“Is TFA a CULT?”

12 May

This question arose from the audience at a recent NPE (Network for Public Education) colloquium on the TFA (Teach for America) – my answer, “no, TFA is not a cult.” However, the question is not without merit. Cynical actors are taking advantage of sincere young people for personal power and profit. In the same way that military organizations take undisciplined and timid youths, isolate them, stress them and indoctrinate them with a certain ethic. The TFA indoctrinates its new corps members with a behaviorist and market based education ideology. TFA is not the Peoples Temple in Guyana but it is in the words of Chad Sommer “an incubator for transforming social justice minded youths into advocates for Koch-brothers style education policies.”

NPE held its 2015 convention two blocks up the street from Lake Michigan in the historic Drake Hotel. Sunday morning, I went from breakfast with hundreds of BATs, teachers, and parents, who believe public education is important enough to fight for, to a session focused on the TFA. On my way, I passed by a large open room with thirty or so well appointed tables just off the lobby. Since the construction of the Drake in 1920, high tea has been served there every day. I recalled the story a teacher from Minnesota told me. In 1947, a public school teacher from a poverty stricken rural community not far from Minneapolis had driven her five eighth-graders to Chicago and treated them to high tea at the Drake. My new friend from Minnesota said that her eighty-year-old mother still counts that among the greatest memories of her life. The TFA expert panel:

Moderator: Julian Vasquez Heilig, Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership Program at Sacramento State University and a founding board member of the NPE.

 Professor, Terica Butler earned her Doctoral degree from the Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership at University of Memphis in May 2014. Her research emphasis was on alternative paths to teacher credentialing which included researching the training of TFA corps members.

 Annie Tan, is currently a special education teacher in Chicago public schools with a master degree in special education. She was a member of TFA corps class of 2011 placed in a Chicago charter school.

 Chad Sommer, with a degree in marketing, became a member of the TFA corps class of 2011 placed in Chicago public elementary school.

 Jameson Brewer, Ph.D. student in Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was a member of TFA corps class of 2010 placed at Carver High School in Atlanta, Georgia.

 Katie Osgood is a special education teacher in Chicago currently working at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught special education in the Chicago Public Schools. She holds a Masters in Elementary and Special Education from DePaul University.

It may be possible to criticize the quality of some of this panel’s judgments, but one point is clear, their research and advocacy will not pave the way to personal profit or power in the same way that being pro-TFA could. A path to political power and prestige is available to corps members and researchers who support these three positions: (1) Education outcomes are the responsibility of teachers and there are no excuses for teachers who fail to raise test scores. (2) Authoritarian leadership is required in both the classroom and in the administration of schools. (3) Market based principles are the path to scholastic improvement and standardized testing is the only reliable measurement of that improvement. Each of the panel members pushed back against these modern “reform” positions that are profoundly imbedded within TFA.

Professor Heilig opened the proceedings with a few brief personal remarks. He told us of his own experience at forums to discuss TFA and facing rooms packed by TFA corps members and supporters. He also mentioned that TFA with its large private funding from organizations like the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations pays staffers on Ed-committees in Washington DC for both the Democrats and the Republicans. TFA is an organization that is both willing and able to play power politics to get its agenda enacted.

Professor Butler observed that the summer five week training course did not equip the corps members for a full time teaching schedule in the fall. Summer-school students are only in class for four hours a day and there were normally four corps members assigned to each class. That meant that the TFA corps member student taught by sharing a class and only taught for 1 hour a day. Then in the fall they were hit with six hours a day in a classroom by themselves.

Jameson Brewer and Annie Tan were unusual corps members. They studied education in school and joined TFA to get a job when they could not find a full time teaching position. Somehow even during the height of the depression TFA was able to place its corps members in classrooms across America. Jameson who went through a university credentialing program prior to TFA told us that he became an example of how well TFA teachers perform in the classroom. He also shared the following table of data with us comparing TFA preparation with preparation by a typical teacher education program.

Student teaching Methods Observations
TFA 16-18 hour 125 hours 2
Typical TEP 630 hours 496 80

Chad Sommer was more typical of the TFA experience. He has written that I was “naively seduced by TFA’s do-gooder marketing pitch, I charged ahead on a mission to close the academic ‘achievement gap’ that TFA blames on incompetent (read unionized) teachers.” With a marketing degree in hand and five weeks of training which included a heavy dose of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (part of the TFA recipe for teaching), Chad became a new elementary school teacher at a public school in Chicago.

All three former TFA corps members agree that they were taking jobs that would otherwise have gone to a trained educator and Jameson Brewer says he directly replaced an experienced certificated teacher much to the chagrin of the principal that was forced to hire him.

The fundamental messages these corps members received during training were that public schools in America are failing and the cause is bad teaching. Social conditions are just an excuse. Great teachers can overcome “achievement gaps” and not raising test scores means that the teacher is a failure. The failing teacher likely succumbed to “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The sole arbiter of success in a classroom is test scores. This was all part of the TFA academic impact model.

Teach for America and the ‘education entrepreneurs’ who developed the “no excuses” charter school movement (often TFA alums) believe that America’s schools are failing and that they have a mission to save our country’s future. People like Doug Lemov, Stacey Boyd and John King, with no substantial background in education (which they see as a strength), started their schools. Deriding education theories taught by university professors, it was clear to them that the first item to fix in schools was discipline so they put children in uniforms, made many rules about everything the children did and enforced those rules harshly. It reminds professional educators of 19th century pedagogy. Based on behaviorist theory, it is completely authoritarian and autocratic. While a really skilled practitioners might raise test scores employing these harsh tactics it has some terrible side effects. Students learn to hate learning and creativity is sundered. To use professor Zhao’s metaphor – Rudolph will be killed.

I met Annie Tan at breakfast on Saturday morning. As I was headed into lunch after the morning sessions I encountered Annie again. Being a friendly engaging person, she invited me to go with her to find a table. We walked to the front of the giant room accommodating at least 35 tables for 12 and sat down with Jose Vilson, the well-known blogger from New York, Peter Greene AKA Curmudgucation, Jennifer Berkshire AKA EduShyster, and Adell Cothorne, who blew the whistle on Michelle Rhee. Also at the table was Peter Greene’s wife. It was an amazing hour and I discovered that Peter, his wife and Jose are trombone player like myself. Later, I learned that Peter and his wife met through their participation in a community orchestra.

Annie Tan graduated from Columbia University with an emphasis in special education. When she could not get a job, she joined the TFA and was sent to Chicago. Annie was assigned as a special education teacher at a charter school in Chicago. She was the only special education teacher on staff for grades K-4. The only support she received was during her monthly TFA advisory visits. The school was led by a TFA alum and most of the staff was current or former TFA corps members. Few staff member had more than three years’ experience. In February, Annie’s TFA supervisor (not the principal) informed her she was failing as a teacher by not moving her students fast enough towards success on standardized testing and may be fired. At the end of the year, she was fired. Four years later, she has a master’s degree in special education and is succeeding as a teacher in the Chicago Public School system.

I know from my personal experience that being labeled a failure is psychically devastating. Primary tenets of corporate inspired “reform” include disruption, labeling a certain percentage of people failures and firing them as a warning to those left behind. My first year of teaching, I worked under the Bersin administration in San Diego. Diane Ravitch tells the story of Bersin and the corporate “reform” piloting done by San Diego Unified School District in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I was fired for not moving my students toward achieving standards even though my classes scored extremely well on the district end of course exams. I had a credential in math, a credential in physics and high test scores but that was all trumped by the requirement to let go a certain number of first year teachers. I was a fifty year-old and that is probably the reason I was targeted. Even though I felt certain the firing had very little to do with my actual performance in the classroom, I was bothered by self-doubt about my abilities as an educator for the next decade. I am guessing the Annie still believes in some corner of her mind that she failed at her first teaching job and that thought still undermines her confidence. Authoritarianism is a horrible creed and especially horrible when applied to an education environment.

A great warrior for public education, Katie Osgood, made these three assertions: “TFA is a cult; its corps members are exhausted, isolated and only have TFA to attach to.” “TFA is destroying communities of color: they drive out teachers of color.” And “Tenure is a children’s right.” While I quibble with her use of the term cult, I recognize she is the psychiatric professional and I certainly agree that they do use the techniques she describes to change youthful idealistic minds toward a market based ideology. Her last two claims are unvarnished truth. Katy has been identified by TFA as the number one opponent of TFA on social media. She is relentless and impassioned. I am glad she is on my side. In her “An Open Letter to Teach for America Recruits” Katie writes:

“Many of you no doubt believe you are joining a progressive education justice movement; that is the message TFA sells so well. But TFA is not progressive. The data-driven pedagogy, the fast-track preparation, the union-busting, the forced exploitation of your labor, the deep-pocketed affiliation with corporate education reform are all very conservative, very anti-progressive ideas.”

And

“Ask yourself: Since when did billionaires, financial giants, or hedge fund managers on Wall Street begin to care about the education of poor black and brown children in America? If you follow the money, you will see the potential for mass profit through privatization, new construction, union-busting, and educational service industries. Why would a group dedicated to educational justice partner with these forces?”

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