Skip to main content

Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Open Letters To ‘D-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 1: Justin ‘Juice’ Fong

A little over a year ago, I wrote a series of open letters to ‘reformers’ I’ve known throughout the years.  I was not surprised that the majority of them did not respond.  On average, they each are making over $350K a year in the ed ‘reform’ game, and I would expect that it would be quite risky to write a public response and to even admit that you once knew a rabble-rouser like me.

A few months ago, I started a series of open letters to ‘B-List’ reformers I know.  These were people making about $250K a year.  For these I got no responses at all.  Again, probably too risky to publicly write something that is surely going to get shredded by commenters.

So I thought I’d skip the ‘C-List’ reformers and go straight to the ‘D-List’ and see if I can get someone who wants to defend against serious challenges.  My first recipient is someone I’ve met just once, but have sparred for about six months on Twitter, Justin ‘Juice’ Fong.  Juice is the Vice President of internal communications of TFA.  I don’t know his salary, but I’m guessing that it is around $150K.  He can correct me on this if he responds.

I first became aware of Fong when he wrote a ridiculous response to the “Organizing Resistance Against Teach for America and its Role in Privatization” summit in Chicago this past summer.  Near the beginning of his post, he wrote “Knowing that you have an anti-TFA assembly tomorrow morning, here is my advice to you: Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon, so work with us to make the organization better.“  His post was generally smug, patronizing, and disrespectful.

Over the past six months, Fong has showed more nuance in his posts.  He even wrote something about how standardized testing data can be used more fairly, which got some positive feedback from some ‘anti-reformers’ (a phrase that Fong clings to).  Fong also wrote a very balanced end of the year roundup where he acknowledges some of the backlash that TFA has been experiencing recently.

I met with Fong for lunch one day over the summer and found him to be a nice person, much like I’ve found nearly every TFA staffer I have ever met with.  So what has this poor guy done to deserve one of my ‘classic’ open letters?  He’s not Michelle Rhee or Whitney Tilson.  Well, I’m realizing that the TFA beast is not your typical beast that has the usual beast anatomy with an obvious head and a heart, so there is not an obvious target in fighting it.  It’s like a giant blob composed of mostly decent individuals who come together to make something very bad.  So when you confront a beast like this, you have to use a different strategy.  Maybe if I can write something that helps Fong understand the issues, this letter will influence all the other thousands of TFA staffers like Fong who think, I’m not one of those nasty ‘reformers’ and then if those thousands of other TFA staffers start to come around because of it, then maybe the organization can begin to change so me and other TFA critics can relax a little.

Fong’s most recent blog post was a response to the #resistTFA hashtag which was ‘trending’ last week.  This post was, to Fong’s credit, much better than his post from the summer about the “Resistance against TFA” summit.  Still, he misses ‘the point’ (or pretends to) so I’m going to take this opportunity to write publicly to him and see if he is willing to respond (which I’d expect him to, but I thought that about some of the other letters I wrote too, so who knows?)


Dear ‘Juice’,

You are a nice enough guy, particularly in person, but I have to admit that I find you hard to categorize.  Sometimes you tweet like a hard core ‘Tilsonesque’ reformer, calling critics ‘anti-reformers’ and ridiculing Diane Ravitch’s latest book and mocking Randi Weingarten.  Other times you write more thoughtful tweets acknowledging some of the limits of things like charter schools.  It is like you flip a coin, like the Batman villain ‘two face’ and based on the outcome of the flip decide which point of view to have for that moment.  Either that or you are just very conflicted, which I hope is a truer explanation.

Much of what you wrote in your recent blog post is accurate.  You answered a bunch of criticisms, which the #resistTFA people were not really making.  Yes, it is true that, on average, TFA teachers are not awful.  I did not like your use of the 2.6 extra month statistic that students of TFA secondary Math teachers supposedly gain over those of average teachers since it is based on bogus math (I analyzed this ‘research’ in this post).  When teacher effectiveness is based on ‘value added’ I suppose that TFA teachers have distributions similar to non-TFA teachers.  But even when studies give a small subset of TFA teachers an ‘edge’ it is quite a small edge.  But a big part of the TFA narrative (and this is a huge thing that people are upset about, though you never address this in your posts) is that the average teacher in this country is quite bad.  So if the average teacher is quite bad and the TFA teachers, even in the most generous studies, are about the same, then the conclusion, based on the ‘data’ (flawed as VAM data may be) is that TFA teachers are quite bad too.

So here is the heart of the issue.  It is one that you can dance around by addressing the smaller concerns that you have slick answers for, but one that you will need to address if you truly want to make the TFA critics feel like someone, anyone, at TFA is truly listening.  TFA thrives (and exists really) on the belief that a large number of teachers in this country are incompetent, lazy, or both.  What percent are in these categories, nobody is willing to commit to, but it better be pretty large for the silver bullets of ‘higher expectations with the common core standards’ and the ‘multiple measures in teacher evaluations’ to have any chance to make any difference.

We started hearing about this new ‘bad teacher’ narrative around the time that Michelle Rhee had become chancellor in DC and ‘Waiting For Superman’ came out.  The premise was that certain charter schools had ‘proved’ that schools could single handedly overcome all the out of school factors (call it ‘poverty’ if you want to, but there are out of school factors that rich kids have too which schools are unable to overcome) if they could just fire their ‘lemon’ teachers who have jobs for life.  Just the other day Michelle Rhee testified in South Carolina and said “In so many school districts across the country, you’ll hear stories about how people will come in, you know, as long as you pass the criminal check, and you’ve got a pulse, you can get a job in the classroom, and then once you have that job, you know, you have that job forever.”

Put this together with all the tales of ‘miracle’ charter schools where even Elissa Villanueva-Beard was recently quoted as saying “There has been undeniable progress in the last 10 years … Only recently, hundreds of schools (of primarily minority student populations) now send 100 percent of their graduates to college.”

You and I even had a spat over the summer where a TFA alum who was a principal was saying that his school had a graduation rate that was so much higher than that of a nearby school, if you remember.

So why am I so upset about this school having miraculous ‘success’ or these hundreds of schools sending 100 percent of their ‘graduates’ to college?  Because these are lies.  Notice that Villanueva-Beard said ‘graduates’ rather than ‘students.’  Because going back to the Arne Duncan speech that started me on my research three years ago, nearly to the day, at the TFA 20th reunion event, the attack on ‘regular’ teachers for being ineffective has gone too far.  The fact is that of all the schools I’ve studied that had 100% of their seniors going to college, this goes for the KIPPs and the YESs and the others, they all seem to have about a 40% attrition rate from 9th grade to 12th grade.  This is a very important detail to acknowledge.

I’ve also been to the KIPP high school and what I saw was not particularly innovate or ‘rigorous’ so I resent the implication that TFA teachers, charter schools run by TFA alums, and even districts and states run by TFA alums are ‘proving’ that teachers in this country have had it way too easy with their ‘tenure’ and their ‘jobs for life.’

TFA has been using, or at least implying, the ‘bad teacher’ narrative for years in their PR and fundraising efforts.  I suppose that if some very rich people were swayed by these stories of the superiority of TFA teachers and TFA-led charter schools, it didn’t ‘hurt’ those rich people very much to donate some money to what seemed like a good cause.

But what has happened, and this is what you seem to be unaware of, is that the superiority of the TFAers has become folklore and has influenced people like Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and even the President of The United States.  Consequently we see attacks on teachers and teacher’s job protections and pensions and completely unscientific teacher evaluation schemes rushed out.

More recently we see the great silver bullet ‘The Common Core’ based on the concept that students always rise to meet our expectations, so we just need to raise our expectations.  Just recently the two TFA co-CEOs even wrote a blog post lending their support the the Common Core.  Come on.  If it were so easy that we just had to ‘raise expectations’ wouldn’t teachers already be doing that.  As a long-time teacher, myself, I’ll admit that sometimes students will get lazy and then I am tempted to lower expectations, almost subconsciously, so it does take an effort to not do that.  But the Common Core, if many of the critics are correct, often asks teachers to demand that kids do tasks that are developmentally inappropriate.  It has been a while since you were a teacher, and sometimes time has a way of making things fuzzy, but could you clarify for me what your experience was with times when you challenged kids a bit too much?

In general, I’d like to know more about why you feel about the big issues the way you seem to.  How can your views be so much closer to Whitney Tilson’s than to mine?  Is it that 40% of the non-TFA teachers that you have seen are, in your opinion, lazy and/or incompetent?  If that’s why, let me know.  At least I’ll have some context.  Have you found that value-added scores that you have studied have agreed with your opinion from observing teachers?  If that’s your background experience, that would make sense, then that you cheer on reports from TNTP about ‘irreplaceables’ and all that.

You see, it’s not so much about the little details that you think the #resistTFA-ers wanted to complain about.  It is the big things.  The way that TFA abuses the power that it obtained — unearned I think — to promote the things that helps TFA grow richer and more powerful while dismissing the very real frustrations of teachers around the country who are being crushed by the reforms that are based more on anecdotal TFA tall tales than on actual research.  In your ‘Open Letter to Anti-TFA folks’ you touched on this phenomenon when you wrote “And yes, there are also some negative unintended consequences of our program, too, which is unfortunate but not incorrigible.”  I agree, it is unfortunate.  The “negative unintended consequences” of reform include mass school closings in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.  In a parallel universe, TFA would be fighting school closures as a quick fix — if in that parallel universe the people doing the closings weren’t so closely allied with TFA.  Instead, TFA thrives on the ‘disruption’ in places hammered by this kind of reform.  But for TFA not to actively work to avoid these “negative unintended consequences” (some would argue that these consequences are actually ‘intended’) is just irresponsible, and that is the kindest word I could think of for my problem with TFA.

When I was a kid, I don’t think they have this anymore, I used to get at McDonald’s something that was some kind of orange juice.  For legal reasons they weren’t allowed to called it orange juice however since the word ‘juice’ means that it is has genuine substance and not just sugar and food coloring.  So instead they called it orange ‘drink.’  I’m sure you know where this is going, but if you are to live up to your nickname you are going to have learn to listen and try to understand what the TFA critics are actually frustrated about.  Currently you have gotten quite good at seeming like you are listening and writing what seem to be reasonable responses to those concerns.  But you are getting caught up in the minutia without stepping back and trying to think outside the TFA bubble that you and other staffers seem to live in.  So what’s it going to be?  Will you try harder to understand, or will I have to start calling you ‘Drink’ Fong until you do?



This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Gary Rubinstein

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