Saturday, February 12, 2011

Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, Part 1

A GEM TFA alum is in the house.

NOTE: Some people have been confused thinking I wrote this - note I'm a bit old to be a TFA alum.

Diary of the Summit by Summit blogger

On Saturday, Feb. 12, a Real Reformer member of the Grassroots Education Movement went down to DC for the TFA 20th Anniversary Summit. The blogs came through all day with extensive coverage from the perspective of someone who is not a true believer. Let me say that Summit Blogger is still teaching a self-contained elementary school class years after most TFA's have gone on to other things. Here are links to each segment.

Part 1: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit
Part 2: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit - Randi Weingarten

Part 3: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, - Afternoon Session

Part 4: Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, With Closing Plenary

Saturday, February 12, 2011
Teach for America 20th Anniversary Alumni Summit

8:00 AM
Arrived at the convention center to register. This is a seriously huge event—11,000 alumni (and some current corps members). At check-in we received a bunch of literature along with our name badges and tote bags—drink tickets for the evening reception (!), a Village Academies water bottle and brochure, as well as two flyers about LEE (an organization that claims to foster public sector leadership for TFA alumni.)  Village Academies is a charter school operator with two schools open in Harlem. Interesting (but not surprising) that TFA is promoting this school—they donated serious cash to TFA for this event (as is stated in the program brochure). I recently looked up Harlem Village Academies on the DOE website and found some interesting information about their enrollment. Their schools enroll students in grades 5 to 10 but not in equal numbers. As their students get older, the enrollment numbers drop drastically. What accounts for this attrition? Are they counseling out their students? Or are they simply leaving of their own volition? Either way, its clear they are not keeping their students.  Their brochure conveniently doesn’t mention any of this, and talks only about how great it is to work at their schools.

Village Academies, as well as many other charter school operators have booths set up here. Perhaps later, I’ll have to go and ask them myself. There are over 100 organizations tabling here at the summit, including: PAVE Academy, KIPP, Achievement First, Noble Network Charter Schools (whose teachers are all here in full uniform—their t-shirts are emblazoned with “BE NOBLE”), Success Charter Network, and the list goes on.  There are a few public school districts (D.C., L.A., Boston) here with tables too, but not nearly as many as are here to promote charters.

9:15 AM
The Summit has opened with a rousing performance by a high school marching band. Got to get the troops inspired and energized.
Opening remarks by Kaya Henderson, interim DC Chancellor and’92 TFA corps member. She’s well-received and calls DC the “hottest city for education reform.” Then she goes on to explain how DC’s education department is filled with TFA alumni, and that DC’s highest performing charters are run by TFA alumni. She claims that soon the person in the White House will be a TFA alum.
“DC’s school are tearing it up. We went through a bloody battle to get here.” Is she referring to Michelle Rhee’s tenure and inappropriate firing of teachers? I wasn’t aware that DC schools were now suddenly so successful? Did I miss something? I think the bloody battle is still going on and it sounds like she is planning to continue it. But the only people being hurt are those she is claiming to help.

She’s really going for it here. She closes with a “Let’s do this” mantra, followed immediately by the marching band again.

9:35 AM
Wendy Kopp takes the stage to a standing ovation, minus myself and my two friends.  51 people are here from the very first corps of TFA, 1,000 from the 2008 corps. And 3,000 from the current corps. 1500 of the alumni here are teachers. ONLY 1500?! That doesn’t include the 3,000 current members, but that is still 1500 out of 8000. 18%? Is that really success? Our education system needs people who stay and work in the classrooms.  

Her comments are quite generic. Sounds pretty much like what I heard here say when I was a corps member in training. She’s talking about how people “used” to think that ones socio-economic background determined ones possible educational outcomes. She is now telling a story about a Bronx teacher who got her 117 9th graders to pass the Biology Regents test.  She then explains how there are not that many teachers like this one. “We can foster the impact of successful teachers by creating transformational schools.” She calls out three charter school leaders as playing a crucial role in education in our country. She is now talking about North Star Academy Charter School in Newark. Is this what the whole weekend is going to be like?! I expected some charter plugging, but this seems like a charter school summit completely.

“North Star’s leader has embraced a different mandate….she is working to put students on a different socio-economic path. She obsesses over hiring great teachers…and does whatever it takes to meet the end goal.”

Does that include firing teachers and/or students? What does it mean to do “whatever it takes”?

“We can provide children facing poverty with an education that is transformational….We don’t need to wait to eliminate poverty. We can provide them with a way out…”

She then claims that DC and New Orleans are home to the fastest improving school systems. Wow! I guess creating a two-tier educational system is what TFA is all about? There is such great inequity in education in these two cities. But almost everyone here is just nodding along with Kopp. I heard from another alum that last night at the New Orleans regional reception, people were talking about how TFA had single handedly helped the New Orleans schools recover after Hurricane Katrina.

She claims to know what we need to fix education in this country. She is talking about “transformational leadership” as the key in schools and school systems. What does transformational leadership mean? Is it such a vague statement, but it sounds powerful, so everyone is clapping.  

“Incremental change is not enough, we need transformational change.” She is now explaining how she wants to expand the program, but mentions only pushing people into leadership roles. No mention of the role of the classroom teacher.

10:00 AM

Next up, Walter Issacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, a leadership/social entrepreneurship organization. He is up here to welcome the panelists to the stage. Rock music welcomes them:
1. Jon Schnur, Chairman of the Board, New Leaders for New Schools (moderator)
2. Michelle Rhee, former DC Chancellor
3. Joel Klein, former NYC Chancellor
4. Geoffery Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone
5. John Deasey, superintendent, LA Unified School District
6. Dave Levin, KIPP co-founder and superintendent of NY KIPP

*Klein is speaking now. “Is this our Egypt moment? Will we seize the moment? We will talk to each other and go home. I challenge this group to seize the moment. We no longer believe that poverty is permanent…Education…this is America’s issue. What will change it? Each one of you must insist that each school out there is one that you would send your kids too.” He takes it to a new level. He says “transformational change” isn’t enough—we need “radical change.” More empty statements from the former chancellor.

*Dave Levin is now speaking, with a KIPP shirt on (many KIPP teachers here are in full uniform as well). At KIPP, he claims to have quadrupled the graduation rate of kids from high poverty neighborhoods. But, just like Harlem Village Academies, KIPP has a history of high attrition. If you achieve 100% graduation but your class is only 30 kids when it should have been 100, are you really doing the true work of educating our children?!  I think not.

Michelle Rhee is up, and she seemed to have forgotten her masking tape. She is giving a speech pretty much on par with her usual--We need to be aggressive, some people might not like us, controversy will arise, opposition will arise, but we have to push past it. Meaning, we must squash it and cover it with masking tape.

Canada’s turn. He talks about this “revolution” and claims, “We can really win!” Everyone cheers. “As a nation we have become soft in terms of fighting for what we believe in.” He forgot to mention how our educational leaders, especially those in NYC, are working so hard to silence the voices of public school parents, teachers and students. He closes with “we need to ratchet it up.” So many vague statements from all of those on stage.

John Deasey. “This is an issue around courage. We have the skill. How courageous are we going to be? What if 11,000 people descended on LA to demand change.” Hmmm, didn’t LA teachers recently take to the streets to demand what they wanted? Maybe their message isn’t what he wants to hear.
He is now talking about how he needs people to come to LA and work?

Klein is speaking again. He is so well received by this audience. Every time he speaks the crowd responds. Where am I?!

Moderator: “How important is it to drive success in this country, to change parents, educators conception of this fact?” His questions are just plain confusing.

Canada: He is talking about how some people in our country simply accept that some children don’t learn because of poverty. He says he rejects this notion. All from a man who kicked out an entire class of students! The pure arrogance on the stage is hard to stomach. My palms are sweating. How do we counter this? “When any kid comes to me they are going to get an education.” I refer back to my previous statement—his schools also have serious issues with attrition. But this crowd doesn’t see it. How do we bridge these gaps?!
And why don’t his schools fill the empty seats in their schools?

Rhee: “The only issue isn’t parents lack of involvement.”

Moderator: “We see reasons for hope…Joel, what is is going to take to go from the KIPP schools and district school successes to system wide success?”

Klein: “It’s is going to take teachers who understand it isn’t just about good teaching. We cannot have the unions be the monopoly for teachers voice… Teachers need to have their own voice. “ Is he serious? Teachers need to use their voice? Clearly, he means if their voice is the same as his. We in NYC know how little he cared about teacher voice. How many PEP meetings did he preside over where he blatantly ignored the voices of teachers? He silences people who do not agree with him. He does thank the teachers from his new teacher group for speaking up. People are clapping for him again.

I think I have an ulcer.

Deasey: “I am tired of going to schools and hearing people say this is what I need and I am not being heard.” Wow, in just 10 minutes he has completely contradicted himself. He previously said he wanted teachers to have a voice.

Rhee: “ I have not demonized the teachers union. I have been trying to show people that the teachers unions are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.” What planet does she live on? Maybe it’s not really her? Nope, it is. We’ve just moved into the part of the session in which all the speakers are going to contradict themselves
She is plugging Students First, her new organization now, as the solution to the teachers union.

Candada: “ The union’s job is to stop innovation….”

Klein is offering his solutions. Here is what he says:

“First, We have to professionalize teaching and make it respected. We treat teachers like widgets and that isn’t going to work. Last in, first out is a huge problem. Excellence in teaching is the hallmark not senority in education…Second, we must stop monopoly providers. We must insist on choice…Third, we need innovation.”

Respect teachers? When has Klein ever done that? Widgets? He wants teachers and students to be cogs in a machine.

Moderator:  “KIPP schools don’t have the constraints of public schools. How scalable is your approach?”

Dave Levin” “This is the hardest work on the planet…the unit of change for an individual kids life…starts and ends with school…we need as many committed teachers and school leaders as we can get…”

He didn’t answer the question. Perhaps because even he knows that his isn’t a sustainable approach to education.

Moderator: He is closing with a “Ra! Ra! Let’s praise the people on stage. Join their schools and organizations.” These people are creating more educational INEQUITY in the name of equity. I need to redeem my drink tickets stat. 

NEXT SESSION: Randi Weingarten - my ulcer is pulsing in anticipation


Anonymous said...

Sounds like theater of the absurd. Thanks for the coverage.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Why did you even bother to attend if you are so clearly opposed to all that TFA stands for? I was there, too. I think there was tremendous respect expressed for teachers and the important role they play. Will be looking forward to reading the rest of your entries and learning more about the solutions you(hopefully)propose since you don't believe any of the speakers have any good ideas.

Anonymous said...


I am also a TFA Alum ('06) who was at the Summit. I struggle with many of the issues you raise here, but was also incredibly inspired by the Summit. I would like to have a private discussion (email exchange, maybe?) with you, because I think I have things to learn from you, and I'd also like to push back on some of the things you've said. How can we get in touch?

Tiffany R.
Mid-Atlantic '06

SummitBlogger said...

Why do I have to agree with TFA to attend this summit? Your question gives more evidence to the one-sided nature of the event. Even my presence is being challenged, simply because I do not agree. I never said that TFA was disrespecting teachers. If you read my post, you'll see that I highlighted occasions when this was expressed.
As to your question about solutions, I believe public education should remain just that--public! Charter schools represent the privatization of public education and they do not educate our neediest children. Public schools should be empowered to innovate. Teachers and parents should be brought to the table to discuss reforming our education systems. Those in positions of power over our educational systems should be experienced educators--a background in business and management should not qualify a person to run a school system. It's going to take time and serious effort to make a dent, but we must stop relying on "quick" fixes like charter schools. Do you really want to see public education become completely privatized?

SummitBlogger said...

Hi Tiffany,

Thanks for your response. If you want, post your email address and I'll write to you.

ed notes online said...

Hey Tiffany
If you don't want to post your email publicly email off line at and I'll pass your email on to Summit blogger. I would love to host your hashing out of the issues. FYi - Summit blogger is one TFA who has remained in the self-contained classroom in one of the poorest areas of the city putting in years beyond the average TFAer with no sign yet of wanting to bail out to become an ed policy maker - though SB as part of the Real Reformers at the Grassroots Education Movement is working to affect policy changes without leaving the classroom.

Anonymous said...

I'm a TFA-alum and am still teaching at my original placement school. I really really wanted to attend the summit but could not afford it.

Chew on that for a while.

Tracy said...

Hi Norm. I attended the Summit this weekend, too, and live-tweeted it. I tried to tweet the positive because I believe in TFA's overall mission and I think they do a lot of good. That being said, I was also troubled by some (not all) of some of what your blogger reports. After the Klein/Rhee/Canada panel- and the comment by anonymous- I did wonder where my place as an alumna is in the TFA movement if I'm not 100% on the bandwagon with what they have to say. If you do do a blog post on the different takes, I'd love to participate.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear she is still teaching, but I don't think disparaging those who do leave the classroom to do ed policy is necessary. I do agree with the part of TFA's mission which aims to put ed advocates in all sectors of the workforce. I think we need more teachers who know what it is like writing policy. I am also in my fifth year teaching.


ed notes online said...

Summit Blogger didn't disparage. I guess I did. It's not only TFAers but as one who taught self-contained elementary school grades 4-6 for almost 20 years and then computer classes for 10 more even though I had opportunities to leave, I never has the respect for those who left as for those who remained. I guess I don't get people who talk about how it should be all about the children and not the adults but feel impelled to leave - making it all about the adult - themselves. Sure, go ahead and leave but don't go around preaching to those who slug it out in often difficult public schools. I just can't buy the TFA - "we stay in education but at some distance from the children".

Anonymous said...

Does it strike anyone else as slightly ironic that Kaya Henderson is celbrating the idea of a TFA alum becoming President of the United States rather than, say, a poor, minority DCPS student? In other words, was this summit really about advocating for disadvantaged students or just a forum for TFA self-promotion?

Mr. B said...

Ed notes online:

While I have a bit of an issue with the immense bias that was included in the LiveBlog, I think it is important that TFA included people with many different views both in their panels as well as in the invitation for those outside TFA to attend.

What I am confused about is you final statement that the TFA mantra is "we stay in education but at some distance from the children." What exactly is distance to you? If someone becomes a literacy or math coach, is that distance? An assistant principal? A principal? A Dept. of Education member? A city board of ed worker? A school board member? I'm not quite sure where you draw the line at being too far from children to have an impact on them.

In my eyes, it is somewhat hypocritical to say that the only way to impact children is to be in the classroom. Would you say that you would like a Chancellor who agrees with all your policy views? And, in your mind, I assume that that person is someone who taught in the classroom at least 20 years? When are they allowed to move on to be the chancellor? When are they allowed to "stay in education" but at a distance from children?

If you have EVER really talked to someone in TFA (which I'm sure you have, or at least I hope you have), you would know that they care more than anything about the children that they teach day in and day out. Yes, some do leave, but then again they leave at a lower rate than other teachers in the same low income schools that they teach in, and they are more likely to "stay in education" as you said. So why not attack the traditional teaching colleges that send off teachers who head for the private schools or suburbs as soon as they can? Or, for that matter, simply leave teaching since they can't cut it either?

Louisiana and Tennessee both just put out studies that show that in the majority of grades and subjects, TFA trained teachers make more meaningful progress with their students than teachers from any other traditional route.

When it comes down to it, TFA teachers care about their students. Its why people like Dave Levin and Michelle Rhee are in education today. Its why there were 11,000 alumni and current core members of TFA showed up to the Summit. You believe that the only impact can be in the classroom, and I believe that it must be made in the classroom as well. But I also know that the only way that classrooms will be filled with people like you who are committed to education and to educating our children is if we have people with that vision in every walk of life, in positions to make crucial policy decisions.

Please reply with your comments. I would very much like to see your response.

ed notes online said...

Mr. B,
First of all I want to point out that I am not the Summit Blogger. I just hosted the posts, but I work with SB in GEM, a group in NYC dedicated to fighting for Real Reforms.

But I worked in the NYC school system for 35 years, 30 of them in the classroom. So I will answer your "distance" question. I saw way too many people escaping from the infantry of teaching in elementary school - the self-contained classroom. I eventually left after 18 years and became a computer teacher - the distance in the 2 jobs in terms of how I could affect children was immense. In my last few years I moved to the district level and did a lot of work training teachers and children in tech. A vaster difference. My most productive teaching took place the closer I was to the kids. So, yes, I think a literacy coach has in effect left the room. I am not going to make a judgment about people who want to rise in terms of careerism, but don't try to tell me it's all about the children and not the adults. If you want to have the most impact on children don't leave the classroom. If the entire 11,000 TFAers had remained you all very well might actually be having an impact. If you are interested in making ed policy it is about you and not the kids. Ed policy should be made by those who do not chose to leave the classroom.
If you want to be a chancellor then have some humility and work to support the infantry of teaching instead of imposing insane policies that make it an impossible job that drives so many of the best out.

I'll leave Summmit blogger to respond to the rest if she chooses.

I know one thin

SummitBlogger said...

Mr. B-

I was at the TFA Summit blogging, but I am a TFA alum. I do not think TFA invited people who were not alums. As for your comment that TFA "included people with many different views," I would have to disagree. I did not see any real debate happening in the sessions I attended.

There is no doubt that most TFA teachers (like non-TFA teachers) care deeply about their students, however TFA as an organization does not encourage its members to stay in the classroom. During my time as a corps member I was constantly invited to job fairs and emailed job postings--there was always an effort to engage us about what we were going to do "after our 2 year commitment." While I do acknowledge that we need passionate and informed policy makers and school leaders, I also believe TFA must make it more of a priority to get people to stay in the classroom. They seem more focused on "leadership" rather than teaching.

Re: Michelle Rhee/Dave Levin. Michelle Rhee has been found to have lied about student test scores, wrongfully fired teachers, and openly admits that she used to tape her students mouths shut. Are you sure she is the person you want to use as your example of the "caring educator?" As for Dave Levin, his KIPP schools have a track record of counseling out students who cannot perform. Also, not really the definition of someone who really cares about kids in my book. If you didn't see my graphs that show KIPP's attrition, take a look.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog post - I think it is increasingly critical that TFA be scrutinized. We need to look beyond their carefully crafted spin and examine their cult-like organization, and their real objectives.
As I read your observations of the Summit, the word "cult" kept coming to mind!
I am a former TFA-er as well, and note that I am posting anonymously.