During the first weekend in February, 15,000 members of the Teach for America (TFA) community gathered in Washington, DC for the organization’s 25th year anniversary . The celebration was billed as the biggest event in the history of TFA — which recruits high-achieving recent college…
The celebration was billed as the biggest event in the history of TFA — which recruits high-achieving recent college graduates to teach in poor schools.
TFA members gathered to reflect on the organization's accomplishments and discuss the current state of education reform. It culminated with a performance by Janelle Monáe, a Grammy-nominated R&B singer.
But the anniversary wasn't entirely a celebration of TFA's successes.
At the event was also a smaller, if not at times equally vocal, subset of the TFA community, who set their sights on being a disruptive force at the event. About 100 of the so-called disrupters attended a meeting called "Critics not Haters" where they could discuss their issues with TFA, according to Gary Rubinstein, a math teacher and former TFA member who attended the session. The group was not welcomed by everybody else in attendance.
"The people who criticize me, they were taunting me for the whole weekend," Rubinstein told Business Insider.
Rubinstein doesn't mince words when talking about TFA, placing much of the blame squarely on its shoulders for supposedly denigrating the state of education. He asserts that TFA and many of the organization's alumni have bolstered a harmful narrative about traditional public schools and have taken part in "teacher bashing."
"TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective," Rubinstein has written on his blog. "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."
TFA was founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp, a Princeton graduate, who wrote her thesis on building such an organization. It places college graduates in public and charter K-12 schools with the promise they will serve two years in the program.
The organization has successfully introduced highly qualified new teachers into the profession, and studies have shown the teachers in the program are effective educators. One of the most cited, a study out of Mathematica Policy Research, showed that TFA teachers were just as effective as their counterparts in other schools who had an average of 13.6 years experience teaching, versus TFA average of 1.5 years.
Still, one prominent education researcher said that study didn't have a big enough sample size. There is other criticism of TFA, primarily for the short (5-week) training that teachers receive, and the fact that many don't have education degrees when they enter the workforce. (TFA also provides "individual and team coaching" to its teachers once they're in the classroom, according to its website.) Critics including Rubinstein also attack the program for displacing veteran teachers.
For its part, TFA seems open to a healthy dialogue about improving the state of education. "Overall our thoughtful critics make us better," a spokesperson for TFA told Business Insider. "I think the day that any one person or group thinks they have all the answers, TFA included, is the day we’ve lost the fight for equity."
Rubinstein offers an interesting perspective as he was one of the original members of TFA. He started his teaching career in one of the first cohorts of TFA back in the early 1990s, teaching at Deady Middle School, one of the most populous middle schools in Texas.
The experience was humbling and difficult, according to Rubinstein.
"I pretty much had a nervous breakdown it was so hard," he said.
On the surface, Rubinstein would still seem to be a TFA success story. Today, he teaches math at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a top-performing public school that students must test into.
His nearly 20 years of teaching in different states and schools has given him the perspective to articulate the failures he sees within the TFA organization, he says. His biggest issue with TFA is what he describes as its lack of support for teachers.
Rubinstein argues that TFA suggests good teachers are all that's needed to save children and failing schools. That suggestion, he says, is not only inaccurate but harmful to the profession.
"They fueled the myth of the lazy teacher," he explained.
Indeed, in 2010, when Kopp spoke to the Wall Street Journal about TFA's achievements she said successful teaching is "nothing magic. It's nothing elusive. It's about talent and leadership and accountability."
Rubinstein finds TFA to be frustratingly silent when it comes to the most important education issues, especially as an organization that has an operating budget of more than $300 million a year.
Rubinstein also argues that TFA will never discuss lack of funding, staff members, or other wrap-around services as contributing to failing schools.He wonders aloud why TFA never takes what he describes as noncontroversial stances about providing more funding for schools rather than shutting them down.
"Where is Teach for America speaking about Flint, Michigan?" he asked. "Where are they talking about Chicago where they are cutting the budget?"
Still, Rubinstein appears hopeful about the future of TFA and its position in education reform.
"I felt more optimistic compared to five years ago," he said of the anniversary event. "Five years ago was a real disaster. There was teacher bashing at its height."
But he couldn't help criticizing the organization once again when he reflected on the ending performance by Janelle Monáe which he called a "gluttonous ending ceremony."
"What happened to the days when some kid who was a student of one of the Teach for America teachers would come and sing and we would give them just as big of a standing ovation?"
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