by Christopher Paslay
Gary Rubinstein, a TFA corps member and former recruiter, explains how TFA spawned leaders are ‘destructive’ to public education, and how current TFA teachers are ‘mostly harmful’ to students.
Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chancellor who is on a political crusade to save America’s “best teachers” by ending seniority and “last in, first out” laws, needs to have talk with Gary Rubinstein, a Teach for America corps member and former recruiter. Rubinstein, like Rhee, was part of TFA in the early 1990s when the organization was still in its beginning stages. But unlike Rhee, Rubinstein has come to terms with the fact that TFA has become a public relations machine responsible for spawning a number of destructive leaders, and acknowledges the fact that the majority of TFA teachers are a far cry from America’s “best”.
Here are some highlights from Rubinstein’s powerful blog post titled “Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t.” (Click here to read it in its entirety.)
. . . When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. . . . If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’
. . . Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.
As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. . . . TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.
Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. . . . TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed. The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’
. . . And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in its infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.
So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.
So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. . . . I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability.
. . . But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer.
First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt? I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced.
Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve.
Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly.
Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two. America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.
. . . . I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member. For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes. Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement. It’s not working and it never will work. Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are. All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably, be outliers.
If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA: While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids. And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too. I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings. These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them. These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success. We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us. If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.