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Is an 'Occupy Teach For America' Movement Brewing?

Influential Teach For America alumnus Gary Rubinstein is calling for current teachers and other alumni to demand change in the organization.

Influential New York City educator Gary Rubinstein has long been critical of Teach for America, the organization that brought him into the classroom 21 years ago. In a blog post last fall, he argued that people should no longer sign up to join the organization. Now, he's asking TFA teachers and alumni to take action against what he calls "the corporate reform movement for which TFA is the poster child."

"Now you’ve experienced how difficult teaching is. You've seen, also, how complex the achievement gap is too," Rubinstein writes. He goes on to ask some tough questions that challenge key tenets of the TFA philosophy: "So do you really believe that the issue is 'bad teachers' who need to be motivated through fear of being fired or through cash bonuses? Is that really what you determined after working in a school alongside people who elected to become career teachers? Those of you who worked in charter schools, do you really believe that they are providing an excellent education to all students?"

Rubinstein is inviting corps members and alumni to write openly about what they believe TFA must change, either on their own blogs or as guest posters on his blog. High on his own list is reworking TFA's five-week long summer training institute, where new corps members learn the nuts and bolts of being a teacher.

Rubinstein is far from alone in his belief that TFA needs to change the way it trains corps members. Last February, after the organization’s 20th anniversary summit, an alum created a petition asking that corps member "receive at least a full year of high-quality, school-based preparation before they assume responsibility for their own classroom."

No matter how much training you have, being a first-year teacher is incredibly difficult. But as a TFA alumna who attended the summit last year, I also wondered whether corps members would be more prepared with a different model of training. One promising example comes from California's largest charter school network, Aspire Public Schools, which operates a teacher residency program modeled on the way medical school combines theory, practice, and intensive coaching and mentorship.

At the heart of the petition—and part of what Rubinstein believes is wrong—is the fact that no middle-class, predominantly white school district or elite private school is going to hire a TFA teacher with only five weeks of training. I taught in impoverished Compton, California. I know I would never have been hired in Beverly Hills.

In a blog post this week, Rubinstein writes that he "might be helping organize new TFA corps members to be 'disrupting' the institute if they are not getting properly trained or are feeling like they are being lied to in various ways." Pressed by other TFA alumni to explain, he said that might include suggesting "'disruptive' questions that corps members can ask their trainers about."

In other words, he wants future TFA teachers to think critically about their training and whether what they're learning meets students' needs. Given that this is exactly what education reformers are asking our school systems to do—and TFA prides itself on its continuous improvement—maybe Rubinstein's "occupation" isn't so radical after all.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Shermeee

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