I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, October 21, 2012

TFA Is a POLITICAL Organization

Leonie Haimson points us to a paper by the reformy Alex Russo, edited by the reformy Fredrick Hess, and published by the reformy American Enterprise Institute.

That's a whole lotta reformy.

For edunerds, Russo's paper is actually very interesting: it chronicles the political rise of Teach For America, the "training" program for teachers. It seems that Wendy Kopp's merry band wasn't always the darling of the Beltway; according to Russo, TFA was ill-prepared to lobby Washington when it first came on the scene. But it turns out TFA had laid the roots for "saving" itself:
Still, it probably did not hurt that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s education aide was Jason Unger, a TFA alumnus, or that TFA had recently opened a site in Las Vegas, his home state. Alexander’s former education aide, Kristin Bannerman, was a TFA alumnus also. Harkin’s top teacher quality person was Michele McLaughlin, who had until May been TFA’s vice president for federal and state policy. Senator Michael Bennet’s (D-CO) education staffer, Joy Silvern, would soon leave the Hill to join a TFA spinoff.
Well, isn't that convenient?

Of course, we could go right down the list these days to find lots of TFAers who gave up five-figure salaries and the hard work of teaching for more lucrative and glamorous careers in education "leadership." 

John White, the education commissioner in Louisiana, is a TFA alum and worked in its offices - as if that's an acceptable substitute for real education experience. Charles Glover, Dallas's new Chief Talent Officer, is TFA; so are Tennessee's commissioner, Kevin Huffman, and DC's chancellor, Kaya Henderson. Wikipedia has a partial list of TFAers who hold prominent positions in education, including Newark superintendent Cami Anderson.

But getting alumni into education positions is only part of the plan:
When Teach for America alumnus Bill Ferguson took on six-term incumbent George Della for a Maryland Senate seat two years ago, he benefited from the energetic support of his fellow Teach for America alumni -- but he had to overcome the strident opposition of the teachers' unions.
Ferguson upset Della in the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election, making him only the second Teach for America alumnus to secure a seat in a state legislature -- following Mike Johnston, who joined the Colorado Senate in 2009.
Johnston and Ferguson aren't likely to be alone for long: At least six TFA alumni are running for state legislatures this year, and many others are running for boards of education. Like Ferguson and Johnston, most of these former teachers likely will have to overcome union opposition to win.
It's not like TFA is shy about admitting that one of their goals is to get their people into "leadership" positions; they actually brag about it.

So let's call TFA what it is: a political organization. It's created a network to influence policy in both the political and education spheres. These are not people who have vast experience running schools, being administrators, or teaching: they are tourists in the world of education. Teaching for two years was an annoying prerequisite before moving on to bigger and better things; it certainly was never a real career choice.

In a real profession, people build up credibility by demonstrating competence over the long term; that credibility then leads to opportunities to become leaders. TFA is bypassing this antiquated notion, getting its people into authority positions without the messy step of having to prove competence in the field.

Its ambitions, like those of the Broad Superintendents "Academy," are nakedly political, and have very little to do with improving teaching or administrative practice. Let's not pretend otherwise.

ADDING: Have to add De’Shawn Wright, Deputy Secretary of Education for the state of New York, to the TFAer list.

1 comment:

chunga said...

Great points on the absurdity of minimally experienced TFA alum moving into senior ed leadership and political positions. I added it to my growing reference of critical commentary on TFA at http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com.