Gary Rubinstein: Trainwreck For America
Gary Rubinstein is a Teach for America alum who has spent decades holding their feet to the fire. When TFA recently announced a batch of layoffs after a bad year, Rubinstein was prepared to explain why. Reposted with permission.
Between 1990 and 2013, Teach For America grew in size and influence from a tiny inconsequential alternative placement provider to a $300 million a year political powerhouse. But the last ten years have been rough on TFA. In 2016 they fired about 15% of their staff. Then their recruitment figures dropped year after year until 2022 when they had their fewest number in nearly 20 years. And now Chalkbeat reports that TFA is set to fire another 25% of their staff in the coming months.
As an alumni of TFA (Houston 1991), I’ve been following the ups and downs of this organization for 32 years. At least to me, it is not a mystery why TFA is crashing and burning.
The first reason is that they have neglected their fundamental task, which is to properly train the new recruits. Every year their training seems to get worse until now they seem to have given up on trying to train the corps members at all. I had a ‘mole’ in TFA a few years back, someone who was once a student at the high school I work at. When I asked them about what they learned about lesson planning, they told me that they were never required to create a lesson plan for the entire institute.
Poorly trained teachers become failing teachers in the Fall and many of them quit and those who don’t quit are certainly not giving TFA good word of mouth. Eventually the pipeline dries up, which is exactly what is happening. Yes, with $300 million, TFA will always be able to recruit some new corps members, but without the positive buzz, they won’t be able to be as selective about who they admit.
Another cause of TFA’s current problems is that about 15 years ago they made a Faustian bargain with the so-called reformers like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. TFA jumped on the teacher bashing bandwagon, rode that wave for a while getting several alumni into leadership positions in several large districts. But all those leaders failed and got fired and TFA seems to have gone down with the ship.
And with all these issues to overcome, TFA would need a great leader. Unfortunately their CEO who has been in charge for about eight years, Elisa Villanueva-Beard (EVB) has just not been up to the task. To understand why, listen to this four minute interview she did a few weeks ago.
Her response was completely incoherent. It sounded like what you would get if you played Mad Libs and every blank had to be filled with ed reform buzz word.
“We’re living in an outmoded system that really needs to be ‘reimagined.’” Sounds like it comes from Trump’s Secretary Of Education Betsy DeVos in 2017.
‘We know that that [teacher quality] is still the biggest indicator of success for a child’s outcomes’ from Michelle Rhee in 2017
‘Science of reading’ from Obama’s other secretary of education John King. https://www.the74million.org/article/science-of-reading-john-king-close-literacy-gap/
‘High Dosage Tutoring’ This fits well with a new TFA initiative where they are having college students tutor students. What’s ironic about this is that for years the ed reformers insisted that class size did not matter and now TFA is saying that one-on-one tutoring is an efficient use of money.
‘They [kids] need us to have high expectations, have deep love and belief in them’ is a favorite of Joel Klein, a big TFA advocate. Elissa mentions this in every interview I have ever heard with her. How great it would be if low expectations was even one of the top twenty things that causes students to struggle.
And she actually ends with the words “where we leave no kids behind,” from the education visionary George W Bush whose policy did more damage to schools and students than anything else, even Race To The Top, in the past 20 years.
For the CEO of a $300 million a year organization with 33 years of work in education to spew twenty years of empty cliches in four minutes is definitely a bad sign for the future of this stumbling organization.
I actually feel a little bad for them. It would have been so easy to just have a more positive message. Rather than saying that real teachers are so lazy they can’t even muster up some high expectations, TFA could have said something like “Teachers are heroes in this country and we want our corps members to learn from them and aspire to be like them.” TFA could have also encouraged their alumni who wanted to lead schools to do so by climbing the ranks and become assistant principals and then principals of district schools. Instead they bought into the mirage of the charter networks who, in various ways, cheat to get their results.
Is it too late for TFA to make a comeback? If they don’t do some serous soul searching, there is not much of a chance I think.
And certainly some of the 1000 disgruntled employees who are about to get fired can corroborate the misguided policies that have landed TFA in this mess. Contact me if you want to speak out.