If you want to know which way the wind is blowing in education politics, watch what TFA is doing. In the 2010s when ‘Waiting For Superman,’ Michelle Rhee, and KIPP charter schools were all the rage, TFA was busy touting and even taking credit for these. And now that those types of reforms have proved a bust after 10 years, TFA is altering its messaging.
A recent example is TFA’s new podcast series called ‘Changing Course.’ Each week they feature a school that is doing something innovative. Often they are high schools schools that have been ‘reimagined’ with opportunities for internships and hands-on learning. Though these schools generally have not proved themselves by the only metric that used to matter 10 years ago, standardized test scores, TFA no longer values, apparently, this one thing that had been used to label schools as failures and gotten them closed or ‘turned-around’ not so long ago.
The most recent episode ‘Better Together’ is the most ironic example of TFA jumping off the reform bandwagon to date. The premise is that there was a building that housed two schools. One was a college prep school and the other was a less academic school. As sometimes happens with these co-locations, there was a rivalry between the two schools and students were not happy about it. So the students appealed to the Denver school board to unite the two schools. They were successful and now the one school is a much more vibrant place.
To TFA’s credit, they got some very compelling interviews from current and former students at the school building. One student said that the original decision to split the once-unified school back in 2011 was rooted in systematic racism — that suburban schools do not get split up into two competing schools in the same building. Another student said that the original decision to split up the school was based on the school being unfairly labelled a ‘failing’ school based on just standardized test scores. All throughout, the host, Jonathan Santos Silva, complements the students for their courage and commitment to right this wrong.
But all throughout the podcast there is a looming unanswered question of who was this evil Denver school board who imposed such a punishment on this school ten years ago and why did that same school board suddenly have a change of heart.
Ten years ago, Denver was considered to be a mecca for so-called education reformers. Michelle Rhee, herself, when asked on Real Time With Bill Maher in 2013 told him that one city that was doing things right was Denver. The Denver school board was primarily composed of reformers who were funded by out of state money. This was also around the time that TFA alum Michael Johnston was a state senator and got a punitive teacher evaluation bill S.B. 191 which counted standardized test scores as 50% of the evaluation score and is still unfairly punishing teachers there to this day.
So in 2011 this pro-reform school board voted to do this turnaround on West High School where they split the school into two schools co-located in the same building. One school was run by The College Board and the other by Generation Schools, both New York based companies. Teachers were fired and the schools became ghost towns as they stopped admitting new ninth graders for the years until the students already in the school had graduated.
Eventually the schools devolved into the college prep school and the ‘other’ one. It seems that the ‘bad’ school got re-taken over a few times. It was a mess and the students started a campaign to re-unite the school. And like a true underdog story, the Denver school board agreed! But what the podcast fails to mention is that this Denver school board is not the same people as the one who voted to split the school. The old school board was stacked to board members who loved TFA, loved Waiting For Superman, loved school turnarounds like this. But recently Denver voters have rejected this type of superficial school reform and instead voted in a slate that were unanimously backed by the once vilified teacher’s union.
During the days when the reckless school closings and takeovers were happening in New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and there in Denver, you did not hear TFA talking about how awful this is. Ironically even the host of this podcast Jonathan Santos Silva, tweeted an article that was complimentary to Michelle Rhee style reform efforts in Denver in the early 2010s.
In featuring this story, is TFA finally admitting that they were wrong to support the destructive types of school reform that included turnarounds like this? It seems so for now. But I would like to see TFA go further and publicly renounce their years as cheerleaders and beneficiaries of this kind of school reform. I don’t think it is likely that we will get more than what we have in podcasts like this. TFA has to keep their options open in case Michelle Rhee rises to power again one day. But for now it is nice to see TFA casting the reformers as the villains and the unions as the heroes.