Teach for America, the program that places newly minted college graduates in some of the nation’s most difficult classrooms for two-year teaching stints, is holding a summit this weekend in Washington to mark its 25th anniversary.
The list of speakers reads like a who’s who of activists and leaders behind recent changes in education policy around the country, from former D.C. Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to Eva Moskowitz, the head of the largest chain of charter schools in New York City. The singer Janelle Monáe will entertain at a glittery gathering of an estimated 15,000 Teach For America alumni; the organization’s many donors will also be on hand.
And roaming among them is Gary Rubinstein, a nationally known scold of TFA.
Rubinstein, a former TFA volunteer who is in his 14th year of teaching math at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, says he wants to force an “honest discussion” about TFA — including its weaknesses.
To that end, he created a Twitter account @TFA25FactCheck and a new blog and will attend the summit, looking for opportunities to inject what he calls “reality” into discussions about the best ways to improve public education. He is helping to organize a happy hour for those who share his concerns about TFA and said he will also hold an impromptu discussion during the three-day event, after he said his requests to join official panels were spurned by TFA organizers.
Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for TFA, said the organization can’t accommodate everyone who wanted to speak on panels but noted that it has included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and frequent critic of TFA, as well as others with “diverse viewpoints.”
“We are focusing on progress for our kids and communities instead of engaging in a back and forth that, at the end of the day, is a distraction from the real issues,” Winfield said in an email. She noted that on Sunday, TFA will provide a brunch for “those who want to discuss critiques of TFA. Our thoughtful critics make us better.”
Rubinstein said he will call out any examples of spinning or exaggeration he sees. One example: Rubinstein tweeted a photo of a graphic that was displayed at one workshop that showed the District as the urban district with the largest gains in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 2011 to 2015. Rubinstein tweeted that D.C.’s scores were so low that even after the gains, it still was the worst performing of the major urban districts.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson was a TFA Corps member in New York in 1992.
“I’m here to disrupt this,” said Rubinstein, 46, as he walked largely unnoticed around the cavernous Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Rubinstein said TFA exaggerates the success of its program and alumni while at the same time overemphasizing the role of teachers, contributing to a political climate that blames educators for the academic struggles of low-income children.
“TFA is so allied with this education reform, this ‘Waiting for Superman’ narrative, that it ignores other factors,” said Rubinstein, referring to the 2010 documentary that was critical of traditional public schools, and featured Rhee as she challenged tenure and other union protections for teachers. The film portrayed non-unionized charter schools as a salvation, and followed families as they tried to win admission through a lottery.
“The truth is, schools need more resources,” Rubinstein said. “If there’s a high-poverty school, it needs way more resources — potentially break-the-bank resources. It needs smaller class sizes. I’m talking four [students] to one [teacher]. But TFA doesn’t talk about that.”
Of TFA’s approximately 50,000 alumni, 65 percent work in education or shape policy in some capacity — as teachers, principals, superintendents, charter school executives, or in local, state or federal government, according to the organization.
That has led to the proliferation of “reckless” policy changes, such as the notion that teaching quality can be judged by student test scores or that charter schools are inherently superior to traditional schools, Rubinstein said.
“I really think education has gotten worse in this country because of these types of reforms,” Rubinstein said. “I hope TFA will start to explore other explanations for the achievement gap than the ‘bad teacher’ narrative.”
Rubinstein began publishing his criticisms on a blog five years ago. Since then, several TFA alumni have written negatively about their experiences, saying that TFA’s five-week training session did not adequately prepare them for teaching in struggling schools and that the two-year commitment that TFA requires adds to the teacher churn in high-needs schools.
Those criticisms, combined with pressure from teachers unions, have led some jurisdictions to cancel plans to place TFA recruits in schools. The organization has seen a downturn in recruiting, although TFA executives blame that on a strengthening economy and the fact that new college graduates have more job options than they have in recent years.
But dings from Rubinstein and others have not gone unnoticed by TFA. Late last year, a nonprofit group loosely connected to TFA began a public relations campaign called Corps Knowledge to defend TFA against critics.
Corps Knowledge challenged Rubinstein in a post last year on its Facebook page called “The Misanthropy of Gary Rubinstein,” in which it suggested that Rubinstein had given up on low-income students to work at Stuyvesant, one of the highest-performing public schools in the country. It has not followed up with anything aimed at Rubinstein since.