August 12, 2013 by juicefong
Many of you are familiar with Gary: ’91 Houston Teach For America corps member, teaches math at Stuyvesant High School (NYC’s most selective/prestigious public school) and more recently one of the most outspoken critics of TFA with a widely-read blog and aggressive tweeting. He’s also a former computer programmer, Tufts University Jumbo and father of two. Ten years ago he led an evening session that I attended as a corps member during summer institute in the Bronx. We reunited under different terms this time, enjoying a long lunch a couple weeks ago over Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in the East Village. Delicious.
His beef with TFA is pretty simple: 1) The training sucks and TFA doesn’t want to admit it. 2) The organization continues to tout false success in order to raise money. Let’s have at it:
Rubinstein believes that unrealistically small class sizes and the meager amount of teaching time required of corps members at institute are inadequate to prepare a first-year teacher. He acknowledges that beginning teaching is hard no matter what training program you come from, so “you’re really just trying to make sure the first year is not terrible.” But still, TFA’s approach is too “one size fits all.” He believes the emphasis on student investment is overrated, that first-year teachers need a lower-risk approach—such as avoiding “college talk” on the first day of school.
I probed Gary more and asked him if he believes it is in fact possible to prepare first-year teachers over the course of a summer. In fact, he does think it’s possible, for some: “For middle and high school teachers—yes. Elementary, I don’t know. Definitely not special ed. If you do six weeks of training with teachers teaching three hours a day, with normal class sizes of about 25—yes, I think it is possible to prepare teachers for their first year.” He cited his own prior experience successfully coaching a cohort of Teaching Fellows in New York City as a trainer for The New Teacher Project—the only cohort with 100% retention that year. Gary would also like to see corps members’ summer teaching assignments match the grade level and subject that they’ll be teaching in the fall.
Rubinstein’s second beef is about Teach For America touting false successes. There are two parts to his argument: One, Gary has a broader definition of what success looks like in education compared to what he hears from the TFA community. Second, he thinks TFA is dishonest because it is under so much pressure to raise money.
Gary is absolutely against a purely test-score defined vision of success for schools and students and he believes Teach For America spreads this. “Why doesn’t TFA say great schools have a marching band or that they put on musicals like ‘Man of La Mancha’?” he asked. It bothers him when TFA holds up heroes (in the form of teachers, schools, districts and alumni) who seem myopically focused on test scores while there are many other factors to consider when judging success in schools. He believes that test scores do give some useful information, but they generally aren’t that good and they’re not a reliable measure. “You can’t measure everything that’s important,” he said.
Rubinstein knows that Teach For America’s annual operating budget has eclipsed $300 million. He sees an organization that is under great pressure to raise this money, and so must resort to lies and dishonesty to impress its funders, touting false successes and making grandiose claims about its teachers and alumni in order to keep the money flowing in. “Schools can only do so much,” he said. “Teachers are not miracle workers.” He added one more interesting point: “Besides, schools are not that bad right now. I’d give them about a C, and I think the best they can ever be is about a B. Charter schools, in general, are not better than public schools and the ones that are are only marginally better.”
That’s his beef. Here’s my quick commentary: Gary’s flavor of beef seems pretty mild in comparison to the frequency and vigor with which he criticizes Teach For America (such as this video urging new CMs to quit). On TFA’s summer training, for example, what he proposes is not dramatically far off from the current state of affairs. Some critics soundly reject that a summer is adequate to prepare first-year teachers, but Gary knows otherwise from first-hand experience; it is possible. Regarding summer institute class sizes—which I think is a fair point—he will be pleased to know that a recent initiative lifted the average summer institute class size from 12 students to 17 in the last year. Still, however, that number varies widely from room to room (although I routinely saw 20+ when visiting TFA institute in Los Angeles earlier this summer).
I think he’s got a point about a perceived over-obsession from the TFA community about academic gains represented in the form of faulty test scores. There is much more to a great education. We can talk about the merits or demerits of standardized testing another day, but I wish Gary would take a moment to watch great stories like this one about a high school lacrosse team or the awesome work of TFA’s Poet Warriors project or the vulnerability the organization is willing to show.
I hope our enjoyable barbecue lunch serves as an example to others that sitting down face-to-face and enjoying some fall-off-the-bone ribs is really the best way to put down your differences and have an honest, open discussion. Gary’s pretty aggressive online—certainly has been with me—but he’s a nice guy and I sincerely enjoyed our time together.
Justin Fong (@jgfong) runs the small but mighty internal communications team at Teach For America. He blogs separately on his own, and is still getting over not making Michael Petrilli’s top Twitter list.
As promised, a beef recipe: Gary and I enjoyed some absolutely fantastic ribs and beef brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, NYC. It was some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. In that honor, here’s a simple recipe for beef brisket.
They key to good brisket is the slow-cook. This one will take you about 4.5-5 hours. For a 4-lb. trimmed beef brisket:
Preheat the oven to 300˚.
Make a dry rub with a tablespoon each of: salt, sugar, garlic powder, ground black pepper, cumin, cayenne. Add salt, pepper, cayenne and really any other spices to your liking (I’m a measure-by-taste kinda guy). Rub up the brisket on both sides, with love.
In a roasting pan, let it go for one hour, uncovered at 300˚.
After an hour, take about a 14-oz. can of beef stock and water to give you about 1/2 an inch of liquid in the pan. Lower the temperature to 250˚. Let it go for another 3.5-4 hours. Don’t forget to use to pour on the juices afterwards and always let your meat rest 10-15 minutes after coming out of the oven.