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TFA Sponsors Reform Propaganda Videos

I recently learned through one of my Twitter followers about a series of videos from an organization called RESET in Minnesota.  Minnesota is a place that has a large TFA and TFA charter school presence.  Even one of the new co-CEOs has several relatives involved in Minnesota charters.  TFA, as well as several charter organizations, are ‘partners’ with RESET.

RESET seems to be an organization that promotes the supposed benefits of the corporate reform model.  They have produced six videos which, from my understanding, are being shown in movie theaters before the previews.

Responding to the tweet that informed me about these videos was none other than the TFA twin cities executive director:

I examined the RESET website and the videos and concluded that they, and the response by Crystal Brakke, reveal much of the problem with TFA.  Over the years I’ve known, and even met with, a lot of TFA staffers.  The funny thing about most of the ones that I’ve met is that they are completely oblivious about how what they do could be, in the long run, hurting kids, schools, and teachers.  They are just blind to this and when you try to tell them about it, they get confused and a little sad, but not sad because they are doing anything wrong, but sad because they are so misunderstood.  This RESET organization’s website and videos, however, are a great opportunity to demonstrate how TFA promotes public school bashing and teacher bashing to their own benefit.  The videos also reveal how little these people know about education combined with how much they think they know about it.  (Note:  Videos I have critiqued over the years have a way of getting taken down.  If anyone is adept at this, could you save these videos and let me know how I can get them again if they get removed — thanks.)

The corporate reform movement loves TFA because TFA promotes the idea that the main problem in education is that tenured union teachers have low expectations for their students.  The TFA teachers, however, break the cycle by having very high expectations which lead their ‘same kids’ to incredible standardized test results.  Because many of the schools are charter schools that are run by TFAers and staffed by TFAers, they get to use the innovative ‘solutions that work’ to close the ‘achievement gap.’

Here is the 10 minute summary of their philosophy and strategies.  If you want to watch it first to make your own judgements, you should, or you can skip to my summary of the things that I noticed.

Within the first minute, they say:

00:13  “We don’t need to solve poverty first, and we can’t afford to wait another generation.”

To demonstrate that they know what works, they put up this graph showing how the charter schools they support are getting incredible results compared to the district schools.

One issue I have with this bar graph is that it says that these statistics are for 8th grade proficiency, yet the two TFA charter schools Hiawatha Academies and Harvest Prep Academy are just elementary schools.  Hiawatha Academies only has 3rd and 4th grade test results so far, so I think this is a pretty misleading graph.  [Update:  a commenter says that this actually says 5th grade math.  If this is right, I'll look at the stats more closely and post about them another time.  I'll bet that if  you look at all the possible comparisons that could have been made, this is the one that makes those schools look the best.]

RESET is an acronym and the five letters stand for the five strategies that they advocate.  These strategies, they imply, are not being used by the district schools, so they had better be innovative.

The ‘R’ stands for ‘Real-time use of data.’  We learn at 01:36 that in their schools they do something very groundbreaking:  Rather than just wait until the end of the year tests to see how they are doing, their teachers actually assess how the students are doing during the lesson!  Can you believe it?  I suppose that since they were barely trained by TFA they might consider this to be something unusual, but this is something that all teachers do.  Really, how could you not do this.  Certainly this is nothing groundbreaking.  At 02:13 we learn that these teachers don’t just call on student volunteers, but actually call on students who are not volunteering sometimes!  Again, this is not something unique to these schools.  I’d say that pretty much every teacher does this, even the ones at the ‘failing’ district schools.  And the fact that they are making such a big deal about it here does, in my opinion, imply that they think they are doing something unique here.

At 02:44 we learn that the ‘E’ stands for “Expectations not excuses.”  Again, and this is the thing that the TFA types don’t understand, I think, when you phrase it this way, it more than suggests that the ‘other’ schools and ‘other’ teachers do have excuses and don’t have expectations.  At 02:57 they say “High expectations means expecting excellence from all children.  Not denying some a rigorous education because we decide they can’t handle it.”

On their website they have, in this section, the craziest education research statistic I’ve ever seen.  See the last bullet point.

I’ve always said that one of my main problems with the TFA training model is that they put way too much emphasis on the power of high expectations.  Sure, you don’t want to have very low expectations, but you don’t want them to be unrealistically high either.  They should be ‘appropriate’ and this bogus claim that “teacher expectations account for 42% of the difference in achievement between white and African-American students” is something that really understates the importance of all the out of school factors for which teachers have no control.  (Someone find me the study that they think they are quoting.  Really I’ve never heard anything like this, not even from DFER or StudentsFirst.)

More reform lingo at 03:22 “Poverty does not preclude learning.  On the contrary education is one of the most effective paths out of poverty.”  Then at 03:54 “Fortunately, no one told these children they couldn’t achieve at the highest levels.”  Implied, of course, is that in the ‘other’ schools teachers are doing just that.

‘S’ stands for ‘Strong leadership.’  At 04:40 we hear that a principal that has control of staffing and accountability will have students learn up to seven months of additional learning per year.  At 04:58 they say that teacher turnover is lower in schools with strong leaders yet I always read about the churn and burn at charter schools with TFAers.  At 5:08 they say something about lowering student-teacher ratios, which surprised me since this is something that ‘reformers’ often say is unimportant, so I was pleased to hear that.

‘E’ is for ‘Effective teaching’ and at 05:20 we get the famous phrase that the teacher is the #1 school based factor in a child’s education.  At 05:40 we get to see two of these ‘effective’ teachers in action.  Yet all I see is teachers eliciting one word reflex responses from the class in unison.  At 06:10 we get the famous ‘statistic’ that having an effective teacher three years in a row adds up to a full year of extra growth.  They are really not leaving anything out from the ‘reformers’ playbook here!

At 07:03 we see the ‘SLANT’ poster in the background.  This is a ‘no excuses’ school staple where student have to ‘Sit Up’, ‘Listen’, ‘Ask’, ‘Nod Your Head’ (can you believe it?), and ‘Track the speaker’ during a lesson.  If any teacher ever told my kids that they weren’t properly nodding their heads when the teacher was teaching, I would be irate.

‘T’ stands for ‘Time on task.’  At 08:27 we hear how much contempt the narrator has for ‘other’ schools when she says “Most of Minnesota’s children still attend school on an agrarian calendar.  Out in time for planting and back in after the harvest.”  At 09:02 they explain that by adding a whopping 15 days to the school year, they can fix this problem.  They explain that these fifteen days lead to a full year of instruction after 12 years.  Now while I agree that 12*15=180, I don’t think that it really works this way.  If I had an extra 15 days, I wouldn’t use it to do next year’s work, but to enrich what I’ve been teaching.  (I would hope to get paid for the extra 15 days, though.  Can we afford to do this throughout the country, and would it increase test scores by that much?)

At 09:19 we see how the students are made to do quick transitions as the teacher repeats ‘moving, moving, moving’ and then we see the same teacher quizzing on very basic facts like 5*7.  In all the examples of instruction I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t qualify as ‘test prep.’

The main takeaway I got from these videos is that the RESET people don’t really have any special knowledge about how kids learn which would enable them to, as TFA says, change life trajectories, through just higher expectations and ‘effective’ teaching.  By implying that ‘other’ schools don’t also do the very basic things they describe, it fuels the idea that regular teachers are a bunch of morons.

There are five other videos where they go into these strategies in more detail, they say, but they seem to be almost the same as what is in the full video above.  I’ll leave it to people who like to comment on this blog to go through those and report what they find in the comments section.






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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. ...