Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  The TFA 20th Anniversary Summit last Saturday was AMAZING!!!  It was truly one of the most energizing, inspiring days of my life.  The energy, passion, commitment…you get the idea.  I hope the 41 pictures that (TFA alum, Newark '04) Leila Jerusalem and I took (31 at the end of this email and these plus 10 more at plus all of the videos (specific links below and all are posted at: can give you some idea of what it was like.

The day began with an opening session, kicked off by a local school's marching band parading through the crowd.  Kaya Henderson (TFA New York '92), Interim Chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools, welcomed everyone.  You can see her speech at:  Wendy Kopp gave the opening speech (  Then TFA Board Chairman Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, introduced the panel (, which consisted of Jon Schnur, Joel Klein, David Levin, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada and new LA super John Deasy (  They were in top form!  The KIPP String and Rhythm Orchestra played at both the opening and closing sessions.

Then we broke for morning sessions.  Under the theory of "know thy enemy," I attended the "Discussion with Randi Weingarten on the Role of Teachers' Unions in Education Reform", during which she was questioned by Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.  I credited Randi in my written question (which Rick read) for having the guts to show up (Dennis Van Roekel, President of the NEA certainly didn't!), but she was surprisingly uninteresting.  I was expecting more combativeness, but she was really trying hard to persuade us that she's really on our side.  At the end of this email are some notes I found on a blog.  Here are some excerpts:

Hess: "We understand that the union has to protect its members, but it seems like the union is more concerned with protecting teachers' due process rather than helping teachers who have to shoulder the burden of working in a system with so many bad teachers."


There is a strong applause, loudest of the session.


Weingarten: Responds by saying, "Any union that does that, shame on them." Then, she goes on to explain how she isn't about protecting "due process" as her central goal. She is walking a fine line here, definitely trying to win over the crowd, which seems pretty split on their opinions of her.


Hess: "Last in, first out…AFT has stood by this… WHY?"


Weingarten: "I'm not saying that seniority is the best way to make layoff decisions…the magnitude of the cuts to schools across this country are devastating…that's what we should be fighting against. These cuts are devastating for kids. I am fighting to stop the magnitude of these layoffs."


…"I hate the status quo. I am not here to defend the status quo."

My main takeaway as I listened to her is that she's focused on the hardships of the adults in the system (not surprisingly, given who elected her and who pays her), whereas I (and other reformers) are focused on the hardships of the children in the system.  Yes, I care about the adults – but a distant second to the kids.  I have no doubt that Randi cares about the children – but a distant second to the adults. 

Then there was lunch and shorter breakout sessions, followed by the afternoon sessions.  I was on one entitled, "Shifting the Prevailing Ideology", with James Carville, Kati Haycock (Ed Trust), Amanda Ripley (author and Time magazine columnist), and musician John Legend.  Everyone in the audience was snapping pictures of me (for sure, they weren't aimed at John Legend! ;-).  My main message was that we shouldn't be deceived by all the people in the room and at the Summit, which acts as an echo chamber.  We're still outmanned, outgunned, and outspent 100:1 in this fight and we have A LOT of work to do to persuade the general public to support our agenda.  I also said that this isn't a revolution like Egypt's, in which 18 days can change everything.  The system is too big, decentralized (90% of K-12 spending is at the state and local level), and entrenched for change to happen quickly, so it's going to be a long, bloody, brutal slog.  It's taken us 40 years to go from having the best public education system in the world to one that is at best middle of the pack among developed nations, and it will likely take another 40 years to fix it.  So this is a journey of 1,000 miles and we're only a short way into it – but I'm optimistic because for the first time in my lifetime, we're winning.  Yes, it's 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, but that's a whole lot better than the 2 steps forward, 3 steps back of previous decades. 

My final comment was a call for everyone in the room (and everyone who reads this email!) to get involved: yes, do great work in your classroom and make a difference in dozens of kids' lives, but you must do more – you must become an advocate!  Specifically:

1) Host a showing of Waiting for Superman, which is scheduled to be released tomorrow on DVD (I just ordered mine at:  [I wish I'd made this offer on Saturday, but I'll make it here: if $17.99 is an obstacle for you, I will BUY YOU A COPY if you promise to organize a showing for at least a dozen people – just email Leila at and she'll order it.]

2) Get educated by downloading my slide presentation and signing up for my email list at

3) Sign up for email updates at,,, and

4) Be an advocate: send out emails, use Facebook and Twitter, etc.  Most importantly, drag all of your friends to visit high-performing schools – you can talk to people until you're blue in the face (and they're sick of hearing from you), but seeing is believing!

5) Show up at political events and ask tough questions of the politicians (who tend to be ignorant and/or gutless weasels on this issue) and, if you're able, write checks to support reform-friendly politicians

At the closing session, President Obama addressed the closing session via a taped video (  Here's an excerpt:


"Wendy believed it was possible to harness the desire of young people to make a difference." He compliments the TFA teachers for their work and TFA is now 28,000 strong. He then steps away from talking about TFA, and simply talks about teaching.


He echoes his state of the union address. "Anyone who is a teacher deserves our respect and support…We want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the next years…I am encouraging young people to become teachers. I want to thank those who have stayed beyond 2 year commitment…Thank you for showing us the difference a great teacher can make."


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke as well ( – here are some excerpts:


"Everyone here is here today because at some point along the way, we had the great fortune of having a great teacher, a great education."


"What Wendy Kopp did 20 years ago, and what you have done, is extraordinary."


"Poverty is not destiny…Education can be a respected profession."


"I know how hard your work is…You may not get the support you need. You may not have the resources you need…"


Told a story about a chronically failing Chicago high school was closed and replaced with smaller schools including Urban Prep charter school, where every senior is now attending a four-year college.  "Same children, same community, same poverty, same violence…Different adults, difference sense of expectations…that made all the difference in the world."


DC Mayor Vincent Gray also spoke.  He sure had the reform talk down, boasting about TFA alums in the DC school system, most notably of course, Kaya Henderson, and he also mentioned De'Shawn Wright (NY '98), his new Deputy Mayor for Education.  The fact that Henderson is still there and that Mayor Gray hired Wright is important.  My conversations with a couple of folks indicate that Gray isn't as bad as we all feared and there may even be room for cautious optimism.  Perhaps Fenty and Rhee's reforms took root and generated enough momentum that they'll keep going under Gray…


Numerous TFA alums gave short but powerful talks in a part of the closing session called "Reflections":


·        KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg (Houston '92) (

·        Mike Johnston (Mississippi Delta '97) and Bill Ferguson (Baltimore '05), Colorado and Maryland State Senators, respectively (

·        Evan Stone (New York '07) (co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence) and Amy Spicer (Baltimore '99) (

·        Dominique Lee (Newark '07), founder/chair of Newark's B.R.I.C.K. Academy, and Charity Haygood (Newark '96), Principal of Newark's B.R.I.C.K. Avon Avenue Academy (

·        Miguel Solis (Dallas '09;

·        Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix '98; Chief Operating Officer, Teach For America;

·        Camika Royal (Baltimore '99;

·        Tina Fernandez (New York '94;

·        Closing Reflection (and my favorite): Jeremy Beard (Los Angeles '95;


TFA Board Member John Legend spoke ( and then performed with the KIPP Orchestra (


Afterward, there was a reception downstairs and then lots of folks went to various gatherings hosted by KIPP, etc.  I went to one for original TFA staff and corps members organized by Iris Chen (NY '90 and various roles at TFA including Executive Director of TFA NYC).  It was a blast seeing people I hadn't seen in 21 years and they showed an old documentary about TFA's first year that brought back some incredible memories.


A very special day…



Edited notes on the session "Discussion with Randi Weingarten on the Role of Teachers' Unions in Education Reform" from

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