Gary Rubinstein, an alumnus of the early days of Teach for America, has become its most thoughtful critic. He is now a veteran high school teacher at Stuyvesant High School, one of Néw York City’s most prestigious (and one of its most selective) high schools. Gary had an epiphany several years ago. He rejected TFA’s boasting and its alliance with corporate-style reform. As a former corps member, Rubinstein feels a responsibility to be honest about TFA’s exaggerations.


In his ongoing effort to hold TFA accountable, he recently watched the webcast of TFA’s annual “What’s Next?” Conference. Last year, it was held in Tennessee, and the guest speaker was ex-TFA State Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who championed privatization and made teachers his enemies. This year, the conference was held in St. Louis without a celebrity TFA speaker. Rubinstein considered that a wise step, given the toxicity of some of them.


He writes:


“Last year we also got to see the good Kopp / bad Kopp dynamic between the two co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva-Beard. Kramer was the good Kopp with his remarks entitled “Embracing Change” while Villanueva-Beard played the role of bad Kopp as she delivered a speech entitled, if you can believe it, “We Won’t Back Down.” Aside from constantly using the phrase that will forever be associated with pro-charter school bomb of a movie, Villanueva-Beard exposed herself as a first class reformer complete with cartoonish caricatures about the ‘status quo’ and critics of the modern reform agenda who believe in low expectations for all but rich white kids. If one of the purposes of the ‘What’s Next?’ event was to help critics to see that TFA truly cared about their concerns, that speech certainly did not help with that.


“What a difference a year makes. On June 3rd, the 2015 edition of the ‘What’s Next?’ broadcast was filmed, this time in St. Louis. Rather than choose a place that was notable for standardized test score improvements, they chose a place where TFA actually did some good during the Ferguson protests..,..


“The next hour was a carefully scripted back and forth between co-CEOs. I’m always intrigued by these two. In 2011, while Wendy Kopp was still sole CEO, Kramer and Villanueva-Beard made about $600,000 between them for their old positions. I can only surmise that now that figure is closer to $800,000. You’ve got to admit is is kind of bizarre that you have co-CEOs of a $300 million a year company and one lives in Houston and the other in Minnesota while the corporate headquarters of TFA are in New York City. What is it they bring to the table that makes this a good use of the TFA money, as abundant as it might be? Well, there is one thing that TFA certainly gets from this arrangement. Whereas before you had a specific leader, someone you could like or not like, someone you could credit or blame. Now they have two people, both very timid public speakers. I don’t think anyone really thinks they are more than mere puppets so they are not really targets of any criticism. Before you could accuse Wendy Kopp of talking out of both sides of her mouth at times. Now there are literally two mouths so one can be expressing one idea and the other can be doing another and they can never be accused of being ‘a hypocrite.’ I doubt that this hedging the bets thing was the reason for this co-CEO arrangement, but it has given TFA this new dynamic which can make them more immune to criticism. Kramer and Villanueva-Beard: Which is the Yin and which is the Yang? Which is your buddy and which is your enemy? Which is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern?”


Rubinstein learned that TFA’s recruitment is down by about 30% in two years. He also noted a new tone, an effort to show that the leaders had heard critics, especially among alumni, and were listening.


He wrote:


“Whether this is just a new communications strategy to reverse the declining popularity of TFA in recent years or something they really believe, I don’t know. Even if they are just saying some of these things to make critics a bit less critical, I still think that it helps the cause of all the teachers out there opposed to the kind of education reform championed by people like Kevin Huffman. Though actions do speak louder than words, words are pretty important in their own right.”


TFA’s words have done a lot of damage over the years, certainly to experienced teachers and as well to the very idea of teacher professionalism. Rubinstein has some hope that they may be taking a new tack.

Yet when you consider that the leading alums of TFA have led the attacks on teachers–Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, and John White–and when you think about TFA’s relentless efforts to demonstrate that teachers need only five weeks of training to be better than experienced teachers, it is hard to be hopeful about a deep change in TFA.

Humility would surely help. But more important would be a change in mission, going only where they are needed; serving as assistant teachers, not full-fledged teachers; refusing to replace experienced teachers who were laid off to cut costs; refusing to act as the labor force to staff non-union schools; abandoning their hubris.