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Gary Rubinstein's Blog: The Incredible Shrinking TFA

Teach For America has an operating budget of $300 million. Their main responsibility is to recruit and prepare corps members to teach for a minimum of two years in low-income communities. They started in 1990 with 500 corps members. In 1991 they grew to 750 corps members. By 2005 they had 2000 corps members and they peaked in 2012 with 6000. Now, according to Chalkbeat, They are at a 17 year low, back to 2000 recruits.

Teach For America blames their recruitment woes on the pandemic, but I have been following the ups and down of this organization for over 30 years, starting when I was a corps member myself in 1991, and I have a different theory.

There are three reasons why TFA’s popularity is fading, and all three of these reasons stem from an overarching problem — arrogance. In my analysis, those three reasons are: Failure to properly train corps members, ineffective leadership, and a close alliance with a toxic and oversimplified type of education reform based on teacher bashing.

Reason #1: Failure to properly train corps members

Teach For America has been training teachers for 31 years. The first few institutes were staffed by experienced teachers since there were no TFA alumni yet. Still, the training was inconsistent and most of us had very rough first years. But the program was new and there were teacher shortages at the time, so this was pretty much expected. In 1994, TFA had major financial problems and they created a new low-budget institute staffed by TFA alumni in which corps members trained in four teacher cohorts who shared a class for student teaching. That class often had only a few students which did not make for a very useful student teaching experience. Corps members from the mid-90s struggled a lot in their first years — as did their students.

TFA expanded this model to different regions and even though the training was terrible, the program grew steadily. The training continued to be awful. TFA would not acknowledge the weakness of the training. I had all kinds of meetings with various TFA administrators in the early 2000s, I just couldn’t get them to see the reality of this. Improving the training was going to cost a lot of money and require TFA to be less arrogant by admitting they needed to do better — they weren’t willing to do either.

Not improving the training is bad for the corps members who had to experience the trauma of having an awful first year of teaching. But worse than that, the students of those new TFA teachers would suffer too. TFA did not care enough about either group to do something about this.

One example of a major deficiency in TFA’s training was that corps members would teach students during the summer training that were in different grades than they were going to teach in the fall. TFA would say that it was logistically impossible to have corps members train with students similar in age to those they would teach in the fall — many corps members didn’t even know what grade they were going to teach in the fall. But if TFA really cared about training the teachers properly, they could have easily created a system where new corps members would replace corps members who were finishing their commitments and leaving their schools. It just wasn’t a concern to them. The training, to them, was good enough.

Except it wasn’t good enough, and when you do such a bad job training teachers year after year, corps members do not recommend the program to others. There aren’t as many ‘whistle blowers’ as you would expect from all these corps members who witnessed the low quality of training, but those people did not speak highly of TFA and, as a result, they are not able to recruit new corps members anymore. The organization has a $300 million operating budget to recruit and train 2,000 corps members now. So that’s $150,000 per corps member. And poorly trained corps members at that.

The contempt TFA showed for the students who had to suffer with these untrained teachers and the arrogance they had to not be willing to improve is what I consider the main reason nobody wants to do TFA anymore, but it isn’t the only reason.

Reason #2: Ineffective leadership

When founder Wendy Kopp stepped down as CEO in 2013, she was replaced by two co-CEOs, Elisa Villanueva-Beard (known in acronym-happy TFA as EVB)and Matt Kramer. Two years later, Kramer left TFA and Elisa Villanueva-Beard became the sole CEO. Her salary now is $450,000 a year, I never got the sense that she was more than a figurehead CEO. Though TFA national headquarters are in New York City, EVB continued to live in Houston. For ten years she has been giving the same interview anytime she gets a chance. The problem with education in this country, she contends, is that teachers are too lazy and uncaring to set high expectations for their students. As evidence of this, she throws her own school teachers under the school bus and blames them for the struggles she had adjusting to college her first semester. The low-expectations narrative is something you might hear in ‘Waiting For Superman’ or some other teacher bashing propaganda film. It is just too oversimplified for it to be a compelling message. To me, it is a deliberate lie. Young TFAers are going to have high expectations and that is going to make all the difference. It bashes veteran teachers and props up the untrained TFA corps members in one shot. Maybe it is a good message for fundraisers, but that’s about it. I would expect her to be stepping down fairly soon, it’s time for a change.

Reason #3: Alliance with teacher bashing reformers

Around 2006 I noticed a big change in the attitude of TFA. They were suddenly the darlings of the politicians who vilified experienced teachers as the main problem with American education. This scapegoating was very ‘Trumpian’ and it led to the rise of the toxic TFA rockstars, most notably, Michelle Rhee who became chancellor of D.C. schools. Rhee was a regular on Oprah. She was on the cover of Time Magazine and Newsweek. She had a simple message — teachers are lazy and abusive and it is impossible to fire them. This message was a hit among Republicans and most Democrats. Obama appointed Arne Duncan who could be best described as ‘a dummy’ who seemed to truly believe that teachers were the enemy.

This also helped TFA raise money. TFA was mentioned in ‘Waiting For Superman.’ TFA accepted money from a fundraiser for the Walton produced bomb ‘Won’t Back Down.’ Other toxic TFA superstars rose to power — Kevin Huffman in Tennessee, John White in Louisiana, Cami Anderson in Newark, Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden, Chris Barbic in Tennessee, Michael Johnston became a state senator in Colorado. Michelle Rhee left D.C. and started StudentsFirst.

TFA’s recruitment peak coincided with the peak of the toxic TFA superstars around 2016.

Where Are They Now?

But the peak didn’t last long. With those leaders unable to deliver with their simplistic solution to bash teachers, they all started resigning. Currently there is just one TFA school system leader, Penny Schwinn in Tennessee where they are banning books and forbidding teachers from teaching about race. StudentsFirst merged with something called 50CAN, and they seem to be becoming more and more irrelevant by the day.

TFA also attached itself to the sinking ship known as the charter movement. Many charter chains were started by TFA alumni, like the KIPP network founded by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. Feinberg was fired by KIPP after being accused of sexually assaulting a student. In the trial it was ruled that there was not enough evidence to implicate him, but the accuser’s testimony was pretty compelling. KIPP did not stand by Feinberg. Charter schools, in general, did not live up to their promise that non-unionized teachers will outperform veteran unionized teachers. They were able to keep up the lie for ten years and chains like KIPP still get a lot of tax payer money to expand, but low performing KIPPs around the country that are often pleading with the school boards not to shut them down definitely have make networks like KIPP lose their luster.

Even now, TFA still clings to their oversimplified teacher bashing theory of ed reform. Just last week they produced a new podcast about TFA alumni who have ‘turned around’ failing schools. Here is the introduction to the first episode:

Many of the conversations that I have with folks about education start on the idea that schools are somehow failing children. That like if schools were working better, more kids would be successful. But if we look at the history of education in the United States, that’s probably not accurate. What’s more accurate is that schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do. They were designed to sort: a learning class and a laboring class.

The problem today is that more frequently, we’re able to predict which kids get which track based on where they’re growing up and their skin color.

But what if that wasn’t the case?

What if schools actually did work for kids and for every kid. Regardless of zip code, regardless of their last name, regardless of where they’re from.

Still using all the reform code lingo. They have not learned a thing. Ironically, the North Carolina school, North Phillips School of Innovation (NPSI), is described as a formerly ‘failing’ school because it had single digit proficiency scores in 2016. So they ‘reimagined’ the school and gave students hands-on experiences and opportunities to do research. These are all good things and there was no mention of test prep, which I’m glad about too. But there is also no mention of how, at least by a test score metric that got the school called ‘failing’ in the introduction, of the school improving their scores because this school did not yet improve their test scores.

This has always been the problem with the toxic teacher bashing style of ed reform. Every school with low test scores is called ‘failing’ and every school with high test scores is ‘high performing.’ But so often there are charter schools founded by TFA alumni that have low test scores, yet those are not called ‘failing’ by TFA. It is a double standard and one that has alienated TFA from the education community. This is why being a TFA alumni is now a strike against any candidate applying for a high level leadership position.

All these issues have led to so many articles and reddit pages and different ways for potential recruits to learn about the ongoing weaknesses of TFA. For my own part, I did try to give constructive criticism over the years. I wanted them to improve for the sake of the students the new CMs taught and for the CMs themselves who would find my blog and contact me telling me they were having mental breakdowns and TFA would just give them guilt trips. But had TFA improved, they would have helped themselves to continue to thrive and maybe even grow.

There were a lot of critics publicizing the problems with TFA. Often I was the most high profile and my interviews on NPR and on Adam Ruins Everything certainly couldn’t help them, but I was just a unionized teacher with a chip on my shoulder so my contributions were certainly overshadowed by TFA’s refusal to do the right thing and to choose growth and thirst for power over students and their own recruits.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...