It’s Sommer Time: TFA alum Critiques Co-CEO’s “Slick Willie” Interview

I recently caught a rebroadcast of PBS’ American Experience: Clinton, and was reminded that today’s future “first man” was once dubbed “Slick Willie” by the press due to his mastery of duplicitousness in dancing around controversies. However, with Bill Clinton’s approval rating now upwards of 69 percent, he may have finally shaken off that unpleasant moniker.


But with Clinton’s loss, comes Teach For America’s gain.  During a painfully awkward interview on American Public Media’s American RadioWorks podcast, “Can Teach for America Keep Its Promise?”, (An interview that was a response to Julian Vasquez Heilig’s  American Radioworks® Conversation: Does Teach for America Need Reforming?) I couldn’t help but be reminded of Clinton at his dodgiest as Teach For America (TFA) Co-CEO, Elisa Villenueva-Beard tried to Slick Willie her way through some tough questions about the controversial alternative teaching certification program that she co-leads. (On a side note: Leave it to TFA to do something as “innovative” as Co-CEOs. When the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin, from the TV show The Office, did something similar, a character quipped, “Name a boat that doesn’t set sail without two captains.”)

It might be unfair to anoint Villenueva-Beard with exclusive rights to Slick Willie. The nickname really has been earned by the overall organization in recent years. In a recent post that I wrote for the deliciously irreverent Edushyster blog, I admitted that when I joined TFA in the spring of 2011 I had no idea that my belief in social and economic justice was to be cynically exploited. With TFA’s expressed mission of “Growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education” you can’t really fault a bleeding heart liberal for leaving the TFA website with the impression that the organization is of lefty do-gooders, by lefty do-gooders, for lefty do-gooders. The unfortunate truth, however, is that this textbook cannot be judged by its slick, glossy, full-color cover, as the education policy interests of many of TFA’s largest financial backers are about as progressive as a time machine stuck in reverse.

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Villenueva-Beard’s first Clintonista sleight of hand occurred when host, Stephen Smith, asked her to describe what TFA does. Playing the civil rights card is a somewhat new strategy in TFA’s ever-evolving communications platform. This is understandable, as Slick Willies often find it hard to stick with one story, especially when evidence starts to catch up with them. And so, Villenueva-Beard had her talking points ready to go as she declared, “Teach For America is looking to channel the energy and the leadership of young recent college graduates and young professionals to commit to, what I would consider, the greatest civil rights issue of our time today, which is education inequity.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of civil rights, I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. I don’t think of the Walton Foundation (Wal-Mart) and billionaire hedge fund managers-cum-charter school impresarios like Bruce Rauner who bankroll TFA. Ask yourself, if King, X, or Parks were with us fighting the “greatest civil rights issue of our time”, would they really be marching arm in arm with the Waltons and the Rauners? Wasn’t King assassinated in Memphis while supporting union organizing by sanitation workers? (See Honoring MLK: Remembered For the Extremist That He Was) Last I heard, Wal-Mart was firing people for that kind of activity.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think that if the Waltons really cared about low-income children, wouldn’t Wal-Mart just pay their low-income parents a living wage? But Slick Willies don’t concern themselves much with cognitive dissonance.

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The next “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment came when Villenueva-Beard was pressed by Smith to make an argument as to why “scarce dollars” should be invested in Teach For America. She focused her rationalization on TFA’s recruitment of “top talent graduating from the top schools of our country.” She went on to explain that this strategy is consistent with those of countries that perform at the top of international tests. The slickness of this justification is that she left out the fact that 80% of TFA teachers quit after only three years of teaching, unlike those teachers in top performing countries who actually remain career teachers. Additionally, due to the limited 5-weeks training that they receive prior to entering the classroom (in Slick Willie style. she also kept saying 5-7 weeks – Institute is five, not seven), “Top talent” TFA teachers perform only comparably to other beginning teachers who come out of traditional education programs. Furthermore, in 2011, TFA spent nearly $200 million dollars just in recruiting and training these “top talent” teachers. Now, it doesn’t take a top talent TFA math major from Harvard to conclude that, as a teacher prep program, TFA is an epic FAIL when 80% of recruits quit teaching after only 3 years in the classroom.  (And if TFA responds to this article by saying that their real mission is to create education leaders, then they should stop promoting the organization as a teacher prep solution.)

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Most depressingly, however, is when Villenueva-Beard ultimately resorts to the Slick Willie last refuge when she applies the “everybody else is doing it” line of defense in an attempt to excuse TFA’s failings as a teacher prep program. In defending TFA’s high teacher attrition rate she cries, “No teachers are staying in education. The fact is that after five years, 50% of the teaching force is gone.” Well, I guess by that line of reasoning, we shouldn’t blame TFA for throwing good money after bad if “no teachers are staying in education”.  We might as well hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to TFA, rather than use that money to improve university teacher prep programs, or address the systemic problem of high teacher turnover (something that many critics claim TFA actually exacerbates). Ultimately, however, I can’t help but find this excuse incredibly ironic coming from the co-leader of an organization that provides so much rookie labor to “no excuses” charter schools. If TFA believes that holding students to high standards is essential to closing the achievement gap, then we really need to hold them to the same high standards by examining their Slick Willie talking points a little more critically. There is a blue dress out there— plenty of evidence by which TFA can be evaluated and reformed.

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Chad Sommer was a 2011 TFA corps member and taught 4th grade at Chicago’s Rudyard Kipling Elementary School. He was the first and only TFA corps member at the school, and credits the support and mentoring that he received from the school’s veteran union teachers and administration for a positive teaching experience.

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