Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Open Letter to Reformers I DON’T Know. Part III: Amorphous TFA Blob
I joined TFA in 1991, twenty-four years ago. How, then could this letter be part of the reformers I DON’T know, rather than to the reformers I know series? Well, though I do know certain people who are in leadership roles in TFA and have even written open letters to several of them (only Wendy Kopp had the class and courtesy to write back) those people are people who have worked at TFA, even founded TFA, but none of them actually can be said to ‘be’ TFA.
I once asked a TFA staffer about how TFA seems very slow to evolve and why that might be. I asked what it would take — who would a staffer have to appeal to, for instance — to make a big change to TFA like to make the commitment a four year commitment or to shut down the Chicago region. This person stared back at me, basically to say “I really don’t know.”
It must be very strange to work for TFA, not having a real sense of who it is you work for. Who, exactly, is in charge? Wendy Kopp stepped down as CEO and now there are two co-CEOs who, my sources tell me, at least one of them is soon to step down. Nobody thinks that Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard are actually running things, making big new decisions as they telecommute from Houston and Minneapolis. Is Wendy still calling the shots? There is a ‘board of directors’ which, I think, Wendy is the president of. Do they have some kind of vision for where TFA is right now and where it could or should go in the future?
So while I certainly know a lot of people affiliated with TFA, I, and all the other alumni, corps members, and even staffers, can never honestly say that we ‘know’ who TFA is, at least the way things are structured right now.
In this sense, I can make the same criticisms about TFA that ‘reformers’ make about the education system in general, which they sometimes refer to as ‘The Blob.’ It is a good metaphor. There’s this amorphous Blob. Does it have a brain? Fighting the Blob is a frustrating experience. You poke your sword though one spot and it just becomes a temporary hole which closes up as soon as you remove your sword. It has no weak spot. You can’t reason with it either. Since the TFA Blob just ‘is,’ it will take a long long time for it to evolve.
I’ve been challenging TFA to improve various aspects of the program for twenty-one years. Pretty much as soon as I finished my two year commitment in 1993. My issue used to be the training model. I’d say that fruitless dialogue lasted between 1993 and 2011, eighteen years. Then in 2011, about four years ago to the day, I had my epiphany at, of all places, the TFA 20th anniversary summit. It was there that I realized that TFA was aligned with the teacher bashing movement which, in my opinion, will one day lead to nobody wanting to become a teacher.
So this open letter is not to Wendy Kopp or Elisa Villanueva-Beard or Matt Kramer or Jeff Wetzler or Juice Fong or Christina Torres or Seth Saavedra or Garret Bucks or Heather Harding or Craig Weiner or David Rosenberg or to any of the people I’ve communicated with throughout the years, but to the TFA Blob of which everyone associated with TFA is a part of — this includes current corps members, alumni, current staffers, former staffers, even former corps members who have quit. Though the Blob doesn’t have a centralized brain, if enough of its components make an effort to change a little, perhaps the Blob can change too.
Dear Amorphous TFA Blob,
Wow. You’ve gotten quite big and blobby! And I really hope this hole that I’m speaking into is actually your ear hole. Though I know that you don’t have a central nervous system or something that can officially be called a brain, I’m going to offer you some assistance in how you can survive in your new environment. Many blob like creatures have existed throughout the history of the world. Most are now extinct. By chance, some very lucky ones happened to evolve appropriately, but these were very lucky creatures. If you want to depend on luck, then I wish you luck, but if you want to try to understand your situation and quickly try to evolve into a creature that is self-aware enough to even take suggestions, you may be able to make your own luck.
You are vulnerable right now. In the New York Times there was a front page article about how recruitment is way down. Talented applicants are the lifeblood of TFA. Without them, you are in real trouble.
I’ve seen a lot recently about how Teach For America has evolved. The latest cohorts of corps members are more diverse, you are helping fill teacher shortages on Native American reservations, you have piloted a year long training program for corps members who sign on as college juniors, for example. None of these things are going to help you, however. These changes are way too superficial to help you survive your new environment.
What you need to do first is take a long look at yourself in the mirror. What is your plan? Do you hold meetings for staff members to do more responses for your growing ‘On The Record’ webpage where you respond to critics? That’s just not gonna do it. If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re going about it all wrong. You should not be thinking “How can we change our communication strategy so that people don’t think that what we’re doing is hurting education?” People like me and other critics will see right through that. As they say, actions speak louder than words.
No, if you really want to get critics off your back, you’ve got to start asking a different question. You have to get the staff members together and ask “What sorts of things are we doing that are bothering the critics so much? What is it about those things that we have such trouble stopping doing them? Do we want to stop doing them? What would it take to stop doing them.” These are the kinds of questions, amorphous TFA Blob, that you need to be asking yourself.
In your response to the New York Times front page article, you wrote that there were two main reasons for the drop in applicants to TFA. The first was the improving economy. The other was that potential applicants are discouraged from becoming teachers because of the increasingly polarized education debate in this country.
So the first thing you should ask is: “What role have we played in fueling this polarized education debate?” I’d say your role was great. After all, it is was the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ starring TFA legend Michelle Rhee that influenced the country’s perception of teachers and helped grow the teacher bashing movement that has since spread around the country. Yes, you don’t tell Michelle Rhee what to say, but you didn’t really make much effort to counter her claims that teachers in this country are, on average, ‘crappy.’ And though Michelle Rhee is currently out of the picture, working in the shadows instead, most likely, there are plenty of other teacher bashers that TFA has speak at various fund raisers. Cami Anderson, Kevin Huffman, John White, Tim Daly, the list goes on and on.
You also benefited from the colossal anti-teacher union flop ‘Won’t Back Down’ when the producers sponsored a ‘Teachers Rock’ benefit concert which TFA received money from.
Why couldn’t you come to the defense of teachers? Maybe it is because your recruitment strategy has been to convince college students that by joining TFA, they will surely be much better than the average teacher, therefore the average teacher must not be so great otherwise why would we need the TFA teachers to save the day? What is the way out of this dilemma? Well I think it is possible to still recruit TFA members without implicitly supporting the teacher bashers. Imagine that you were an organization looking to help people who wanted to become firemen. Being a fireman is a noble thing. You could say “Save lives. Be a fireman” or “Fight fires alongside some of the most heroic men and women in this country.” See, no fireman bashing. No, “The firemen in this country are failing because there are too many fires still to put out. You need to come in and show those lazy unionized firemen how it’s done.” So my first piece of advice is to find a way to celebrate the career teachers in this country rather than feed the teacher bashing narrative that is driving away old teacher and scaring away potential new teachers.
The next thing you need to ask yourself is “Why do we choose to lie so much and to spread the lies of others?” Here is an example:
When you include a statistic like this in your marketing campaign, do you care if this is a lie? Or do you actually think this is accurate? Do you think that 19% of high school graduates in this country ‘can’t read.’ Yes, I know that this comes from a ‘report’ put out by the US DOE.
But “can’t read” is a very ambiguous description. Does this mean “completely illiterate”? Does this mean “reads at a fifth grade level”? Do you even know? The report is not easy to track down, but I did find some statistics from it. So one of their statistics is that 21% of U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level. Are we to believe that most of these adults are the ones who also graduated high school? How can it be possible for 19% of high school graduates to be completely illiterate?
But you chose to use this bizarre statistic in your campaign. You need to ask yourself ‘why’? Is it because you fell for it? You believed that 19% of high school graduates are fully illiterate — that they sign their names with an ‘x’ like in the Old West? Or did you know that it wasn’t really true, or for sure misleading and didn’t care because it was something that would help inspire people to apply to TFA? And it might accomplish the goal of recruiting people, but at the same time it advances the teacher bashing narrative which, as you’re seeing, scares away even more people. Tweeting a false statistic like that was very irresponsible of you.
Or how about this one by co-CEO Matt Kramer:
Yes, the famous 100% college acceptance trick. I’m well aware of it. Every time I’ve investigated a claim like that, it always has meant 100% of the graduating seniors who, it always seems, are about 50% of the original cohort. In this case it only took me about 5 minutes to verify my suspicion.
When I let Matt Kramer know about this, did he tweet back to me “You are correct, it was only 100% of the graduating class. Didn’t mean to imply 100% of the cohort.”? No. He just ignored me. Here I had a legitimate concern and he left me stranded, holding my breath, for a response. Is that a way to treat an alum who has been active for 23 ½ years and has volunteered in various capacities over those years? I don’t think so.
So the strategy shouldn’t be “How can we not get caught lying so much?” It should be, “Why do we lie so much?,” “Do we even realize when we are lying?,” “Are we just gullible or victims of wishful thinking?,” “What purpose do these lies serve?,” “Is it possible for us to free ourselves from this web of lies that we have weaved?” The answer is that the best way to stop lying is to do it ‘cold turkey.’ Just stop. Yes, there is a risk that without your lies, you will either have to be completely silent or tell the truth. And maybe that truth will not be exactly what your funders want to hear. You’re going to have to decide where your priorities are on this one. I could just say that when you do lie, people like me and others will continue to do our fact checking so the lies will likely be exposed and then you’ll have to do even more ‘On The Record’ responses trying to defend your lies.
I’m getting tired of hearing that 1/3 of alumni are still teaching. How can it be true that only 20% stay for a fifth year, yet 1/3 become career teachers? Perhaps it is because the large recent cohorts are doing third years and skewing the numbers? Still, you should stop misleading people with it. Also the thing about how secondary math TFA teachers get 2.6 months more of learning. First of all, that same report says that all the other TFA teachers, which is most of them, are about the same as other teachers. So if you are with Michelle Rhee that most teachers ‘suck’ then most TFA teachers suck too. Also, the whole conversion of standardized test questions correct to ‘months’ calculation is very sketchy. I think that they call one or two more questions right on a test 2.6 months. You should learn the details before you constantly quote a report just because it makes you look good.
You claim that you want to improve and that you are your own harshest critics. Why then, when you decided to get an independent auditor to go through all your records and then give you the honest truth of your strengths and weaknesses did you choose to hire your buddies at Bellwether.
Their report was a 97 page puff-piece which, at least in the public report — maybe they issued you another report privately –, offered no useful suggestions for how TFA can evolve in a productive way. The report is full of ‘reformy’ nonsense, even quotes from a TFA VP saying that resistance to TFA is by unions who are threatened by the status quo. If you want to earn good will with the public, hire a truly neutral independent auditor, maybe someone from Five Thirty Eight or something.
Amorphous TFA Blob, you are way too bloated. I learned from that report that you have over 2,000 staff members and a budget of something like $300 million annually. But what do you do, really? You train about 5,000 new corps members. That’s a cost of $60,000 per corps member. And you have about 2 1/2 corps members per staffer. (I don’t count the 2nd year corps members. They, in general, don’t need or want your support.) Perhaps you could use a bit of that $300 million more productively than that.
Finally Amorphous TFA Blob, you need to take a good look at who your pals are. You have fallen into the wrong crowd. Look at your friends and really ask yourself “Why am I friends with this person?,” “Is it because I respect his or her knowledge about education?,” “Is it because he or she likes me?,” “Is it because this person is powerful and gives me power or because this person is rich and gives me money?” I’m not going to list them all here, you know who your friends are. Many of them know nearly nothing about education. They have very big mouths and may be very charismatic, but what they are saying is based on wishes and rumor and not at all on evidence. I’ve seen TFA sign on to bizarre reports, like the one by Klein and Rice that says that our education crisis is also a crisis of national security or the proposal that teacher preparation programs should be funded based on the value-added scores of its graduates. With all the data you have, can you honestly say that you trust value-added scores? Have you not seen great corps members with lousy value-added scores and lousy corps members with great value-added scores? Why you would side with anyone who sees them as a big part of the solution to fixing education, I don’t know.
These friends never say anything about increasing funding for public schools or about decreasing class size. Mainly they promote the idea that the average teacher in this country is the problem with education so we need to find a more objective way to rate them so we can fire them more easily. But they don’t understand the ecosystem. It’s like someone who knows nothing about the rainforest coming in and disrupting things to fix what they’ve identified as the problem with it. But in doing so they cause a chain reaction that does not only solve the problem, but causes even bigger problems. Go find some new friends who know what they are talking about.
I guess the most obvious and most powerful, while the least knowledgeable, friend of TFA is the current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. An example of how out of touch he is, he recently said in a television interview: “The vast majority who drop out of high school drop out not because it’s too hard but because it’s too easy.” To me, this is like the Surgeon General saying in an interview that you can contact Ebola by dancing the Hokey Pokey with the family member of someone infected by the disease. If the Surgeon General said something so inaccurate, the newspapers would be all over it, but it’s only education so who cares if the head of the US Department of Education knows what he is talking about. In some parallel world where TFA does not depend on money from the US DOE, you would be railing against the fact that our education system is being led by someone so naive.
OK Amorphous TFA Blob. That’s all I’ve got for you today. I would email this to you, but I don’t know what your email address is or if you even have one. These open letters have rarely gotten responses even from humans with fingers who could type a response so I’m not expecting a response from you. But if any components of the Blob, current corps members, alumni, staff members, whoever — even though you are just a tiny part of the Blob, maybe you are, the one who is destined to save the Blob from itself. Feel free to comment or to email me.
Alum 1991 Houston
Institute staff member Houston 1996
Volunteer workshop presenter Houston and NYC 1995 to 2006
Writer for the TFA-Two-Step Houston Newsletter 1992 to 1995
Keynote speaker at various TFA events from 1995 to 2005
Recruiter in Colorado and also at Tufts 1996 to 2002
Participant in the alumni summits, 5-year Washington DC, 10-year New York City, 15-year Washington DC, 20-year New York City
Host of dinners for new TFA corps members in New York City 2003 to 2009
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