this video back to TFA, so that we can execute something that really, truly, and fundamentally transformational, and then TFA can truly live out its credo:

    “One day, all children in our nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” (Wendy Kopp, TFA founder, 2001).

    While you might find the above parody funny, it’s also kind of sad, as these poor kids just out of college, and with little educational training and experience, are vulnerable to this kind of cultic manipulation.

    Read this from wiki on “loaded language”:


    “Loaded language (also known as loaded terms, emotive language, high-inference language and language-persuasive techniques) is rhetoric used to influence an audience by using words and phrases with strong connotations associated with them in order to invoke an emotional response and/or exploit stereotypes.[1][2][3].

    “Loaded words and phrases have significant emotional implications and involve strongly positive or negative reactions beyond their literal meaning.

    ” … ”

    “Emotive arguments and loaded language are particularly persuasive because they exploit the human weakness for acting immediately based upon an emotional response, without such further considered judgment. Due to such potential for emotional complication, it is generally advised to avoid loaded language in argument or speech when fairness and impartiality is one of the goals.”

    • Bill says:

      Awesome comment. I was become more and more furious every time you used the word “upspeak”. LOL. I couldn’t wait to finish reading your comment so I could write a scathing response, but then I got to the end and busted out laughing. Bravo.

    • Douglas Unfug says:

      OMG! Love it. I was so pissed by halfway point I was already crafting a response based on the curated TFA ignorance you channel….glad I read to the bottom. My TFA experience mirrors his, and yours.

  4. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: Did TFA Take a Position on the Teachers’ Strikes? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  5. Anne Richards says:

    In LA, only charter schools hire TFA.

  6. E. Rat says:

    In Oakland, alumni and media pushback is forcing TFA to cover any loss of Americorps funding. My experience of TFA is that they’ve always been pretty anti-union under the guise of neutrality. As a Corps Member in 2001 in a union state, we were given a talk on how it’s our choice to join the union or pay the fair share fee. There was no requirement for TFA to do this; it functioned as an opportunity for people to air their apocryphal stories about union wrongdoing.

    At least locally, the strikes are forcing TFA to at least pretend to consider its broader impact. OUSD’s funding issues are badly exacerbated by charter schools, many of which were founded by alumni. The major pro-charter organization here is taking heat too – one of its co-founders was the Bay Area ED. As a longtime critic/alumni, it’s interesting to see how surprised the organization seems to be by the pushback. I get the sense that they never considered the possibility of organized pushback.

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