Friday, December 19, 2008

Stifling TFA's Critics?


I have heard an account that I find credible, that participants in Teach for America are not permitted to publicly criticize the program, at the potential peril of their being expelled from the program. Given TFA's apparent emphasis on its program as résumé fodder, this seems to be part of an interesting set of techniques that TFA uses to minimize criticism:
  • If you're in the program, you're required to keep negative opinions to yourself;
  • If you are kicked out or drop out, criticism is seen as "sour grapes";
  • If you complete the program, you have an incentive to defend it as otherwise its value as résumé fodder is diminished;
  • If you're an education professional who criticizes the program, it seems to me that you're depicted as a defender of a failed status quo, as shilling for unions, or both.
I'm personally wary of any program that bars participants from publicly commenting on the negative aspects of their experience. I would be interested to hear any verification or rebuttal in relation to that alleged policy.

22 comments:

  1. I concur with the majority of your points. I would, however, note that "public criticism" is pretty much frowned on/discouraged by all entitites, not just TFA.

    For example, I give you pretty much every church, union, and political movement since the dawn of time.

    CWD

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  2. Sure, and I'm not thrilled with pretty much any of them when they try to foist a narrow set of views onto public policy decisions.

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  3. Just curious, how did you come across this "credible account"? And where did you find these techniques that you outline, or did you come up with them on your own?

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  4. "Given TFA's apparent emphasis on its program as résumé fodder [...]"

    Wow, you couldn't be more wrong on this one. I am on staff at TFA and can state irrefutably that in no way does TFA ever promote admission to the corps as 'resume fodder' - to do so would fly in the face of every value we hold dear. And I also have never heard of anyone being expelled for criticizing the program or its methods; one of the most important core values is to engage in disciplined thought, which is made clear includes questioning decisions or processes of the org if the person feels those decisions may be counter-productive to the mission.

    I'd be happy to clear up any other misconceptions you may have, so just let me know!

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  5. You know, you really shouldn't just drop by, sneer that people have misconceptions, and all the while pretend that your website doesn't exist. I mean you can, but... it seems silly.

    Let's see how others look at your program....

    Brown Daily Herald: Survey: seniors' confidence in job prospects down: "Randi Roberts '09, an art history concentrator, said she hopes to find temporary work in New York City next year, perhaps as an au pair or with Teach for America.

    'There is no money in art right now,' Roberts said. She added she is interested in museum education, but poor funds at museums and galleries limit her opportunities.
    "

    Cornell University ILR School: ILR graduates in demand, despite economy: "Anasstassia Baichorova, Teach for America recruitment director, said the economic slowdown will probably help her attract up to 80 Cornell seniors for two-year stints teaching inner-city students."

    A worried graduate: " i'm in a similar position. senior at an ivy with no offer from a bb SA s&t stint. OCR is quite bad, but many firms not coming on campus for interviews, let alone presentations. other firms are coming to interview but nobody knows if they have any intentions of hiring (both MS and GS S&T is coming...are they actually going to take anyone? probably not...)

    my plan is teach for america -> law school if i don't find a job i like.
    "

    I know that some in organizations like yours or the Peace Corps (an organization that's experienced a similar explosion in applications with the economic downturn) like to throw around the suggestion that the economic downturn simply "frees" graduates to pursue "passions" that they would otherwise forego in favor of graduate school or a career. But when students who actually know pretty much nothing about teaching or what it involves are attracted into a stopgap program to get them through a rough spot before grad school or a "real job", it's not "passion" that's bringing them to your doorstep... or to the Peace Corps. (Do you deny that students historically have used the Peace Corps as résumé fodder, with it being unthinkable only that they would do exactly the same with TFA?)

    Los Angeles Times, For Grads, Finding Work Is a Tough Job: "As is typical in economic downturns, many students are giving up on finding jobs and applying to graduate and professional schools, or they are looking into service programs such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America."

    Star Tribune, Grads face new realities in tight job market: "'They knew they didn't have any options' besides those programs, said Nebo, who graduated from the University of St. Thomas this spring. 'It's kind of a way to postpone getting a real job or to look good for grad schools.'"

    Do you know what degree a student with a true passion for K-12 teaching selects, over a degree in an unrelated field following by a two year stint with you, followed by grad school or a different career? Will one guess be enough?

    You state,

    "And I also have never heard of anyone being expelled for criticizing the program or its methods..."

    The question is whether your organization causes students to fear that consequence if they speak out while they're in the program, not whether you succeed.

    Does your program, or does it not, limit what participants may say about the program during their teaching assignments, with possible consequences of violating your rules including being booted out of the program? Because I've heard nothing but confirmation of that point from participants in your program. Now, perhaps employees misunderstand your rules and are needlessly scaring participants - perhaps you should clarify with your employees that there's no gag rule and that everybody is free to speak out about the program, no matter how critically, without fear of repercussion.

    You could even post your clarification and "free speech" rule on your website! Tell participants they're free to speak to the press, blog about their experiences (while, of course, respecting student confidences), publish editorials.... Let me know when your webmaster has time to put it up.

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  6. What I was indicating in my response was that TFA doesn't promote themselves as resume fodder, and you've proven my point. Almost every account you list is from people hoping to pursue TFA for personal motivations - not because TFA said that's what their program was good for. In all likelihood they won't make it through the admissions process, which is intense and designed to weed out people who are just "doing it to buy some time before moving on to a real job". There's no denying that when grads are worried about available jobs, they will look to service and volunteerism - which isn't necessarily bad. I'm not saying that people won't perceive TFA as a stop gap during economic downturns, but simply that TFA does not market themselves as resume fodder.

    With respect to your point about TFA stifling participants, why don't you read the corps member blog teachfor.us. Then tell me that TFA is stifling participants. Or just search for articles criticizing TFA from former corps members - they are out there also. I'm not going to speak for every single staff member or corps member and claim that incidents that have been described to you are untrue, what I am trying to clarify is that type of suppression of diverse points of view is not an attitude that would be condoned at our organization. Read the section of the website that describes our core values. I don't think there's any reason to have to make a special statement about freedom of speech - I believe the core values do a good job of that.

    I hope I have clarified what my meaning was. If not I'd be happy to explain further.

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  7. If your point is that TFA spokespeople are disingenuous, yes, I suppose I've proven your point. I've never claimed you flat out say, "Join us, we're great résumé fodder" - you instead imply it. That's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's good marketing.

    Your site trumpets all the wonderful things you can do with your TFA experience, and how great that experience will be when you go to graduate school, enter your business career, politics, medicine, science, law, engineering etc. - to put it mildly, when pitching what your alumni take away from the program, you do not emphasize post-program teaching or the development of teaching skills. You put that content front and center because you're trying to attract applicants who have no interest in a teaching career, and are trying to advance the concept that TFA is a résumé-builder.

    "I'm not going to speak for every single staff member or corps member and claim that incidents that have been described to you are untrue...."

    I didn't ask you to do that. You came here as a spokesperson for TFA, and I'm asking you to speak only on behalf of TFA. Please clearly state the official policy for public comment on or criticism of the program by TFA participants.

    Since you've suggested that it's possible that some of your employees aren't following your policy, and may be telling participants that there are restrictions on their public statements while they remain in TFA, I wouldn't mind learning the steps your organization is taking to correct that problem.

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  8. Put on the spot, the TFA spokesperson vanishes.

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  9. No, I didn't vanish, I was giving some thought on how to respond to the points raised. Again, this concept that TFA markets a corps members service as "[a great experience] when you go to graduate school, enter your business career, politics, medicine, science, law, engineering etc." isn't false, but it's the context you have taken it in that is not in line with our organization. Should alums choose to leave teaching after the end of their 2 year commitment (although 54% do stay for a 3rd), the experience will allow corps members to become advocates and leaders for educational equity in their chosen field. Right now we have over 12,000 corps members working in that capacity, with 67% remaining in education in various leadership positions. I think we should be proud that our network of people remain committed to the cause, even if prior to applying they had no intention of getting involved.

    With respect to the stifling of critics (former TFA affiliates or otherwise), you ask me to point to an official policy regarding criticism. Not only is there no need for such a policy, but I'd be interested to know of any organization that does have any type of policy stating that "Public criticism of our company is encouraged and welcome". And to be perfectly clear, in no way did I ever imply that members of staff were not following policy - you chose to interpret my statement that way and imply that our organization should be putting into place some type of corrective action. I'll clarify once again that suppression of diverse points of view is not an attitude that would be condoned at our organization. End of story.

    Ultimately I have come to the conclusion that this is not a forum for lively debate where differing opinions can be discussed in a respectful manner, without questionable accusations of meaning or snide condescension. I don't particularly want to continue any discussion in that type of environment. I expect that continuing attacks on both myself and the organization I am proud to represent will continue, but it will be one sided, I'm afraid. It's a pity because I was enjoying this blog, but the blogger and fellow commentators have made it clear to me that only opinions concurring with the blogger's POV will be tolerated.

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  10. If you believe you can enter a thread with an insulting, condescending attitude, and not have that affect how people respond to you, you couldn't be more wrong. Let me know if I can clear up any other misconceptions you have.

    I think this is clear enough: "Please clearly state the official policy for public comment on or criticism of the program by TFA participants." You seem to be stating first that there's no policy, but second that it would be unreasonable for TFA to have a policy of free speech for participants. You can't have it both ways.

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  11. Lysia doesn't strike me as the type who is going to appreciate that you're reflecting her own words back at her.

    She also doesn't strike me as the type that is apt to answer your question the second time around, any more than she answered it the first time.

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  12. It's more basic than that. I love debate. I love facts. But I don't owe anybody a platform, and I will confront people who won't directly answer simple questions.

    It's not that difficult to say, "TFA has no policy about public statements, and participants are free to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want," or "TFA has a policy on public statements, and here it is:...."

    I have plenty of patience for the presentation of information, and for robust debate; and I'm quite tolerant of snide comments such as "Wow, you couldn't be more wrong on this one.", "I'd be happy to clear up any other misconceptions you may have", or "you've proven my point" - as long as they're accompanied by some substance. But it would be mistake to think that I don't see snide comments for what they are (even when I make them), or that turnabout isn't fair play. When you enter my living room and clean your boots on the carpet, don't play the wounded animal when I challenge you - courtesy is a two-way street.

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  13. "I'll clarify once again that suppression of diverse points of view is not an attitude that would be condoned at our organization."

    You've STATED that a number of times, but are you able to provide us with any examples of things that have happened at your organization that indicate this is true? Or are you expecting everyone to take you at your word? The author of this blog has been able to point to, and QUOTE, specific examples that illustrate his points of view. Are you able to do the same?

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  14. More directly,

    "Not only is there no need for such a policy, but I'd be interested to know of any organization that does have any type of policy stating that 'Public criticism of our company is encouraged and welcome'."

    Nobody asked for any such thing. The issue, and the quasi-denial, relates to the claim by TFA participants that they are threatened with sanction, even expulsion, if they criticize the program during the course of their participation.

    I'm just looking for a public statement that it won't be punished - or a description of the circumstances under which it will be punished. Why is it needed? Because, as Lysia stated, "I'm not going to speak for every single staff member or corps member and claim that incidents that have been described to you are untrue" - I personally believe that if TFA can't state, "That's not true," TFA needs to better articulate its policies and better communicate them to staff. Or, conversely, admit that it's policy.

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  15. I've been reading through this discussion with interest. I can also say that as someone who's been on staff at TFA for almost 3 years I've never heard of anyone being kicked out for criticizing the program, and that would actually be very contrary to the way that we operate as an organization. We have a guiding set of core values that are taken very seriously. We are evaluated on whether our performance is in line with these principles during our formal review cycles, and on my team we have all-team meetings at least a couple times a year to discuss these values and how they play out in our everyday work. Here are our core values: http://www.teachforamerica.org/about/corevalues.htm

    Pay particular attention to the last two: Respect and Humility and Integrity. We "actively seek out diverse perspectives" and "engage in honest self-scrutiny". We make decisions rooted in these values and they are so much a part of our culture that we just refer to them mostly as their acronyms: "RPR, DT, SOP, R&H and Integrity." It seems that you all want written proof that TFA doesn't discourage corps members from voicing criticisms and as Lysia said, no official policy like that exists. I honestly can’t imagine that it’s needed. I would love to know where this all came from. I would be very surprised and concerned if someone was kicked out because they were critical of TFA.

    But don’t just believe me. I think that the blog that Lysia mentioned is a pretty good place to start (http://teachfor.us/portal.php). This blog community for TFA teachers was started by a corps member and has grown in popularity over the last few years. It is completely independent and is in no way monitored by TFA. Ask yourself: if these corps members could face expulsion from the program if they say anything negative, why would they blog so honestly and publicly? In fact, we give this link out to many prospective corps members who want more first-hand knowledge of what it’s really like. Feedback is actually very welcomed and is solicited twice a year in a survey of all corps members. We are a learning organization and seek to continuously improve. A s a staff member I get many surveys from various parts of the organization asking for my feedback as they try to improve, and I’ve sent many surveys like this myself in my various capacities on staff.

    Also, a book was published on TFA recently by Donna Foote, a freelance journalist and former Newsweek correspondent. It’s called Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America. You might recognize the title “Relentless Pursuit” from our core values – they’re really that central to how we operate. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about TFA. It’s incredibly real and honest, and is certainly not always rosy. When I read the book, I was struck with just how much access the author was given, from the selection information of the teachers she followed, to sitting in on staff meetings, and just generally getting inside and understanding what it was really like for the teachers, and for the staff. And despite the fact that she clearly had cooperation from TFA, you will see if you read the book that nothing is censored. It talks about the successes – and the failures. I want to highlight a couple of excerpts from this book that I think speak to the fact that corps members’ criticisms are welcomed and taken seriously:

    p. 302 “He [corps member] wasn’t shy about calling out Teach For America’s shortcomings, either. Hrag [corps member] argued that new corps members needed to be armed with standards-based lesson plans when they entered the classroom; it was hard enough learning how to teach without having to spend time figuring out what to teach. Until then, TFA had subscribed to the Chinese proverb ‘Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.’ Handing over lesson plans to recruits like so many pieces of fish ran counter to the organization’s culture. Planning lessons was something every teacher had to learn in order to succeed. The subject was covered during institute; recruits were expected to execute in the fall. But Samir [TFA program director] agreed with Hrag and began to work on developing standards-based curricula and assessments for teachers in the L.A. region. He credited Hrag as inspiration for the initiative.”

    p. 328 “He [corps member] was extremely grateful to have seen the problems besetting urban education firsthand. But he left TFA feeling underappreciated. The organization was not warm and cuddly. The emphasis was on the kids, not the teachers. In the fall of 2006, he and a few other CMs of color met with Brian Johnson [TFA L.A. region executive director] to discuss their concerns about TFA’s contentious diversity seminars. Though Phillip [corps member] had never left a session angry, he did find some of the white CM’s statements offensive. He and others were also upset that TFA’s tough admissions requirements were excluding candidates of color who they believed could have made excellent corps members. Phillip found Johnson sympathetic, open to feedback and improvement. One of TFA’s 2010 goals was to increase the number of people of color within the corps to 33 percent, he told them.”

    p. 328 “The school felt dangerous. The gangs were back, and students and staff alike felt abandoned by the LAUSD. Rachelle [corps member] was preparing an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times describing the worsening conditions on campus.”

    So not only were these three corps members’ criticisms welcomed, but on top of that, it was published in a book that TFA cooperated with. Clearly, I’m passionate about TFA and the impact that it’s having. There are certainly programmatic and organizational improvements that we can and are seeking to make, but I don’t believe that telling our staff that they should stop stifling our corps members’ criticisms is needed.

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  16. Egad.... At least Lysia was honest enough to attach her name when refusing to state TFA's policies. And no, the examples you give aren't evidence either that TFA welcomes criticism or that it does so from active participants. ("I felt underappreciated when I left, because TFA cared so much more about the kids than me?" Scathing.)

    This isn't hard. Let me repeat: I'm just looking for a public statement that criticism of TFA won't be punished - or a description of the circumstances under which it will be punished. Why is it needed? Because, as Lysia stated, "I'm not going to speak for every single staff member or corps member and claim that incidents that have been described to you are untrue" - I personally believe that if TFA can't state, "That's not true," TFA needs to better articulate its policies and better communicate them to staff. Or, conversely, admit that it's policy.

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  17. In terms of résumé building, there are stories circulating that TFA recruiters make no secret of that aspect of the program.

    Interestingly, I heard Donna Foote interviewed on NPR recently. The interview suggested that TFA has no problem with the perception among applicants that participation was résumé fodder, and that it's a good thing. Which, from the standpoint of recruiting top graduates, seems to be beyond dispute.

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  18. I came across this blog aimlessly and liked the dialogue. I know no one is probably checking this anymore but I wanted to clarify a few things...

    When I accepted TFA's offer, I do accurately recall a very lengthy contract we had to sign electronically. And I do remember being very disturbed by a section that dealt with public criticism. In the most PC way possible, the bottom line was that it was extremely frowned upon and consequences could arise. I whole-heartedly remember this part because as a young college grad with a free spirited, libertarian-esque personality, this was a red flag for me.

    What I've learned so far in my time with TFA is that public criticism is against the core values. Also, the higher ups tell us public criticism hurts the organization as a whole, and hurts our mission of ultimately helping inner-city, high need students. It's all a guilt trip. And for the record, I have seen TFA corp members severely 'blacklisted'(though not expelled) for public and non-public criticism. I've had my own spouts with TFA myself. I have dodged the blacklist status though(a whole different discussion).

    The TFA experience is quite frankly a psychological stroke of genius. Yes, some of us go on to achieve great things in the process. But the subtle tactics that TFA uses to ensure corp members develop a larger than life conscience that screams at them if they don't work 12 hour days or don't fully support the mission is unbelievable. Watching my fellow corp members evolve over the past several months is incredible. And they don't even realize some of the ridiculous rationalizations that come out of their mouths.

    Is this a bad thing? I haven't decided yet. I like to think of myself as dodging 99% of these 'brainwashing'(for lack of a better word) tactics. And maybe its that 1% of the brainwashing I did soak up that makes me think this is not so bad. But one thing I do know is, unethical guilt tripping tactics or not, TFA teachers bust it everyday for our kids. And whether or not we make these crazy 'sig gains' or not, the students of TFA teachers know that they are CARED ABOUT and they MATTER. And trust me, from experience, this makes a huge difference in many of our kids lives.

    I'm not saying the traditional or veteran teacher doesn't care about there students; that is not at all what I'm saying. But the TFA induced super-conscience gives you no other option but to put it all on the line for the kids. But ideally, this kind of dedication should come from within(like it does for many traditional, veteran... and even some TFAers); not induced by TFA 'professional development'.

    But seriously, someone should do a serious psychological study on the inner workings of TFA and its effects on the corp member. (Not like TFA would approve of such a thing) The results, I promise you, would be both shocking and amusing.

    And finally, yes, I'm posting this anonymously. Call me a coward, that's fine. But take this at face value... there is a reason I don't want my name attached to this post....

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  19. Do you believe that type of commitment is sustainable over the course of a career? The notion of 12 hour days is consistent with, for example, KIPP. But it appears that after a number of years at KIPP many teachers decide that they want families of their own, and they can't keep working those hours.

    I suspect that pretty much anyone who works at that level is going to burn out over time. If you're paid a lot, that may make up for the hours, but if the extra hours you are required to work are "for free" above the predefined work week, you have every right to think that your employer is taking advantage of you.

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  20. Hmmm.... good question. And my answer is no, for most people. Clearly, you get better at teaching/managing challenging groups of students every year so the 12 hour (grueling) work day gets a little less emotionally taxing I'd imagine. TFA doesn't seriously consider burn out after the 2 year commitment, because they don't plan on their corps members staying in the classroom.

    However, TFA is not out to create lifelong teachers. Yes, they've been making a push to keep teachers for their 3rd year. But this is so that they can boast about their 50% or so corp members stay for a third year.

    Ultimately TFA wants to create 'political' advocates, and they are fairly transparent about this I believe. So in turns of burn-out, they just try to delay it, or put it off, until you are out of classroom. They promise the impact you can have after the corp member experience, and so it's worth the near burn-out experience.

    As an 'experiment', when my program director and another TFA staff member asked me where I saw myself career wise in 5 years, I said I still wanted to be teaching. Instead of being ecstatic, as you would assume coming from an organization named "TEACH for America", they just looked at each other for a silent, awkward moment, and then said they wanted to see me as a district support figure, etc, as if staying in the classroom wasn't suitable for TFA alums.

    I know I'm providing some very open views, and its not because I'm against the organization. But I strongly believe there are two sides to every story so to speak. Are school districts better off with TFA corps members? Definitely. Is TFA struggling between whether it wants to be a cushy, feel-good nonprofit vs. a cut-throat corporate entity with sketchy ethics? Also, definitely.

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  21. I think that takes us back to the earlier debate with Lysia.

    If you join TFA, find that you're effective in the classroom and want to teach as a career, I say "go for it".

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  22. Yes, I completely agree.

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