Gary Rubinstein was one of the original members of Teach for America. He has been involved in TFA from the outset. However, he became a critical friend of TFA when he attended the corporate-funded 20th anniversary celebration, bringing together the leaders of the “reform movement” who were attacking the nation’s public schools and their teachers, closing public schools, and promoting charters. He saw a very different organization from the one he had joined two decades earlier. It had morphed into an arm of big business.
In this important post, he patiently explains to the new leaders of Teach for America why he strongly disagrees with the organization–beginning with their boasting about their results–and explains why they are on the wrong track.
He begins this way:
On February 12, 2013, founder and long time CEO of TFA, Wendy Kopp, stepped down. Two new co-CEOs were appointed, Elisa Villanueva-Beard and Matt Kramer. Elisa was a 1998 corps member and Matt had never taught. Both were working as very high administrative positions in TFA before this recent promotion.
I was pretty surprised by this announcement. I did not expect Wendy to ever not be the CEO of Teach For America. I was also puzzled that neither of the new co-CEOs were required to relocate to be near the national headquarters in New York City.
Over the past four months they have co-written three blog posts on the ‘Pass The Chalk’ site which had points of view that I definitely object to. The first was about a bogus study ‘proving’ that certain TFA teachers teach significantly more than their non-TFA counterparts (I analyzed that report here). The second was about a bogus interpretation of the recent NAEP gains ‘proving’ that corporate reform strategies are working (I wrote about NAEP ‘gains’ here). The third was about their support for the common core (Me and others have written a bunch about the problems with the common core).
Gary then writes an open letter to Matt and Elisa. It is a very strong letter, written by someone who understands Teach for America and knows its potential and its weaknesses. Gary has remained in teaching for many years and understands the challenges of teaching as Matt and Elisa do not.
Here are a few snippets: read the whole thing:
Based on what I’ve seen in this first year of your appointment, I am not encouraged that the issues I have with TFA are improving in any way. In your language and your writings I see the same kind of unsophisticated logic that I see in the rhetoric of people like Michelle Rhee and Steve Perry. Things about the ‘status quo’ and about the power of ‘raised expectations.’ As someone opposed to the kinds of strategies that Rhee and Perry promote, I know that my resistance has nothing to do with a desire to preserve the status quo, nor do I think that very many teachers have unreasonably low expectations for their students.
I have no particular attachment to the ‘status quo.’ But I’ve done a lot of research about what is now called ‘reform’ and I fight against it because I believe that it will, if permitted to gain momentum, make education in this country much worse. My prediction is that teachers will flee the profession even faster than they already do under the stress of the new brand of ‘accountability.’ And I’ve seen this start already in California where there are fewer teacher candidates to fill the vacancies. This will exacerbate if market-driven reform is not curbed. I think college students would be crazy to pursue teaching in this current anti-teacher climate. I’d wager that you are already seeing the effects of this, even among TFA corps members. A few years ago, the statistic was that 60% of TFA corps members taught for a third year. Recently I saw an article celebrating that South Carolina, I think, had about 40% stay for a third year. I believe that this is not going to be abnormal and you will see fewer TFAers stay beyond their two years. Teaching was already a pretty stressful job before the standardized test mania infected our schools. Now, for many, it is unbearable.
I do not believe in ‘low expectations.’ I also know that ‘high expectations’ is a very weak silver bullet. Expert teachers know how to set their expectations at an appropriate level to maximize student learning…
You recently penned a blog post in support of the controversial common core standards. Of course Randi Weingarten is one of the biggest common core cheerleaders in the country so it is not like you came out in favor of school closings, for instance. But still, it was interesting to me that you would take a side on this. What does it mean to be ‘for’ the common core? Does it mean that you wholeheartedly believe in the 7th grade math standard which states:
CCSS.Math.Content.7.NS.A.2a Understand that multiplication is extended from fractions to rational numbers by requiring that operations continue to satisfy the properties of operations, particularly the distributive property, leading to products such as (–1)(–1) = 1 and the rules for multiplying signed numbers. Interpret products of rational numbers by describing real-world contexts.
(Note: If you don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t worry. Most people don’t know that math majors in abstract algebra, during junior year of college, learn that rather than justifying that a negative times a negative is a positive, informally any number of ways, you learn that since -1 * 0 = 0, which means -1 * (-1+1) = 0 (since -1+1=0, additive inverse property) and then, by the distributive property (which says a * (b+c) = ab + ac) (-1) * (-1) + (-1)*1 = 0, but since 1 is the multiplicative identity, (-1)*(-1) – 1=0, but then if you add 1 to both sides, you get (-1)*(-1)=1, Q.E.D.)
Or do you just mean that you approve of school being more than just memorizing a bunch of shallow facts, but having opportunity for deep thought-provoking learning opportunities? If that’s what you mean, is is really necessary to spend billions of dollars on new textbooks and new ‘common core aligned’ assessments for this? Isn’t this the first thing we learned at the TFA institute (not you, Matt, but I’m sure you get the idea still), that we need to get kids to the higher levels of ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’? Elisa, when you taught in Arizona did you not try to teach to a deep level because the common core had not been invented yet along with new assessments which would make sure you were accountable for getting your students to achieve that type of deep mastery of those standards?
One of my favorite sections of this long letter is where Gary suggests that TFA should adopt a value-added approach to its own organization and be prepared to shut down regions where there is high attrition of TFA recruits:
If you are so enamored with the strategies of Rhee, Daly, Huffman, White, and Anderson, why don’t you use them, yourself, in helping TFA maximize its own ‘value added’? This would be pretty easy to implement. First you would publish an annual A-F report card on the different TFA regions. One of the best metrics would be the ‘quit rate’ — the percent of corps members that quit before completing the two year commitment. Though the national average for all the regions is somewhere around 10%, there are some regions that have much higher quit rates. I believe that Kansas City and Detroit are two regions where around 25% of the corps members don’t complete their commitment. Regions like that would get an ‘F’ and after two ‘F’s or something, they would get shut down using the market-driven reform strategies. Then, for recruiters you could track the test scores of the students of the corps members that each recruiter recruits. Some recruiters will fare worse than others on this metric and those recruiters would be labeled ‘ineffective’ and fired. The various staff at the institutes could also be rated by tracking the test scores of the students of the corps members they trained. Basically, you would want to change the culture of TFA management to one which assumes that all TFA employees are lazy and don’t care about doing a good job and can only be motivated by the fear of being fired. If you admire the TFA leaders mentioned above so much, it would be hypocritical to not use their methods with your own employees.
Be sure to follow Gary Rubinstein. He is one of the wisest and smartest of all teacher-bloggers, and his views are always firmly rooted in evidence, which he supplies.