Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 16 2012

A Response to Gary Rubenstein’s Tell Me More Appearance

Soo… anyone with opinions on the benefit (or total lack there of) of Teach For America should listen to this Tell me More episode interviewing Gary Rubenstein, TFA alum-turned critic, whose main argument is most TFA corps members only teach for a few years. Since it takes at least a year to get good, both the students and the teaching profession as a whole suffer (veterans get replaced by newbs with no training, which deprofessionalizes the whole profession).

BUT Michelle Martin aptly points out that Mr. Rubenstein (unbeknownst to most followers of his blog) no longer teaches in a low income school. No, he ditched that world a while back for a selective school in NYC. Why?

“”Its partly because I don’t think I have the energy right now to do it you know with my family and all that…” GR

The somehow undiscovered point underlying the tension between his pontifications and his practices is that for teachers, unfortunately, achieving dramatic results in low income areas all but precludes any semblance of a life outside your career. TFA doesn’t rest on college grads being better than trained professionals. It rests on them being capable of committing the absolutely unreasonable amount of time necessary to achieve results. Weirdly, that’s enough.


9 Responses

  1. '08

    I’m sorry, but I think you’re really misunderstanding Gary’s points. Yes, he does complain that TFA teachers leave before most are very effective, but I definitely wouldn’t say that’s his main complaint at all.

    It seems that most of Gary’s complaints these days have to do with the fact that many people do TFA for two years and take the “lessons” that they learned in this short amount of time to make policy decisions as part of the ed reform movement, ala Rhee, etc. Many of these “reforms” involve unproven accountability measures (like value-added), closing schools, and placing sole blame for achievement on teachers (as opposed to delving into root causes like poverty).

    Gary also frequently attacks TFA’s training model for the reason that teachers aren’t effective sooner (which is why the fact that many of them leave is so problematic — they leave when they’re just starting to get good). Given this, Gary points out that this is really problematic given the current job market. These inexperienced and ineffective teachers are replacing veterans in some cases. The situation was different as recently as a few years ago when most TFAers were teaching in schools that others didn’t want to be in. Far fewer disputed that putting bright and highly motivated folks in these classrooms was a win over long-term subs, but the landscape has changed in the last few years.

    Finally, it’s no secret that Gary teaches at Stuyvesant. He’s been really open about that in his blog and if you were unaware of that fact, you simply haven’t been paying attention…

    • yoteach

      Okay so perhaps he has mentioned it; I’ve read about 20 of his posts and had not come across that fact, but that may have been just an unrepresentative sample.

      Regarding your other point: Of course corps members leaving after two years is neither Gary’s only nor his primary complaint regarding TFA, but it is an important one for him and for others he aligns himself with politically. I actually think the his complaints about TFA-ers taking “lessons” they learned and applying them to new ed leadership jobs is one of his weakest arguments and simply a way for him to connect his TFA expertise to more mainstream policy debates (DC, value added assessments, charter schools, etc.). He provides no logical basis for why those who teach for two years in low-income schools as a result of TFA are somehow more likely to have these educational beliefs (that poverty can be overcome by an effective teacher, that algorithms can measure teacher quality, that closing ineffective schools is better for students than improving them, and that teachers deserve all the blame for our educational system). This is especially implausible if TFA teachers are as unsuccessful as Gary believes us to be.

      Again, I think his most hard-hitting attack on the utility of TFA’s existence (since their training model can always be updated and improved) is that we teach for only two years, often replacing veteran teachers and even more often leaving the profession before we become experts [I believe this is how I characterized his opinion in my original post, and this is certainly how you characterized it in your 2nd to last paragraph, so I’m uncertain why you don’t think I understand his argument]. My point is that he and most educational writers of his persuasion underestimate how difficult it is to produce career teachers given the unreasonable time investment needed to be a “transformative” teacher. Sometimes what is needed is more than we can reasonably expect from a person with a family and a mortgage, and it is understandable that passionate teachers who care about the underserved like Gary migrated to more privileged schools.

      While I think it is fair that TFA and critics should both be ambivalent about TFA’s spread to districts with no shortage of teachers (since your right, it’s very different deciding to send a bunch of recent college grads to fill empty spots and to potentially replace veterans), I think his experience exemplifies how his dream of career inner-city teachers is both impossible and not so desirable. I think TFA training, how we decide to lay off teachers, TFA expansion, should all be improved, but am not at all persuaded by Gary and the rest that its existence does more harm than good. In fact, I think it could play a critical role in an educational system that utilizes veteran mentor teachers working with energetic and less skilled CMs who have an abundance of time to dedicate to their two years of work.

      Anyways, I appreciate the feedback and would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. veteran

    OK let me get this straight GR is not qualified to be an educational voice based on the fact that he no longer teaches at a TFA type school. Hmm Let’s think how many years Wendy has 0, Rhee 3.
    I think perhaps that line of thinking may have been valid a few years ago when TFA basically only affected inner city and rural schools. However now this corporate “rheeform” ( Largely generated by TFA alum) affects everyone. Some of the effects are testing has become king and teachers in many states are moving to a system where all that matters is if their students marked the right circle on a standardized test.
    I think it’s time to realize a few important truths
    There are good TFA teachers
    There are bad TFA teachers
    There are good veteran teachers
    There are bad veteran teachers.
    There are good public schools and bad ones
    There are good charter schools and bad ones.
    There is are good education reforms and bad ones.

    Why is TFA banking on people putting absolute unreasonable amounts of time in to get the job done sustainable? Why aren’t we fighting for better class sizes, more preschools, better child care and quality summer programs. So that teaching isn’t so extremely difficult and so we don’t have to wait for superman or those outlier transformative teacher?
    I read over and over how hard institute and the 2 corps years are- but then some in TFA have magically forgotten that and now blame it all on the lazy teacher?
    As someone who has taught for awhile with TFA and beyond and is still in a TFA placement school- I can say as a professionaI I agree with Gary about 94% of the time and I have no problem with him moving on to another placement
    As a parent of 2 children who are now both treated like a number, I am worried about what damage is happening to the profession and to children ALL the time.
    Thank you Gary for doing what you are doing!

    • yoteach

      Okay: I’ll support you in your fight for all those reforms…but I’m not optimistic you’ll make much progress in the coming years given our economic climate (they all essentially boil down to spending more money on education). In the meantime, I’m going to continue advocating to place people who don’t have to give up a family in order to make substantial gains in schools. I think the problem with this debate is that the those who ally with GR et al tend to think that we can either support TFA or do all those other great reforms, when in fact the reality is we can do both. And until GR finds a survey that says TFA alums are more likely to be against all those reforms, I am going to assume that the existence of TFA will help them come into fruition.

      • skepticnotcynic

        It’s clear to me you haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the classroom, or you wouldn’t be championing the new ed reform movement’s policy stances on education. I say new, because this country has been trying to reform the educational system for the last 100 years. It’s nothing new.

        It’s easy to support reformer’s efforts to change the educational system when you leave the classroom. You see, the real work is always done in schools, and the people who dedicate their lives to working directly with kids and those who administrate the building are those who deserve the credit. You talk about costs, but if we eliminated all the superfluous waste outside the school’s walls, we could reduce costs to the point of paying teachers, administrators, and school personnel significantly more, which would attract better people and in turn in would become a profession that is competitive.

        No, I do not mean performance pay or bonuses, I mean significantly higher salaries that would make teaching a coveted profession. Of course, compensation is not always the answer, but I guarantee you if those who work directly with students and in schools made a lot more than those in central offices, ed consulting groups, and educational non-profits you would see a lot more retention because you would have better and more productive employees in a building. This would reduce burnout because as an experienced teacher you wouldn’t be constantly helping the revolving door of rookie teachers get better. You could focus on your own students and what you need to get done.

        You get what you pay for, always. If you want to work with a school full of ambitious and hardworking, albeit mostly ineffective teachers, be my guest, but I would rather work with colleagues who are committed to becoming exemplary professionals without trying to kill themselves.

        Working 100 hours a week does not guarantee better results. If you are efficient at your job and live a well-balanced life you will never need to work those kind of hours beyond your 4th year of teaching.

        This would cut down on turnover, recruitment costs, consulting groups, self-serving educational non-profits, useless educational products, bloated central offices with inflated administrative salaries, and the list goes on.

        So much of the waste that we see in education has to do with the entities who are not directly participating in educating children. We don’t need more reformers, we need people willing to do the hard work. Who get up every day and get the job done. Those who think they are too good for teaching or working in schools and feel their efforts are best utilized working outside of schools should seek employment in other sectors. We do not need anymore people championing self-serving reform movements. The system will heal itself with productive, ethical, and well-balanced professionals working in schools. The only people in ed offices should be those handling compliance paperwork that just has to get done.

        We need an army of heavily compensated staff who go to work every day with children and get the job done. Then we will see schools improve in this country. Simple as that. And I don’t mean the achievement gap will be closed. I just mean we will have a respectable school system.

        • yoteach

          I am far from championing ed reformers. What I am saying is the problem is more complicated than many care to admit. Ideally we could work in an environment where successful teaching can be a life-long career. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things pulling teachers out of the classroom, especially when they start to have families. You say ” If you are efficient at your job and live a well-balanced life you will never need to work those kind of hours beyond your 4th year of teaching” but clearly committed educators like Gary leaving the most under-served classrooms proves that this is not yet the case. I could give you about four more examples of the same phenomenon from my school alone. Very few disagrees with you that we need higher paid teachers. What I totally disagree with is the attitude that ANY reform that doesn’t stress more investment in education is wrong-headed. Obviously we need more funds, but until we reach a time where that is politically possible we need to be proactive.

          • skepticnotcynic

            My point was to allocate resources more efficiently, not to throw more money at bad ideas.

  3. So, I’m pretty sure the vast majority of people already knew that. 80% if you will. Granted, she brought it up in a way that was thought-provoking given the context. Gary made a true claim when he said: “”Its partly because I don’t think I have the energy right now to do it you know with my family and all that…”

    My only issue with his claim is that he didn’t take it one step further and say that we need to figure out how to improve the conditions of the typical TFA placement schools so that teacher retention is no longer an issue. This might put TFA out of the job, but oh well. I’m sure it can find another strategic priority.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Teacher retention in the new RTTT regime is about to get a whole lot worse …

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