My Interview with a TFA Alum

Ben Spielberg is a TFA alum who taught for three years and then worked as an instructional coach in San Jose Unified School District. Ben is an active blogger on http://34justice.com and has written powerful pieces supporting unions (http://34justice.com/2014/04/25/teachers-unions-what-we-do-and-how-students-benefit/), critiquing attacks on teacher tenure (http://34justice.com/2014/01/28/vergara-v-california-the-agendas-the-facts-and-recommendations-for-california-law/), and pushing policies that improve the lives of children outside of school (paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage, single-payer health care to name but a few). He also wrote a thoughtful and well-reasoned piece on TFA (http://34justice.com/2013/11/08/working-together-for-educational-equity-whats-missing-from-the-tfa-debate/). While the first part of the piece provides a sort of fact check on common critiques of TFA (confirming, disputing, and often clarifying them), the second part of the piece argues that TFA and its critics actually share the same goals and suggests ways they can work together. It’s this latter part that intrigued me and motivated me to request this interview.

Details on Ben’s background can be found at http://34justice.com/about/ and in the piece he wrote on TFA above so I’ll limit myself to a brief question here on your background.

What prompted you to join TFA?

I have always been passionate about social justice issues and also knew I wanted to teach at some point in my life. I viewed TFA as a way to simultaneously have a positive impact on the lives of low-income kids, learn about the challenges they face, and experience teaching without necessarily having to commit to the profession long-term. I originally only thought I would stay for two years, but I loved my school, district, and union and actually would still be coaching if I hadnt moved. Since my fiancé just started at Georgetown Med, though, and because Ive always been interested in advocacy, I decided to pursue policy options in DC.

You’ve suggested that TFA and many of its critics are, in fact, natural allies. Can you explain what you mean by this? And, are you suggesting that TFA as an organization is a natural ally or are you mainly referring to individual recruits, staff, and/or alum?

Im mainly referring to individual corps members, staff members, and alumni, though I think the organization itself is also a potential ally. When I say that most people within TFA are the natural allies of its critics, I primarily mean that both sets of people have the same ultimate goals. Most people within TFA and most critics of TFA that I have encountered consider themselves to be advocates for low-income kids, and most members of both groups support a broad range of other social justice causes. They want an equality of opportunity between low-income and high-income families.

 In other words, I consider the ethical orientation of both groups of people to be pretty similar. There is obviously disagreement about how to best approach better outcomes for low-income kids. However, Id argue that there is significantly less disagreement than there appears to be if you look at the opinions of most individual members (as opposed to just the prominent alums). More importantly, the people within TFA that I know can be and typically are persuaded by sound theory and evidence-based arguments about whats best for low-income kids.

 I think TFAs critics need to remember that the reform narrative is, though very misleading, also very compelling. Smart people with excellent intentions become sympathetic to reform arguments because there are elements of truth contained in its narrative. Suggesting that TFA is evil and destroying education, when the reality is much more nuanced than that, reinforces reform stereotypes about their opposition. If we instead critique the organization and the reform movement hard where it fails (there are numerous examples in which Ive done so, some of which youve mentioned) while acknowledging the reasonable arguments people make and focusing on the good intentions of nearly everyone involved in the conversation, we are much more likely to change peoples minds.

 Again, Id emphasize that most people within TFA arent wedded to specific policies a priori. They are oriented towards whats best for low-income students, and develop their perspectives on policies in response to their experiences (both before, during, and after the corps). TFA the organization unfortunately still tends to present reform-leaning ideas, and thats a big problem, but more and more corps member perspectives are becoming more nuanced.

 Now, do I think TFA the organization is a natural ally? Thats a harder question to answer. Based on my understanding of their mission and what the vast majority of their members believe, Id say yes. But when factoring in the monetary incentives not to change, it becomes much harder to answer in the affirmative. I think TFA the organization has a big decision to make in the coming years about what their mission really means, and that decision will impact the answer to your question. I hope TFA decides it is a full-scale social justice organization. At the very least, TFA needs to change its organizational rhetoric (this is starting to happen), actively distance itself from problematic reforms, and make sure it isnt undermining anti-poverty efforts.

 

You wrote that those in TFA and most people in education share similar goals. This usually rings true when talking at a high level (such as “educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.” ) but is it true when getting more specific (for example, raising achievement on standardized tests, or educating the whole child)?   If there are indeed common goals, why do you think two sides exist in the TFA debate?

On the specific topic you mention, I dont actually think raising achievement on standardized testsand educating the whole childshould be at odds. I personally think we should help students, first and foremost, to become compassionate people who think about the needs and feelings of others. Second, I think we should help them become dependable and build a strong work ethic. Third, I believe we should help them develop into curious, critical, logical thinkers who are willing to question and explore just about anything. If we accomplish these three goals, I think its more likely than not that standardized test scores would also go up.

My guess, though, is that your question is intended to get at whether TFA corps members and alums support high stakes standardized testing, or whether they prioritize test prep over more important types of learning experiences. There seems to be a wide range of opinions on this topic in TFA, but I will say that the organization itself has been very clear (at least in the Bay Area) about messaging that standardized test scores are not the goal of education. I think if you sat down to talk to most people on the TFA Bay Area staff about the purpose of education, youd agree on about 95% of what you discussed.

If the conversation starts there, my guess is that the ensuing conversation about standardized tests and how we use them will also be fairly aligned. Many people who consider themselves reformers worry about both the current overemphasis on standardized testing and the counterproductive uses of test score data. I think they also see the potential formative value in certain uses of standardized tests (which I do as well), and wouldnt want to scrap the practice entirely, but I doubt most critics of reform want that, either. I believe the rhetoric about toxic testingand inaccurate arguments in articles by prominent reformers make the debate on this sort of issue seem more polarized than it really is.

There are certainly real policy disagreements, but I would again note that TFA corps members, staff, and alumni are, for the most part, very reflective. They usually listen to and deeply consider logical, evidence-based arguments from people with the same high-level goals.

 

Your article on TFA made a number of recommendations.   Some were aimed at TFA as an organization (“TFA should acknowledge that the achievement gap is caused by poverty” and that TFA should not place recruits where there is not a shortage of qualified candidates more likely to stay). As a private organization that is not only funded largely by those pushing against your recommendations but is also not itself a democratic organization, is it realistic to expect it to change positions on its own? How can this come about? From internal feedback or organizational change? And, how long should we wait?

I think its important for people both within and outside the organization to continue to make compelling critiques about what TFA must change. TFA seems more inclined, on an organizational level, to listen to feedback than lots of other large organizations. As I mentioned earlier, theres a big internal debate going on in TFA right now about its role in a larger social justice movement. However, the pace of change is still too slow. I never think we should wait around for change to happen; Id just reemphasize that TFA is more likely to hear and reflect on critiques that acknowledge its positive contributions and the positive intentions of the people who work there.

Going back to your TFA article and your comment that “the best critique of Teach For America, in my opinion, is based on political affiliations and impact”. Your recommendations only seem to indirectly address this (urging TFA to acknowledge the role of poverty), but don’t really touch directly on how to detach TFA from such associations. Doesn’t acknowledging the role of poverty require severing these relationships? Do you have any recommendations to address this issue more directly?

TFA actually has gotten involved in political action outside of its specific operating activity before (see, for example, the amicus brief TFA filed in Fisher v. Texas) and could expand the scope of that advocacy on behalf of underprivileged populations to include support for the minimum wage, for example. Some donors would almost certainly leave if TFA more broadly discussed whats best for low-income kids, but I think that departure would be associated with a lot of negative PR. Additionally, I think TFA staff, corps members, and alums should write to and talk to donors about other social justice advocacy issues and their importance.

While TFA might ultimately need to sever its donor relationships, I honestly think TFA is a big enough brand right now to exert some influence on its donorsbehavior. Even if TFA loses tons of funding, I believe thats preferable to remaining agnostic and giving donors credit for helping kids when their overall political activity actually hurts low-income populations.

The main response I hear from people in TFA is similar to the one StudentsFirst VP Eric Lerum made in the debate we just had: that TFA is an organization devoted more singularly to education and leadership development, and that broader social justice advocacy, while important, is outside the scope of its work. As I explained to Eric, I think that would be a reasonable (if not ideal) position to take if TFA did two things:

 “1) Acknowledge that the best school-based reforms imaginable, while important, would likely only be able to solve 20% to, at most, 33% of the [opportunity gap].

 2) Avoid undermining the anti-poverty work that can address a larger percentage of the opportunity gap.

TFA is much closer (in my opinion) to doing these two things than is StudentsFirst, but its still got a long way to go. One component could be a change in political strategy for Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), TFAs partner organization. LEE currently supports TFA alums in politics regardless of political affiliation and policy positions, and Id love to see LEE change course and explicitly tell candidates that their platforms should not undermine anti-poverty and anti-discrimination issues.

While TFA claims to be getting more reflective and open to differing voices, it also has a reputation for being fairly insular. How can new recruits get exposed to the facts on important education issues? What can recruits, alum, and staff do?

I think corps members, staff, and alum should always ask for more information and question the assumptions underlying the information they receive. For example, if TFA hosts a panel of school leaders and four out of the five panelists run charter schools, and the one representative from a district school is from a district with a contentious relationship with its teachers union, corps members might push staff to reconsider the composition of future panels. Or if TFA uses questionable data practices at Institute, or inaccurately reports that its teachers advance student learning 2.6 months more than other teachers, corps members might write letters and engage staff in conversations about the importance of accurate data, suggesting alternative practices and reporting methods that would be more honest. In my experience, TFA staff thinks a lot about these issues when corps members, staff, and alumni raise concerns. That doesnt mean Ive always been happy with TFAs response to concerns – I think their current practices still leave a lot to be desired – but I have always found the organization willing to listen to and at least think about alternative points of view.

Can you talk about efforts you’ve made to better inform TFA recruits, staff, and alum? You’ve mentioned a “Unions Matter” event you co-hosted, and also a panel discussion you were on regarding the Vergara case. Can you tell us a bit about these and how they were received?

A couple years ago, we (the San Jose Teachers Association, or SJTA) brought all new TFA corps members to our union office during their training. Our president spoke to them and answered questions for more than an hour and a half; I think the conversation helped debunk a lot of misconceptions about teachers unions and topics like permanent status. Corps members raved about the session afterwards. SJTA has maintained a very strong relationship with TFA and LEE in the Bay Area; weve discussed joint professional development sessions and other opportunities for corps members to hear about the positive impact unions can have in the time since, though I think were a little behind on the implementation.

This past spring, LEE asked me to co-host an event called Unions Matterin Oakland. The piece on teachers unions that I wrote came directly from this event. I spoke about five roles unions play (the traditional union role, collective voice, community and family outreach, political advocacy, and education reform) and why those roles are incredibly important for students, low-income communities, and the future of public education. We also discussed some obstacles to productive district-union collaboration, the responsibility districts and reformers have to begin to change the tone of the conversation, and some steps unions can take to proactively define themselves as social justice organizations. The teachers and staff who were there also gave very positive feedback about this event, and staff indicated a desire to involve more union voices in the future. Later, in June, I was asked to participate in a LEE web panel on Vergara v. California. The panel leaned pro-Vergara, but I felt that I was able to convey my main points; I believe my comments were well-received by the attendees, several of whom contacted me after the event.

Finally, I just wrote a piece called “Teachers Unions as Champions of Social Justice” for TFAs One Day Magazine. I was unhappy with the pull quote, but I otherwise liked the piece a lot, and my understanding is that alums enjoyed it as well.

What can those outside TFA do to encourage recruits or even TFA itself to support strong unions, evidence based reforms, and advocate for social justice policies more broadly? Are there opportunities you see for collaboration between the two camps?

First, I think people outside TFA should read “How Teachers Can More Effectively Speak Truth to Power” by Jack Schneider (full disclosure: Schneider was a former teacher of mine). Just like its hard for teachers to listen to reformers when reformers suggest (often implicitly, sometimes explicitly) that teachers are selfish, inclined towards laziness, and bad at their jobs, its hard for reformers to listen when critics of TFA ignore inconvenient evidence and suggest that TFA teachers simply do not belong in a classroom.While I think reformers bear more responsibility for changing the tone of the debate – theyre on the offensive, have more power, and are less personally affected by education policies – people wont hear the plethora of legitimate reform critiques and we wont advance the conversation if we dont hold ourselves to high standards for accuracy and communication.

Second, I think there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration. Outside of contentious education reform topics, most people from both campsbelieve in similar policies. Improved professional development opportunities, teacher support, and funding equity are three in-school ideas I believe the two groups could partner on right now. I would love to see unions inviting TFA staff to events and TFA staff inviting union leaders to events; I think this practice would help debunk member misconceptions on both sides.I would also love to see TFA partner with unions and other community organizations to raise awareness about and push out-of-school issues, like a living wage, paid sick days, and increased health care access, that are vitally important for students and their families. Im sure there are other opportunities and would love to hear your and other peoples thoughts on this question as well.

 

3 Responses to My Interview with a TFA Alum

  1. I appreciate this conversation, and have deep respect for Ben as a union activist. However, I disagree with the idea that TFA the organization can or should be saved. Teach For America, from its very inception, is a fundamental cog in the broader neoliberal project meant to undermine public institutions, teaching as a profession, and to privatize, I see no need to fight to “reform” a bad organization. Let’s just participate in and strengthen quality community and labor social justice organizations.

    As for the individuals in TFA, if they come out and join with social justice advocates fighting on the streets against all the destructive neoliberal policies in and outside education, awesome! Just too often the TFAers are the ones on the other side-the ones cozied up to 1% Mayors, or wealthy foundations, or conservative think tanks, or other reform-minded politicians. I don’t care if you did TFA, I do care if you espouse damaging corporate reform policies.

    • Thanks, Katie! I know we tend to disagree about TFA, but I always enjoy engaging with you.

      I agree with you that we should “strengthen quality community and labor social justice organizations.” My question, though, is why you think doing so and working on the improvement of TFA are mutually exclusive. To end TFA’s existence would require a “fight” far more significant than what would be needed to help the organization change, and I think the complete dissolution of TFA is much less likely to happen than the organizational change I’d like to see. I would understand your comment more if you’re arguing that TFA should mostly be ignored, but to the extent that you want to address TFA at all, doesn’t it require more resources to end the organization than to help it become a better ally? In other words, if you think TFA can’t change, why do you think it can be destroyed?

  2. chungatest says:

    I have not normally enabled comments on this site, but this topic could be a good one to allow it. My response may be slow approving comments, but I will accept most any constructive and appropriate ones.

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