by M.A.B (The Summit Blogger)
When the opportunity arose to attend the 20th Anniversary Teach for America Summit, I wasn’t inclined to participate. But I was curious how TFA would present itself and what its messages would be. With a bit of trepidation, I agreed to go with a friend with an idea to do some live blogging to capture my spontaneous reactions. [See below to inks to blogs].
As TFA alum who did not leave the classroom after my two year stint, I didn’t have any illusions about what I was walking into – that attending this summit would be an adventure. I would hear things that made me angry. The education reform conversation would champion charter schools. Conversations would likely be one-sided. My stomach would churn when the likes of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein grabbed the microphone. TFA would self-promote, self-congratulate and try to “inspire” us all. I knew all of this before I left for D.C. yet I was still shocked by what I saw and heard.
I joined Teach for America in 2006. I wanted to study education in college but the program offered by the school of education did not attract me. Instead, I enrolled in an individualized study program and designed my own curriculum. I took classes in philosophy, psychology, urban studies and education. When I graduated I was very satisfied with the depth and content of my program. I wanted to be a public school educator, but I had a major problem—no teaching license. I naively took a position as an assistant teacher (“educational associate” was the fancy business name the school gave this position) at a new charter school. The school was quite dysfunctional and its leader had little experience. I was fired after a year for asking too many questions. (I’ll write more about this in another post soon.) From there, I went on to work at a brilliant, but private, Montessori preschool. TFA was a short cut to becoming a teacher in the NYC the public school system.
From the beginning I had mixed feelings about Teach for America. Its mission was based on a good enough idea, but I always viewed it as a bit too grand. How could an organization that placed people in the classroom for only two years truly put an end to educational inequity? Sure, it claimed the two years would “inspire” its members to dedicate themselves to education in one way or another, but it seemed a flawed plan. What our children need most is consistency—at home and in school. TFA places teachers in schools that often already struggle with turnover and desperately need educators who will stick. Could teachers trained for only 5 weeks be in the best position to help our neediest children? Of course the majority of one’s learning as a teacher comes from the experience of being in the classroom, but it takes more than two years to truly fine-tune the craft. Wasn’t it naïve of TFA to claim its teachers would revolutionize these schools? In my mind, TFA had many shortcomings, but my fellow corps members did appear to have pure and honest intentions and a real desire to contribute something positive.
I completed TFA’s intensive five week training institute and began teaching kindergarten at a school in the South Bronx. I went to the TFA graduate school classes and met with my TFA adviser when necessary, but I never clung to the organization or its teachings. I was learning every day in the classroom from my students and fellow teachers. I didn’t get wrapped up in TFA’s philosophy and viewed it mainly as a vehicle towards my certification and career in public education.
I was constantly frustrated by TFA’s placement of teachers in charter schools and the incessant discussion about what we would all do “after our two years”. I wanted TFA to focus on our public schools and to push people to stay in the classroom. And I stated this on every feedback form I ever filled out. (And there were a lot!) Public education is one of the pillars of our democracy, but TFA never truly seemed to champion this notion. It talked about changing our students’ lives through high expectations, dedication and commitment (and the use of data, data, data), and constantly told us we could close the “achievement gap.”
Over the years since completing my TFA assignment, I had seen the organization aligning itself more and more with the corporate reform movement—a movement that blatantly seeks to uses competitive, free-market business principles to improve our schools. I was baffled. Was this Wendy Kopp’s intention all along? Had the organization simply been co-opted by its “benevolent” funders?
Charter Schools and Privatization
I expected the charter presence to be strong and forceful at the summit, but, by the end of the day, it felt like the only force. How did other public school teachers feel about this? Did they leave feeling left out? Offended, like me? Did they leave with bags full of charter gear and brochures, contemplating a move from public to charter?
The story of the public school educator was generally missing. Randi Weingarten was present but hardly painted public school educators and their unions in a good light. One session showcased public school educators who had dedicated themselves to the classroom above and beyond their two-year commitments. But overall the conversations presented were one-sided, slanted and misleading. No one spoke about the need for public schools to be empowered to innovate. No one acknowledged the inherent problems of a privatized system. No one spoke about the incessant attacks on teachers. No one spoke of the other factors that impact student learning. No one spoke of the things (lack of resources, high class sizes, lack of support, the over-focus on test scores, etc.) that truly stand in the way of our public schools succeeding.
A couple of speakers pointed out that charter schools do not educate all children, but this wasn’t discussed at length nor was it brought forth as a serious concern. While I could not attend every session offered, the line-ups for nearly all panels included charter school leaders, teachers or promoters with little or no dissenting voices. (Ten public school educators were listed in the summit program’s list of over 100 speakers.)
In addition to their over-representation on summit panels, charter schools were busy promoting themselves all day. They handed out buttons, stickers, bags, necklaces, water bottles, and even sunglasses, all emblazoned with their logos. Achievement First tagged the sidewalks around the conference center with its emblem. KIPP placed logoed chocolate squares on all of the 11,000 seats before the day’s closing plenary session. Easels held posters advertising meet-and-greets with charter school operators. Fancy brochures promoting the joys of working in a charter school were in all of our “gift bags.” Many charter school employees walked around wearing branded shirts and jackets. Forget NIKE and Adidas, NOBLE and KIPP were the big names in fashion this weekend. Charter education was a product at the summit. It was wrapped, packaged and pushed in our faces. Why is this self-promotion necessary? Is their teacher turnover so high that they are left with no other choice than to push their brand so desperately? Or was it simply an “I’m better than you” contest to see who could outdo the other? My public school doesn’t even have money to buy crayons or copy paper, much less make our own chocolate squares.
Charter schools are a reform I cannot support for many reasons, but the central one is because of what they represent—the privatization of one of our most important public institutions. Access to a free and quality public education is a right—it isn’t something we should have to win in a lottery. It is something we have a right to be a part of. Charter schools are governed privately, with little or no oversight. They are allowed to get rid of students they do not know how or are not willing to serve. I was disturbed by how the summit speakers did not acknowledge privatization as a legitimate concern. One moderator said, “Charters are seen as privatizing education…How do we bring [charter schools] into the public dialogue and change that perception?”
TFA has always presented itself to its corps members as a very knowledgeable and reflective organization. When it is out front like this, pushing an agenda of privatization, I worry about its impact. What did the other alumni walk away with? Were they convinced, like Bill Gates, that charter schools are the only hope? (“Thank god for charters because there is NO hope for innovation in the standard system,” he has said.) The public system hasn’t been offered a true chance to innovate and succeed. Resources are being stripped from our public schools left and right—how can we succeed without the funds and support we need?
Rah-Rah vs. Reality
If we are all thinking alike then we aren’t really thinking.
Riding back to New York on a bus full of TFA alums on Sunday, I heard one word more than any other: “inspired.” Emails came in the next day as well encouraging us all to share our “inspiring” summit stories on tfanet.org. But I wasn’t inspired. What was it that so many people there found inspirational? Was it sitting in a room with 11,000 seemingly like-minded individuals? Was it the floorshow provided by men in Asian outfits stir-frying noodles on raised platforms during the receptions? Was it the lineup of speakers at the day’s opening and closing plenary sessions? Was it listening to big names like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, Geoffery Canada and Kaya Henderson? Was it John Legend’s performance?
How could my reaction be so very different from the majority of people I spent the day with? When I sat in the plenary sessions I felt disgusted by many of the people TFA trotted out onto the stage. In the name of educational equity, they promoted Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Geoffery Canada and the KIPP schools leaders whose efforts have actually increased educational inequity in the cities where they worked. Klein worked relentlessly to close struggling public schools in New York rather than support them. Rhee fired D.C. teachers with great enthusiasm without considering what might actually be done to improve the process of teaching and learning. Canada operates a network of hedge fund backed charter schools that have been shown to counsel out students who do not perform. KIPP schools have been accused of using overly authoritarian practices, counseling out students and falsely promoting their graduation rates. (It’s not a 100% graduation rate if 50% of the students left.)
This is what I thought about when these people took the stage. But most everyone around me was clapping for Klein. They laughed lightheartedly at things Michelle Rhee said and they called Canada an inspirational man. How could our reactions be so different? Unfortunately the day offered little time for interaction and conversations of this nature, so was I left only to speculate and question. Time between sessions was limited and getting around the convention center proved time consuming, while the panels themselves were structured in a way that didn’t foster dialogue within the audience. We sat back and we listened. Is this exemplary pedagogy?
When I first joined TFA I was overwhelmed by its messaging. It bombarded us with lingo, catch phrases and worked to get us to adopt its philosophy. Many corps members actually joked about this, especially TFA’s affinity for acronyms. Looking back on these experiences I realize that TFA always presented itself as such an authority—we were provided with the information and there was very little questioning of their approach. In many areas, the organization promoted important and valid ideas. We had to hold our students to high expectations. Check. We had to have clear, focused, and productive lesson plans. Good idea. We needed to consider our students backgrounds and family lives in our approach. Of course. We needed to approach teaching with rigor, dedication and commitment. Certainly. These were good things to drill into our heads. But now TFA was presenting a narrow and unreflective vision of what was needed to improve our country’s schools. Was no one else bothered by this approach? Did anyone hunger for some real dialogue as I did?
What frustrated me most about the ideas touted at the plenary sessions was their vagueness. Wendy Kopp pronounced, “Incremental change is not enough, we need transformational change.” Klein soon followed and told us that transformational change wasn’t enough—we needed “radical change” in education. People around me applauded and cheered. But what did their statements even mean? Testimonies continued in this empty, but seemingly motivational fashion. In the evening, in a prerecorded message to the group, President Obama talked about the importance of teachers and the key role they play in shaping the lives of our nation’s children. Of course, this was nice to hear, but what policies have we seen Obama promote that really help teachers or support our work?
By the end of the day, I felt defeated, not inspired. How could anyone be inspired by the mirage TFA had created? But what was I to do? Should I shame TFA for presenting these narrow views or its alumni for settling for what they were being told?
After spending the day blogging about the summit and my reactions, I received some interesting feedback from other TFA alumni. One wrote that she was also disappointed by TFA’s overall message, but focused mainly on my lack of agreement with TFA. I was asked why I had even come to the event if I didn’t agree. I responded with questions as to why my opinions were so alarming. Shouldn’t our educational system focus on fostering divergent thinking? Shouldn’t an organization that claimed its mission to be education-based encourage debate and diversity of opinion? Were my critics just reacting defensively because I challenged something they viewed as so perfect?
I felt like an outcast during the summit – that no voice on the panels I attended represented my points of view. I was looked upon with disdain as I attempted to distribute literature exposing the truth about charter schools in New York City. I was surrounded by 11,000 people, yet I felt almost completely alone.
Flipping through the summit brochure as I rode back on the bus, I noted the hefty donations from groups and individuals I have seen promoting the corporate reform agenda. Twenty million dollar donations had been received from the Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and others. The summit’s first listed sponsors were Ford, Bill and Melinda Gates and State Farm Insurance. Other sponsors included Google, Coca-Cola, FedEx, Comcast, Fidelity Investments, Wells Fargo, Prudential and Chevron. Reading this list of sponsors and funders made me think deeply about where TFA gets its philosophy. Who was driving its decisions, its philosophy, and its message at the summit? Its board of directors contains a wide mix of individuals—many university and college presidents/professors, leaders and CEO’s from various industries, one TFA alum, and of course, John Legend—but do they shape TFA or does that money so benevolently donated come at a price?
Having read one of Wendy Kopp’s books and been through her program, it seemed that TFA was started with very pure and honest intentions. Did Kopp foresee her organization becoming co-opted by corporate interest? Did she envision aligning herself and her organization with the movement to privatize our nation’s schools? How did this unfold?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Our cities have been going through the same process of cooption for years. Governments should be run like businesses, we are told. Corporations are taking more and more control and perhaps TFA has simply fallen prey like so many others. The donations coming into TFA are enormous, but are ideals being sacrificed for money? And how long will these donations keep pouring in?
How to move from criticism to conversation
After a day of feeling alone and alienated, I wondered how, if at all, I could engage with my fellow alums about what I saw as TFA’s many missteps. I was sure there were others who would sympathize with my perspective, but I knew (especially after receiving comments on my blog posts) that there were huge and seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion. But I couldn’t allow myself to think that our differences were irreconcilable, could I? The summit didn’t offer enough time for dialogue with fellow alums and I wasn’t sure how to start such a presumably difficult conversation. But I think it is these conversations and efforts that are the most crucial. I know that most of the 11,000 people I sat with in the convention center joined TFA for a good reason—they see education inequity as a problem and wanted to help do something about it. My intention is not to demonize the corps members of TFA, but to ask them to think critically about what they heard at the summit and the message TFA puts forth. It is my hope that we can perhaps begin a true, honest, and critical dialogue.
A place to start could be with questions raised in a summit session on Segregation in America. Pedro Noguera (a Professor of Education from NYU and perhaps the only critical voice at the summit) challenged the “choice” movement and strongly argued that the current reform movement is leaving the neediest students behind to be educated by the least experienced teachers. He said TFA is complicit—aware this is happening, yet continuing without altering its path. He said education is inherently political, far from the narrow view of education put forth by TFA.
I work with educational activists in New York and it is often a struggle to dialogue with those with whom we do not see eye to eye. But if we hope for anything to change, we must begin with learning to listen to each other and finding the things—like our belief that children deserve better—that we can all agree on.
M.A.B. has been a New York City public school Kindergarten teacher for 5 years. Previous to this she worked in a charter school and a Montessori Preschool. She has been involved with the Grassroots Education Movement for the past 2 years.
Posts from Teach for America Summit Blogger
Part 1: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit
Part 2: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit - Randi Weingarten
Part 3: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, - Afternoon Session
Part 4: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, With Closing Plenary