Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit

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Saturday, February 12, 2011
Teach for America 20th Anniversary Alumni Summit
8:00 AM
Arrived at the convention center to register. This is a seriously huge event—11,000 alumni (and some current corps members). At check-in we received a bunch of literature along with our name badges and tote bags—drink tickets for the evening reception (!), a Village Academies water bottle and brochure, as well as two flyers about LEE (an organization that claims to foster public sector leadership for TFA alumni.)  Village Academies is a charter school operator with two schools open in Harlem. Interesting (but not surprising) that TFA is promoting this school—they donated serious cash to TFA for this event (as is stated in the program brochure). I recently looked up Harlem Village Academies on the DOE website and found some interesting information about their enrollment. Their schools enroll students in grades 5 to 10 but not in equal numbers. As their students get older, the enrollment numbers drop drastically. What accounts for this attrition? Are they counseling out their students? Or are they simply leaving of their own volition? Either way, its clear they are not keeping their students.  Their brochure conveniently doesn’t mention any of this, and talks only about how great it is to work at their schools.

Village Academies, as well as many other charter school operators have booths set up here. Perhaps later, I’ll have to go and ask them myself. There are over 100 organizations tabling here at the summit, including: PAVE Academy, KIPP, Achievement First, Noble Network Charter Schools (whose teachers are all here in full uniform—their t-shirts are emblazoned with “BE NOBLE”), Success Charter Network, and the list goes on.  There are a few public school districts (D.C., L.A., Boston) here with tables too, but not nearly as many as are here to promote charters.

9:15 AM
The Summit has opened with a rousing performance by a high school marching band. Got to get the troops inspired and energized.
Opening remarks by Kaya Henderson, interim DC Chancellor and’92 TFA corps member. She’s well-received and calls DC the “hottest city for education reform.” Then she goes on to explain how DC’s education department is filled with TFA alumni, and that DC’s highest performing charters are run by TFA alumni. She claims that soon the person in the White House will be a TFA alum.
“DC’s school are tearing it up. We went through a bloody battle to get here.” Is she referring to Michelle Rhee’s tenure and inappropriate firing of teachers? I wasn’t aware that DC schools were now suddenly so successful? Did I miss something? I think the bloody battle is still going on and it sounds like she is planning to continue it. But the only people being hurt are those she is claiming to help.
She’s really going for it here. She closes with a “Let’s do this” mantra, followed immediately by the marching band again.
9:35 AM
Wendy Kopp takes the stage to a standing ovation, minus myself and my two friends.  51 people are here from the very first corps of TFA, 1,000 from the 2008 corps. And 3,000 from the current corps. 1500 of the alumni here are teachers. ONLY 1500?! That doesn’t include the 3,000 current members, but that is still 1500 out of 8000. 18%? Is that really success? Our education system needs people who stay and work in the classrooms.  
Her comments are quite generic. Sounds pretty much like what I heard here say when I was a corps member in training. She’s talking about how people “used” to think that ones socio-economic background determined ones possible educational outcomes. She is now telling a story about a Bronx teacher who got her 117 9th graders to pass the Biology Regents test.  She then explains how there are not that many teachers like this one. “We can foster the impact of successful teachers by creating transformational schools.” She calls out three charter school leaders as playing a crucial role in education in our country. She is now talking about North Star Academy Charter School in Newark. Is this what the whole weekend is going to be like?! I expected some charter plugging, but this seems like a charter school summit completely.
“North Star’s leader has embraced a different mandate….she is working to put students on a different socio-economic path. She obsesses over hiring great teachers…and does whatever it takes to meet the end goal.”
Does that include firing teachers and/or students? What does it mean to do “whatever it takes”?
“We can provide children facing poverty with an education that is transformational….We don’t need to wait to eliminate poverty. We can provide them with a way out…”
She then claims that DC and New Orleans are home to the fastest improving school systems. Wow! I guess creating a two-tier educational system is what TFA is all about? There is such great inequity in education in these two cities. But almost everyone here is just nodding along with Kopp. I heard from another alum that last night at the New Orleans regional reception, people were talking about how TFA had single handedly helped the New Orleans schools recover after Hurricane Katrina.
She claims to know what we need to fix education in this country. She is talking about “transformational leadership” as the key in schools and school systems. What does transformational leadership mean? Is it such a vague statement, but it sounds powerful, so everyone is clapping.  
“Incremental change is not enough, we need transformational change.” She is now explaining how she wants to expand the program, but mentions only pushing people into leadership roles. No mention of the role of the classroom teacher.
10:00 AM
Next up, Walter Issacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, a leadership/social entrepreneurship organization. He is up here to welcome the panelists to the stage. Rock music welcomes them:
1. Jon Schnur, Chairman of the Board, New Leaders for New Schools (moderator)
2. Michelle Rhee, former DC Chancellor
3. Joel Klein, former NYC Chancellor
4. Geoffery Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone
5. John Deasey, superintendent, LA Unified School District
6. Dave Levin, KIPP co-founder and superintendent of NY KIPP
*Klein is speaking now. “Is this our Egypt moment? Will we seize the moment? We will talk to each other and go home. I challenge this group to seize the moment. We no longer believe that poverty is permanent…Education…this is America’s issue. What will change it? Each one of you must insist that each school out there is one that you would send your kids too.” He takes it to a new level. He says “transformational change” isn’t enough—we need “radical change.” More empty statements from the former chancellor.
*Dave Levin is now speaking, with a KIPP shirt on (many KIPP teachers here are in full uniform as well). At KIPP, he claims to have quadrupled the graduation rate of kids from high poverty neighborhoods. But, just like Harlem Village Academies, KIPP has a history of high attrition. If you achieve 100% graduation but your class is only 30 kids when it should have been 100, are you really doing the true work of educating our children?!  I think not.

Michelle Rhee is up, and she seemed to have forgotten her masking tape. She is giving a speech pretty much on par with her usual–We need to be aggressive, some people might not like us, controversy will arise, opposition will arise, but we have to push past it. Meaning, we must squash it and cover it with masking tape.
Canada’s turn. He talks about this “revolution” and claims, “We can really win!” Everyone cheers. “As a nation we have become soft in terms of fighting for what we believe in.” He forgot to mention how our educational leaders, especially those in NYC, are working so hard to silence the voices of public school parents, teachers and students. He closes with “we need to ratchet it up.” So many vague statements from all of those on stage.
John Deasey. “This is an issue around courage. We have the skill. How courageous are we going to be? What if 11,000 people descended on LA to demand change.” Hmmm, didn’t LA teachers recently take to the streets to demand what they wanted? Maybe their message isn’t what he wants to hear.
He is now talking about how he needs people to come to LA and work?
Klein is speaking again. He is so well received by this audience. Every time he speaks the crowd responds. Where am I?!
Moderator: “How important is it to drive success in this country, to change parents, educators conception of this fact?” His questions are just plain confusing.
Canada: He is talking about how some people in our country simply accept that some children don’t learn because of poverty. He says he rejects this notion. All from a man who kicked out an entire class of students! The pure arrogance on the stage is hard to stomach. My palms are sweating. How do we counter this? “When any kid comes to me they are going to get an education.” I refer back to my previous statement—his schools also have serious issues with attrition. But this crowd doesn’t see it. How do we bridge these gaps?!
And why don’t his schools fill the empty seats in their schools?

Rhee: “The only issue isn’t parents lack of involvement.”
Moderator: “We see reasons for hope…Joel, what is is going to take to go from the KIPP schools and district school successes to system wide success?”
Klein: “It’s is going to take teachers who understand it isn’t just about good teaching. We cannot have the unions be the monopoly for teachers voice… Teachers need to have their own voice. “ Is he serious? Teachers need to use their voice? Clearly, he means if their voice is the same as his. We in NYC know how little he cared about teacher voice. How many PEP meetings did he preside over where he blatantly ignored the voices of teachers? He silences people who do not agree with him. He does thank the teachers from his new teacher group for speaking up. People are clapping for him again.
I think I have an ulcer.
Deasey: “I am tired of going to schools and hearing people say this is what I need and I am not being heard.” Wow, in just 10 minutes he has completely contradicted himself. He previously said he wanted teachers to have a voice.
Rhee: “ I have not demonized the teachers union. I have been trying to show people that the teachers unions are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.” What planet does she live on? Maybe it’s not really her? Nope, it is. We’ve just moved into the part of the session in which all the speakers are going to contradict themselves
She is plugging Students First, her new organization now, as the solution to the teachers union.
Candada: “ The union’s job is to stop innovation….”
Klein is offering his solutions. Here is what he says:
“First, We have to professionalize teaching and make it respected. We treat teachers like widgets and that isn’t going to work. Last in, first out is a huge problem. Excellence in teaching is the hallmark not senority in education…Second, we must stop monopoly providers. We must insist on choice…Third, we need innovation.”
Respect teachers? When has Klein ever done that? Widgets? He wants teachers and students to be cogs in a machine.
Moderator:  “KIPP schools don’t have the constraints of public schools. How scalable is your approach?”
Dave Levin” “This is the hardest work on the planet…the unit of change for an individual kids life…starts and ends with school…we need as many committed teachers and school leaders as we can get…”
He didn’t answer the question. Perhaps because even he knows that his isn’t a sustainable approach to education.

Moderator: He is closing with a “Ra! Ra! Let’s praise the people on stage. Join their schools and organizations.” These people are creating more educational INEQUITY in the name of equity. I need to redeem my drink tickets stat. 


One thought on “Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit

  1. What is completely perplexing is that these school's results aren't being considered by anybody. There is the absolute blind faith reaction that if they say they're improving kids' chances, it must be true. I hope you get the chance to ask the question about why so few kids are getting the benefits of these allegedly superior schools.

    Posted by | February 12, 2011, 1:38 pm

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