River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 12 2012

Is Teach For America the Lebron James of Education Reform?

“The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

I haven’t been blogging regularly recently because I am at the end of transitioning out of the Mississippi Delta back closer to home in Boston. Apparently, I’m one of those evil and elitist do-gooders who “only” did two years of teaching, which is the required commitment. More on that later…

What I will say is this: as evidenced by my previous posts on different ways TFA can or may improve in the future, I’m not particularly “brainwashed” as some folks like to claim. In fact, as a lifelong learner and educator, I truly enjoy engaging with the various critics of TFA’s organizational model. However, with each passing day, I find myself increasingly alarmed and irritated by the amount of biting vitriol and unsolicited advice thrown around.

“Last October, Kappan magazine reported on a survey in which 60.5% of the 2000-’02 cohorts of TFA teachers reported that they continued teaching after their two-year commitment. But after five years, only about 28% remained in teaching. More recently, a study of TFA teachers in Jacksonville, Fla., found that only about 22% continued teaching after their two-years.”

-this statistic is relevant, obviously, but it needs to be put in proper context, perhaps by citing that the percentage of new teachers who stay after 5 years is ~64%. Now, when you consider the retention rates at the low-performing schools in which TFA CM’s serve, the rate of comparison shows an even narrower gap (I believe it’s less than 50%). These two articles (here and there) do a better job at explaining why TFAers leave the classroom. It is true that TFAers often have a weaker commitment to both the profession and their communities, but that is partly by design of the program (and can be easily remedied if/when desired).

“Rather than bend to the student’s perception that teaching is not prestigious enough to do long term, TFA should instead use its vast resources to encourage students to see teaching as the end goal, and TFA as a viable means to that end.”

-truth. But TFA accomplishes this goal (or at least thinks it does) by inspiring / seeding organizations that already serve these purposes. There are teacher corps in many states. Why not look at their retention rates? Oh, right, because TFA is like Lebron James. However, TFA continuing to claim superiority over veteran teachers is akin to Lebron’s “The Decision” speech, which was entirely off-putting and arrogant.

Anyhow, I hesitated to post this perspective, so I’m not going to elaborate on this basketball analogy at the moment. However, I would like to share the wisdom of Dr. Camika Royal, who’s speech at the Philadelphia Institute has been causing quite a stir throughout the Teach For Us community (like most “controversies,” ignited by Gary Rubinstein); she recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post about the controversy. She seems pretty amazing and I love the balanced perspective she brings to the table. I agree that we must be “swift to hear” and “slow to speak.”

Our schools are more than the lie of successful charters and failing district. Our educators are more than the false dichotomy of good versus bad, of us and them. By and large, educators here are not bad. Educators here are tired. Educators here are reform weary. Our students are more than test scores, graduation rates, and disciplinary issues. They are the babies that parents prayed for and over and read to and work for and dream about. They are people who want the best for themselves whether or not they know how to articulate it or how to seek it out. Our education is more than the failure rhetoric and the achievement gap misnomer. Our problems are systemic, and endemic, but THEY WILL BE SOLVED BY PEOPLE: resilient people, unrelenting people with an edge. This summer, you are the people we’ve enlisted to support our education efforts in this city. You are not here to replace educators or to reinvent educational opportunities. You are here to reinforce the work that is already happening. You are here to help us re-up our efforts to ensure that one day, every person in Philadelphia has the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

You have come to Teach FOR America, but in Philadelphia, that will only happen to the extent that you commit yourself to serving and learning. A teacher is a servant. And you are not here to save. You are here to serve.

To Dr. Royal, I say: “Thank you. This is something I sorely needed to hear and I hope there are more like-minded alums out there.”

You can read the entire article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/camika-royal-phd/teach-for-america_b_1669121.html

Video: Camika Royal

16 Responses

  1. First of all, Lebron James was just arrogant and annoying. He didn’t undermine professional basketball.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of brainwashing. Of course, no one would ever admit to being brainwashed, but if brainwashing is to be effective, the people involved CAN’T know. It lies in the realm of “you don’t know that you don’t know”.

    I never understood the unnecessarily hardcore bootcamp beginning of TFA training. But I’m starting to think there’s a reasoning behind not letting you guys sleep, filling your heads with unrealistic expectations mixed in with inspirational slogans, and spending nearly every moment of that five weeks constantly surrounded by TFA people. I feel that TFA breaks you down in order to fill you back up with their version of what is happening in our schools. And from there, it is extremely difficult to ever change your view. It sounds like Dr. Royal really struggled with her attachment to TFA and the truth she needed to speak.

    In talking with people that come out of TFA, I am increasingly frustrated by the robotic nature of the conversations. Their is no room for conversation, everything is about “me”, “my classroom”, “my impact”–only individual experiences. TFAers refuse to even touch the greater context. But in doing so, they will never understand what is happening in education.

    The real litmus test to me, is what’s happening out there in the communities. Last night, I was at a Chicago Public Schools budget meeting. The audience of teachers, parents, students, and community members was clear about what they wanted. They wanted fully-funded neighborhood schools. They literally booed and hissed our Chief Financial Officer when he mentioned giving more money to charters. Education reformers would feel very unwelcome in any of the public meetings I have ever been to. The people see the truth–the intentional underfunding and undermining of neighborhood schools, the investment in charters which do not serve all children, and the replacement of experienced educators with inexperienced novices as a way to save money and weaken unions. Parents and students are angry, and they have every right to be. But TFA sits up on the stage with the hated reformers. WHY?? WHY???

    You guys are in the schools, how can you not see what’s happening? And I think it all comes down to the way you entered the profession. You are blinded and you don’t even know you are.

    • Not that it matters particularly, but Lebron did donate most proceeds of his “Decision” to charity (http://espn.go.com/blog/playbook/fandom/post/_/id/4988/learning-to-finally-not-hate-lebron-james) and his biggest crime is operating under the premise that he’s been predicted to be the best in basketball since he was a teenager…

      More importantly, KatieO, those are really harsh generalities. Not all CM’s are enamored with the charter movement. Many are strongly opposed. Others, like myself, recognize their limitations and feel that they are certainly not “the answer” but also recognize our own limitations to definitively condemn or support charters as a whole. I have less problem with charters as a concept than I do with the reality of the people who are profiting from them. If CPS is indeed doing shady, underhanded things then that’s a people problem, not a reason to discredit TFA as an organization for being complicit.

      By being “decidedly apolitical/non-partisan,” TFA has allowed itself to succumb to the bandwagon effect and it will take strong, diverse leadership to right the ship. I do have faith in the rising TFA staff to help shape the conversation, but if critics criticize TFA without abandon, as if it’s monolithic, the alums who could potential change it for the better will be deterred from trying to promote changes and you’ll end up with an even worse version of what you already think it is. Is that what you seek: a self-fulfilling prophecy of a TFA monster? I don’t think so.

    • Teach too

      I think many new TFA’s are in over their heads and they are just trying to survive each school day. Those who don’t stay in teaching, most of them, move on and think they did their part to help poor people. Those who move on to some type of leadership position in education and continue to bash public schools have no respect for the profession. They never excelled at teaching and assume they know more…arrogance and ignorance a bad combination, but it propels them to higher positions, so they think. What was that expression…something like…the higher the monkey goes up the tree, the more he shows his rear end.

      • Many new corps members struggle at first- truth. And it’s unfortunate that some CM’s move on thinking “oh, I did my part, now I can do whatever,” but the amount of struggle is probably correlated to feelings of ‘being done with helping ‘poor people.’” Others who bash public schools lack respect for teaching as a profession, but that’s likely fewer CM’s than you would believe. I don’t know enough about alumni facts/stats to comment definitively. Do you?

        As to the monkey analogy, I think it depends on the monkey’s personality. Some monkeys can climb the tree but still have enough sense to cover their… tail.

        • Moseis

          I believe it’s more CM’s than you would believe.

          I would be more suspicious of monkeys who cover their arse. The paternalism and corruption in this field is a floating cesspool.

          I am disgusted. I only stay for my students, for the kids. And no, I don’t call them “babies.” I’ve heard that line by CMs and non-CMs, and inherently, it has always been revolting.

          “[we]…to serve…not to save.”

        • Im so glad somebody sheind a light on this craziness! Even their whole recruiting process and reasoning is nonsense. They got ran out of Detroit years ago their reason was -It wasn’t a condusive environment-

  2. Gary Rubinstein

    Hey Tony, Where’s the love? All I get is a ‘this site’? How about some ‘I guess he wasn’t crazy after all’? Something for being the catalyst that helped make what could be known someday as the turning point? Do you not want to be associated with me?

    • Haha, I never thought you were crazy- perhaps a bit eccentric (which is generally a good thing). But I was referring to “this site” as the TFA blogosphere. This post was written in pieces over the past week and not edited as much as typical, so that’s definitely an oversight on my part!

    • My daughter is about to head to Atlanta to teach early chihdlood for TFA. She feels passionate about providing equal access to quality education and is convinced of the power of education to transform lives. She can’t wait to get started.

  3. Terry


    Teachers in Philly were laid off. Providers for their families lost their income, so why should TFA come in and take their jobs?

    Weren’t these types referred to as scabs during strikes?

    I thought TFA was supposed to fill a need or shortage..

    • I’m going to answer in business terms and then in terms of empathy / appeasement.
      1.) I recognize the paradox of TFA, which claims to fill teacher shortages, replacing Philly teachers who were laid off. At face value, this doesn’t make sense. However, TFA has a bottomline too and stakeholders even as a non-profit organization, so we can’t expect it to voluntarily back out of it’s long term contract with the district. Just like the primary focus of teacher’s unions are it’s members, the primary focus of TFA is it’s staff and corps. TFA isn’t to blame necessarily for the outcomes of poor planning and management at the district level. We, as outsiders, also don’t know enough about the content of TFA-district contracts to comment definitively….

      On the other hand, it’s entirely plausible that district administrators in Philly are using TFA as a cost-cutting, union busting measure. If that’s the case, there’s more to worry about than merely TFA.

      In either case, bad leadership at the district level isn’t a reason to scapegoat Teach For America.

      • Terry

        Bad leadership at the TFA level isn’t a reason to scapegoat the unionized public school teacher either. If I apply your logic, Wendy
        Kopp is not the altruistic saint she portrays herself to be, quite the opposite.

        After all, Kopp blames the achievement gap on the lowly public school teacher as though there are no other factors. Her organization has been around for twenty years and it has still not made a dent in the opportunity/resource/income gap, so I suppose she is a failure, too. Talk about status quo, Wendy!

        • “Over the last twenty years we in the United States have discovered that we don’t have to wait to fix poverty to dramatically improve educational outcomes for underprivileged students. In fact, there’s strong evidence that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty is to expand the mission of public schools in low-income communities and put enormous energy into providing children with the extra time and support they need to reach their potential.” – Wendy Kopp (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-kopp/in-defense-of-optimism-in_b_1338763.html)

          TFA won’ t solve anything by itself. TFA knows what it’s doing as it pertains to its mission, but is arguably less than forthcoming about the shift from focusing on teachers to focusing on systemic issues and leadership problems. Reading between the lines seems to indicate that Wendy initially believed that low quality teachers were the problem (which isn’t flat out wrong) but has learned that there are greater issues involved. I think that’s worthwhile.

          • Teach too

            If you think there are low quality teachers, just wait to check out the lower quality administrators and the lowest quality of all, the self-appointed philanthrocapitalistic vultures who pretend to care about poor children in our country while sending their kids to top notch private schools. It’s always fun to experiment on other peoples’ children, especially the poor ones with colored skin.

            Maybe Wendy can donate some of her funds directly to schools that don’t have: libraries, art, music, etc… You know the ones…the schools Bloomberg and Sternberg starve into destruction so they can take them over and give to their cronies to make money off the backs of teachers and students. Maybe TFA should direct their money elsewhere if their concern is truly the children. I think that’s worthwhile.

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