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TFA20: A Premature (Or Even Unwarranted) Celebration?

Picture 92 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 YearsReformer's Growing Credibility ProblemMaybe She Didn't Eat The Bee, EitherIt Could Get Worse.  Find my silly tweets here. Some twitter pics here and here.  Friday night reception pics on Facebook here.


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Hey Alexander-

Was looking for you on FB and ended up at this article, which at first I thought was a bit much (we're not ALL self-congratulating, just enthusiastic about being part of the movement), oh but then I got to the last paragraph and realized THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE. Really great, keep up the good work! ha. :)

The whole event made me sick. These highly affluent self promoting priveleged people teaching our poorest kids, throwing this over-the-top party for themselves? It's gross, I am sorry. TFA busts working class unions, are cultural tourists and temp workers. Then most after 2 years will either move into Wall Street firms or admin jobs making over $100k. Let's be honest here. This is not something to celebrate. When will we take poverty seriously in this country? Does anyone care that while these kids were whooping it up, patting themselves on the back, trying to get pictures with Rhee, many of their "students" were living in abject poverty? It is distasteful

I don't have any particular data to back this up, but my hunch is that the segment of TFA that wants to stay in the classroom/educational administration was overrepresented at TFA-Palooza...which is prob why so many school districts and charters were there recruiting (including several where TFA doesn't actually operate, like Pittsburgh). The Stockbrocker type was less likely to show up. Or maybe they were there and I just didn't talk to them...I don't count too many of those as my close TFA friends.

As far as standout moments were concerned, I have to admit being a big fan of the John Legend/KIPP NYC concert, and was also impressed with Randi Weingarden's session (particularly after it was right after Rhee and Klien's raging about unions).

I also thought it was kinda funny that CPAC was in town the same day. Me and my friends played "guess which convention" on the Metro, since the TFA peeps often look like CPAC attendees...although they're typically a lot better looking.

Why are Rhee and Klein even respected anymore? This to me discredits TFA more than anything. Why do they treat Rhee with such religious excitement? She lied about her own teaching success, her success in DC and she pulled a Sarah Palin and quit the second things got interesting (test scores dropped). This is the perfect TFA model?

I always think the same thing at events like this - Why are we all preaching to the choir? If all those folks spent the same amount of time working with kids on a one-on-one level and spent the money from the event wherever we think it's working best today....how many more kids could we help?

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