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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: TFA Tries to Marginalize Critical Alumni Voices

A few weeks ago the book ‘Teach For America Counter-Narratives:  Alumni Speak Up And Speak Out’ was released.  Edited by T. Jameson Brewer and Kathleen deMarrais, the book features 20 chapters, each written by a TFA critic, many of whom are alumni.  I think this is a great book, and not just because I wrote one of the chapters.

TFA seems to have peaked in popularity about 5 years ago, right around the time I attended the 20th anniversary summit, which was basically a charter school/Waiting For Superman/ Michelle Rhee love fest.  Since that time, criticism has swelled and now TFA is really struggling to recruit as the number of new corps members is a little more than 4,000 compared to around 6,000 just a few years ago.

As an alum, I’m on various TFA mailing lists.  One of them is called ‘TFA Briefing’. This is a series of summaries, including links, to news about TFA and things that TFA alumni are up to.  Most of it does have a ‘reform’ slant, so I was kind of surprised to see mention of the counter-narratives book, though as the very last item in a briefing from July.  Notice the dismissive nature in the language of their description:

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See the subtle way they offhandedly say “The book Teach For America Counter-Narratives collects essays from about 20 of the 50,000 TFA corps members and alumni across the country.”  They try to use the fact that 20 out of 50,000 is a small percent to minimize the validity of the hard work by all the contributors.  Are they implying that the other 49,980 alumni are all big fans of what TFA has become?

Yes, the book has only 20 chapters.  How many chapters should there be?  There was a lengthy process for getting a chapter accepted into that book which took several months.  Does TFA have any idea how many people submitted proposals that were rejected?

Another thing to consider is that while there may be 50,000 alumni, over 10% of the people who start TFA quit before they finish their two years so they never actually become alumni.  This means that over the years there are at least 5,000 of these people who quit who doubtfully have a very favorable view of TFA and could easily fill an extremely large book of stories if they were so inclined.

And even if it were just 20 alumni out of the 50,000 who wanted to voice concerns about the program, why should those 20 voices be dismissed?  It would be like saying that out of the thousands of women that Bill Cosby has interacted throughout his life, only 30 of them are now saying that he raped them.

For an organization that at least likes to pretend that it honors all alumni voices, even those with differing opinions to their funders, this was a revealing way to describe this work.

Teach For America published this response to the book back in July in which they dismissed the alumni voices by saying “a small group of former corps members involved in the book Teach For America Counter-Narratives have chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we operate.”  I expected them to say this, that the points of view are obsolete because TFA has evolved so much and these alumni just aren’t up to date on these changes.

One mystery about this ‘review’ of the book is that they reviewed in back in July when even the editors did not receive their copies until mid-August.  It seems that someone ‘leaked’ an advance review copy to TFA so they could be prepared with their reaction before the book even came out.

Now the book is out and has gotten a good amount of attention so far.  You can order it from Amazon (If you’re a fan of this blog, you’ll surely get a kick out of the story of my lunch ‘date’ with Michelle Rhee back in 1996.)

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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. ...