TFA20: A Premature (Or Even Unwarranted) Celebration?
Imagine a world in which Michelle Rhee is something of a rock star no one’s much over 45 everyone is smart and optimistic and hard working and basically competent (if not particularly wise) and thinks they’re doing a bang-up job. That’s what it was like at this weekend’s TFA20 Summit, a slick celebration and expensive-seeming birthday party for Teach For America. No doubt TFA’s heart is in the right place and it deserves credit for lasting this long and growing as big as its gotten compared to many other rinky dink education nonprofits. But the sense of accomplishment was, even for a revival, both immodest and premature – reminding me of the kid who expects praise for doing his homework for a few days in a row or the football player who starts celebrating before he's reached the end zone. The situation TFA faces is far from clear. Two of its biggest champions -- Rhee and Klein -- were recently bounced from office. The exemption Congress carved out of NCLB to allow corps members to work without being deemed not highly qualified is under legal challenge in California. The coming budget crunch is setting up a generational war between veteran and newbie teachers. It's extremely possible that RTTT, SIG, and the rest of the Obama education agenda, with which TFA is closely allied, could fall flat. And yet, founder Wendy Kopp’s opening plenary caution that reformers have “not yet made a difference in the aggregate sense” largely seemed drowned out by the self-congratulation.
Thoughts (in no particular order): (1) The revolution in Egypt was invoked frequently over the weekend, along with MLK and others, which was understandable but confusing given the fundamentally conservative and incremental nature of what TFA has been about (and gotten done); (2) Though built and nominally still based on the hard work of classroom teachers, TFA continues its slow but obvious pivot towards leadership, advocacy, and the political process; (3) The people invested in DC reform don’t like to hear that their little brother in Maryland might have done as much ore more – without putting a mayor or reform leader out of a job; (4) “Twenty years. One day” was the conference slogan, and it sounds vaguely cool and intriguing, but what does it even mean? (5) There was a lot of twitter traffic but most was of the “whoo hoo!” variety and very little that I’d describe as critical or even self-aware.
Claims made (but not verified) by attendees (this is for you, reporters and bloggers): Baltimore has reduced the dropout rate for African American males by 59 percent over the last three years, according to Andres Alonso. An additional 750,000 FAFSA claims came in this last year, since the USDE and IRS [headed by a TFA alum] collaborated to simplify the form, according to Duncan. Over 50 of the original corps were there, and at least two of the original TFA corps members have been teaching continuously for the last 20 years, according to Wendy Kopp. KIPP might try and help train turnaround principals as well as all the other work it does preparing charter leaders, according to Mike Feinberg. The charter school run by Perry White in Cleveland has gone from being on the state watch list to on the verge of becoming a blue ribbon school over the past decade – it’s a “turnaround charter school.” Ninety seven percent of the 11th graders at Green Dot New York are on track to graduate, and 100 percent have passed their math and science Regents.
Standout moments (according to me – what’re yours?): (1) Michelle Rhee taking pictures with innumerable fans in the conference hallway, wearing a bold geometric print dress and superhigh heels (almost making up for Arne Duncan’s disconcertingly open blue button-down shirt). (2) The Ballou High School Marching Band making a grand entrance with shiny gold-colored helmets that resembled those of Roman Centurions; (3) The disappointed audience reaction upon realizing that President Obama had “only” taped a video greeting (the rumor was that he going to show up in person). (5) Colo. State senator Mike Johnston’s intense / over-wraught story about a student asking him who makes laws governing schools? (“We do, Tiffany. We do.”) (6) Realizing that the two other big conferences in town were CPAC and the steelworkers. (7) The all too brief moment of silence for Harriett Ball and the power of teachers. (8) Michelle Rhee’s quip during the opening plenary panel: “We already know what works, we just don’t want to do it.”
Spotted: Can50’s Marc McGee. Former DF staffer and now Oakland reform guy Jonathan Klein. Several current and former Locke high school teachers, as well as Green Dot founder Steve Barr. Chicago and DC staffer Josh Edelman (aka Jonah’s brother). Former NYT writer Paul Tough. Former Gates staffer Joanne Weiss. Cami Anderson and her cute four-toothed baby. Impossibly youthful-looking charter corps members Kelly Amis and Jonathan Schorr. Perry White, moving to New York City. President Barack Obama (via pretaped video). EdSec Duncan, wearing a pressed blue button down shirt w(ith the collar a little too far open for comfort). Suzanne Immerman in jeans rather than slacks or a skirt. See my twitpics or check out #tfa20fashionpolice for more silly shots and commentary.
Related posts: Five Ideas For TFA's *Next* 20 Years, Reformer's Growing Credibility Problem, Maybe She Didn't Eat The Bee, Either, It Could Get Worse. Find my silly tweets here. Some twitter pics here and here. Friday night reception pics on Facebook here.