Money Matters

Teach for America alumnus Ben Spielberg talks Vergara vs. California, teachers unions and why education reform without social justice isn’t possible.

TFA alum is now a leader of the San Jose Teachers Association.

TFA alum Ben Spielberg is now a leader of the San Jose Teachers Association.

EduShysterVergara vs. California, the landmark case that seeks to eliminate tenure for teachers, wrapped up this week. Do you think the plaintiffs made their case? 

SpielbergI’ve got to believe that they won’t win because their case was really bad. Even the experts they brought in to testify have found that there’s not that much disparity in terms of teaching quality between lower income and higher income schools, and because the statutes in question apply equivalently to low income and high income schools, it would be really hard to prove that they affect lower income and minority students differently than they do higher income students. I think that large part of the plaintiffs’ intention had less to do with winning than with waging a PR campaign against organized labor. The people who are driving this are generally wealthy interests that really dislike the concept that there are due process protections for any workers, not just teachers. They want all employment to be at will and they don’t want a collective voice. 

EduShyster: You’ve written extensively about Vergara and the claims being made by the high-profile and well-funded legal team, but I want to start by talking about your background because it’s unusual.


The legal team behind Vergara vs. CA.

Spielberg: I have a somewhat unique perspective in that I’m a math coach for the San Jose Unified Schools and am very involved in our teachers association—I’m on the Executive Board. But I was a 2010 TFA corps member and am still pretty tied in as a TFA alum, including running some professional development for corps members. I tend to think that I hear better ideas about education policy from my colleagues in the union than I do from my Teach for America colleagues. 

EduShyster: I’m all ears! Are there specific areas where you’ve had disagreements?

TFA logoSpielbergOne of the main areas is the question of what would be useful policy changes to help increase teacher effectiveness. The leaders of my union have seen tons of classrooms— they’ve taught for a number of years and have been able to see a wide spectrum of what instruction looks like across the school district. They have a broader perspective on the rationale behind teacher employment laws. My colleagues from TFA have similar ideas as far as what they’d like to see in terms of improving the quality of instruction. But I think that a lot of rhetoric, especially coming from the national education reform movement, is what many people in TFA grab onto. They’ve picked up the idea that ineffective teachers who are in place because of seniority laws and cumbersome dismissal procedures represent the biggest hurdle to effective instruction. Most of the people I know in TFA are excellent people who really care deeply about the same ultimate mission that people in our teachers association care about—but they’re less knowledgeable about what the law and its effects actually are.

EduShyster: You make a really compelling case for why education reform isn’t possible without social justice. Take it away.

SpielbergThe research suggests that 67% of the opportunity gap—at a minimum—is explained by factors outside of schools. It’s extremely important for those of us in education to think about education-related changes that can can affect that other 33%. But if you’re going to be a legitimate advocate for low-income students and you want to be credible you need to simultaneously argue for social justice policies. If we want to actually move the needle for low-income kids, what matters is that we address economic inequality and that we address the conditions in which poor kids live.
Ben2 I have conversations with people in TFA where they say “Teach for America” says that. And I have to say “actually, no, Teach for America doesn’t say that.” TFA sends the message that education matters at least as much as poverty. You kind of pay lip service to poverty then move on to education. You need to say that if I’m an organization that’s working for educational equity,  that means my social justice agenda across the board needs to look like this. Here are the education policies I’m advocating for, but I don’t support politicians who only support those education policies then undermine them by undercutting a social justice agenda. That’s the area where the education reform movement has failed. 

EduShyster: You point out that wealthy interests on one side of the education reform movement have managed to convince the public that they care more about low-income minority students than the people who work with them everyday. Can you elaborate?

California billionaire Eli Broad

California billionaire Eli Broad secretly bankrolled an effort to undermine a school funding initiative.

Spielberg: The thing that’s really great about education for wealthy individuals who have an anti-union mindset is that they can simultaneously pitch themselves as caring about poor kids while actively undermining the structures that are really important for poor families. Politicians and business leaders can pose as left-leaning champions of low-income people while actively undermining their interests. Eli Broad’s opposition to Proposition 30 was a good example of that, as is the conversation around Bill de Blasio or the education reform agenda of Chris Christie. The comprehensive impact of those policies are so much more than just what their education agenda is. We should continue to have a debate about what are the smartest education reforms, but it’s important to note that people who oppose de Blasio only on education grounds, or support Christie only on education grounds, are at best myopic and at worst they know what they’re doing and they’re trying to deflect attention away from the issues that really matter for low-income students.

EduShyster: The Vergara trial was a veritable *who’s who* of education policy stars, like Harvard economist Raj Chetty. I have it on good authority that you’ve actually read Chetty’s 2013 study on measuring the impact of teachers… 

Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch, the main funder of the Vergara lawsuit.

Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch, the main funder of the Vergara lawsuit.

SpielbergMy background is in mathematical/computational sciences and I feel pretty confident that if I look through a study I can get a sense of whether the measures are likely to have bias or not and to understand the statistical parameters of the research. I do try, especially when I’m discussing education policy with someone who cites research to make their point, to go and look at that research as a whole—what does it actually say vs. what do the media sound bites say it says. I went through it it and I think Chetty’s work supports what I’m saying. His most recent work shows that most of the achievement gap isn’t caused by ineffective teaching and that there’s very little variation between schools when it comes to teacher quality. 

EduShyster: True or false: teachers in California are guaranteed a job for life, unless they die in the classroom.

SpielbergThat would be false.  The reality of the matter—and this is one of the areas where Students Matter has been really successful in misleading the public—is that if somebody is grossly negligent or abusive, you can get rid of the teacher immediately. That’s very clear from the California education code and the fact that districts do it all the time. Students Matter talks about a cumbersome dismissal process, and the main issue is that it takes too long and costs too much money because there are a lot of appeals possible. All that permanent status grants you is that an administrator has to tell you what the issue is with your performance and give you 90 days to improve. For me that’s just an ethical way to treat the workforce. It’s not helpful to have a lot of teacher turnover. And it’s also not helpful to have teachers with no support. That statute basically ensures that you’re not going to be constantly turning over your workforce, and you’re going to be mandated as a district to try and help your workforce get better at their profession before you dismiss somebody.

Ben Spielberg was a 2010 Teach for America corps member. He works as a math coach in the San Jose Unified School District and is a member of the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association. He’s the co-founder of the blog 34justice.

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  1. Ben,

    You seem to be a minority within TFA. Or, at least I don’t hear about TFA people who think like you (TFA seems to be more Rhee-ish, although they have moved away from her in the past few years as Gary Rubinstein has written about on his blog.).

    Do you believe there are more within TFA but they’re afraid to speak out? I think TFA needs to reform itself in order for it to survive as an organization, and having more like you would bring the organization more credibility. I hope the pressure continues.

    1. I see signs of what Ben’s talking about too. But the problem for TFA is that its power as a well-funded political entity depends upon the organization not rocking the equity boat. Witness, for example, TFA’s role in slipping a last minute provision into the federal budget that defined corps members as “highly qualified” over the objection of 100+ civil rights groups. Or North Carolina, where TFA was a big winner even as the GOP-dominated legislature was rolling back voting rights, cutting social programs, etc. If it were truly a social justice organization, TFA would be helping organize Moral Monday protests–but instead it’s completely silent on these issues. So while it’s possible that an increasingly restive corps and alum body could push TFA towards a more social justice agenda, the organization’s ability to continue to raise $300+ million a year depends upon exactly the education/poverty sleight of hand that Ben describes so well.

  2. I believe there are a lot of people in TFA who have similar mindsets, though I’d agree that we probably aren’t the majority at this time. A friend of mine who is an MTLD (Manager, Teacher Leadership Development, which is the TFA equivalent of an instructional coach) recently told me that conversations about what it means to truly work for equity have begun to surface at the organizational level. TFA isn’t there yet, but he thinks there’s a distinct possibility that we’ll see TFA embrace more of a social justice agenda in the next couple of years. As research continues to illustrate the relationship between educational outcomes and privilege, I believe more and more people will begin to see that Michelle Rhee-style ed reform undermines the TFA mission.

    If you’re interested in more of my thoughts about TFA, I wrote a blog post in November discussing the organization in more detail: Let me know what you think and thanks for reading!


    1. While I know that there are TFA folks who get it the way you do, the organization as a whole has some significant disincentives to implement what some there get about social justice and the nature and effects of poverty. I’ve thought for a long time now that a better mission for TFA would be to go out into the most underserved communities and support the parents such that their children can start showing up at school ready, willing and able to learn in the same ways as their middle class and wealthier peers. The biggest obstacle to this will be found in TFA’s leadership and their peers in the “reform” movement. Addressing and defeating poverty would be a big step in putting “reformers” out of business since no claim could continue to be made about the need for their services once poverty was confronted and reduced.

  3. Here’s my paraphrase of the TFA mission, with my parenthetical reading of Ben’s EduShyster-friendly hedges:

    TFA seeks to alleviate the disparity in education outcomes for poor/minority students (even though teaching isn’t the biggest input), largely by trying to identify and recruit good teachers (to supplement the already good teachers in the system).

    How do you identify/recruit talent? That’s a huge puzzle. I read on this blog all the time that TFA isn’t even yet all that good at finding people who will do well as teachers, let alone stay in the job. I’d really love for TFA to continue to take bites of that apple, rather than broadening the scope of their work to, what? Political activism? Community organizing? Ben seems adamant that TFA extend itself into other Big Complicated Socially Justice-y Puzzles beyond the scope of talent recruitment.

    Now, do they need more/better social justice and cultural competency PD for their Corps members? Definitely. But what Ben calls “paying lip service to poverty,” I call defining a reasonable scope of influence.

    1. I’ll leave it to Ben to respond to this one. Love the EduShyster-friendly hedge concept though. Now if I could just figure out away to transition that into a hedge fund!

      Thanks as always for your comment. You know I appreciate you in my own way 🙂

      1. Aw, go on! You know, if TFA does start trying to push an anti-poverty political agenda in tangible ways, it could be REALLY good business for the tinfoil crowd 🙂

        1. Imagine how much extra time I’d have if I didn’t have to devote most of my waking hours to hating on TFA. I might be able to seek gainful employment… I just hope I find someplace that lets me wear my tinfoil hat to work!

          1. Hi Ross,

            Thanks for reading and for the comment. I think your point about “defining a reasonable scope of influence” is an important one – it’s perfectly reasonable for an organization concerned with social justice to zero in on a specific part of a broader social justice agenda. At the same time, however, one must consider whether that focus and the messaging around that focus undermine the social justice agenda as a whole.

            When I reference TFA “paying lip service” to poverty, I am talking about organizational messaging that says, “Poverty is important, but its effects can be overcome by making sure that every child has access to an excellent teacher.” This messaging is untrue (education research’s strongest finding is that in-school factors can explain at most 33% of the opportunity gap) and builds a convenient narrative for wealthy interests that oppose anti-poverty initiatives. TFA’s current rhetoric helps sell the idea that as long as you push a prototypical ed reform agenda, you can oppose minimum wage increases, Medicaid, and every other form of aid to the poor and still somehow get credit for supporting low-income children. That’s the idea that people opposed to organized labor and the reduction of income inequality use to paint Bill de Blasio as a villain and Chris Christie as a hero (when the reality for poor children is exactly the opposite). I would have very little problem with TFA focusing its energy solely on teacher quality if the organization stopped enabling and promoting people and organizations that actively harm low-income communities, and TFA could do so very easily with a change in its messaging.

            What makes the TFA messaging even more problematic is that TFA, as you mention, is no better (or worse) than anyone else at getting excellent teachers in front of low-income students (as I documented in, the research is pretty clear on that conclusion). TFA’s public persona has contributed to the widely held belief (despite the absence of legitimate evidence to support it) that a drastic increase in charter schools, teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores, and the elimination of teacher employment protections will help low-income students. Again, it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for TFA to focus exclusively on teacher or school quality, but it is a problem when leaders within TFA mislead people about the research on its impact and the impact of other reforms. TFA definitely doesn’t shoulder all the blame, but the organization has contributed to a lot of the misinformation about the effectiveness of various education policies.

            Finally, it is worth noting that TFA does not restrict its advocacy to direct work on improving teacher and school quality. A large part of the organization’s explicit purpose is to develop leaders who will become lifelong advocates for the cause, and TFA also occasionally participates in political activity that indirectly addresses its goals (see TFA’s amicus brief in Fisher v. Texas, for example: It seems to me to be pretty reasonable, given the already broad scope of its activity, for TFA to actively address the economic and social components of an educational equity agenda. At the very least, TFA’s messaging and actions should never subvert the advocacy that can most make a difference for poor students.

            I hope that clarifies my argument. Please let me know if you’d like to continue the conversation and thanks again for the thoughtful response!


        2. Thanks, Ben, for the thorough reply. Delicious food for thought. I’m going wrap it up and enjoy it tonight when I get home. Now where’s my tinfo–wait!


          1. Ben,

            I feel like your argument works both ways. You’re arguing that anti-anti-poverty folks say that because of programs like TFA and charter schools, we can defund anti-poverty programs because achievement gaps can be overcome without them.

            But isn’t the other side saying the equivalent? Namely, that we wouldn’t need to have programs like TFA and charter schools etc if everyone was as wealthy as the people in the burbs because then everyone would do well? So to do that let’s make sure we combat poverty so that we can make that a reality? In theory, it’s a lovely idea.

            I personally think we should fund both, but I think we can close achievement gaps faster with great teaching and schooling, before we’ll come close to eradicating poverty (sadly) and so eventually close achievement gaps in that way. In fact, I think once “poverty” is eradicated, the gap between rich and “no-longer-poor” will not be much different (or worse), so you’ll still see opportunity gaps.

          2. Hi mathteacher,

            Your comment actually highlights some of the most common misconceptions held by well-intentioned reformers. First, I want to address the erroneous idea that “we can close achievement gaps faster with great teaching and schooling” than by addressing poverty. As I mentioned in my interview and in one of my comments above, that idea is completely inaccurate. Education research very clearly contradicts what you wrote.

            As far as I know, no study has ever found that school-related factors explain more than a third of student outcomes. As I’ve written before (see, even research frequently cited to support an education reform agenda is very clear on this point if you analyze the findings closely. In a recent study, for example, Raj Chetty not only acknowledges that “differences in teacher quality are not the primary reason that high SES students currently do much better than their low SES peers,” but he also performs a very interesting thought experiment. Imagine we rank all the K-8 teachers in a given area from “best” to “worst” (in terms of value-added), and we assign the very “best” teachers to the most disadvantaged students and the very “worst” teachers to the most advantaged students. After nine years of this setup, the opportunity gap, in Chetty’s estimation, would be reduced by 73%. In other words, rich students with completely incompetent teachers would still outperform poor students with the most incredible teachers education has to offer, albeit by a significantly smaller margin. If there was any truth to the idea that great teaching can systematically close the opportunity gap, Chetty’s thought experiment would lead to a reverse opportunity gap in which poor students significantly outperformed rich students. But a reverse opportunity gap doesn’t occur even when we drastically decrease the quality of teaching in high-income schools, a situation that would never occur in real life. It’s very important for our students’ futures that we honestly assess the data and acknowledge that the education system cannot accomplish what you and I wish it could. While I would again underscore that the education system can and does make a difference, anyone who suggests that education matters as much or more than outside-of-school factors is just plain wrong.

            Second, and relatedly, you suggest that the extremes on both sides of the debate are equivalently misguided when they’re not. I would agree that we should work on both education reforms and anti-poverty initiatives simultaneously, but it is more inaccurate and problematic to oppose anti-poverty programs than it is to oppose education reforms. The research on most popular education reforms is very mixed and fraught with methodological concerns – there’s not a clear research consensus, for example, on the question of whether charter schools improve overall student outcomes (though there’s definitely research that suggests that some charter networks do excellent work with certain subsets of the population). Someone can oppose a charter petition or TFA’s presence in an area and still be a credible advocate for low-income students. Anyone who opposes minimum wage initiatives, on the other hand, is unequivocally undermining the needs of low-income communities – the research on that point is much clearer than the research on ed reforms. People who oppose ed reforms categorically are wrong to do so, but the real equivalent to that position is the unconditional support of ed reforms. Making high stakes decisions with inconclusive data can quite possibly harm poor students.

            Third, the argument that poverty can’t be addressed is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are a considerable number of anti-poverty initiatives you could support right now if you want to help low-income people. Raise the minimum wage. Make resistant Governors adopt the Medicaid expansion. End the drug war. Empirical evidence indicates that decreased income inequality will address the needs of low-income students much more effectively than education reforms. Again, we should absolutely pursue smart education reforms simultaneously, but there’s not a legitimate basis for the suggestion that those reforms will be easier to enact or more impactful than larger-scale social and economic reforms.

            Thanks for commenting and please let me know if you’d like to discuss these topics further.


  4. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, and forgive my ignorance, but what is a “math coach”? An “instructional coach”? How are those things different than simply “teacher”?

    1. Hi Dienne,

      I don’t think that’s rude at all. Instructional coaching is pretty new and a lot of people don’t know what it entails. In short, instructional coaching is based on the idea that, like anyone else, teachers benefit more from individualized support than one-size-fits-all professional development. I partner with teachers to identify their instructional goals and then provide ongoing support in helping them realize the goals they’ve identified. During a coaching cycle with a teacher, we may plan together, I may observe the teacher executing a lesson, the teacher may observe me teaching, we may team-teach a lesson together, or we may observe other teachers. We always debrief our observations and planning sessions and discuss our next steps as they relate to the teacher’s goals for his or her students. I spend the majority of my time working with the math teachers at one middle school and one high school, but I also write curriculum, coordinate professional development with school and district administration, help monitor and implement the district’s instructional initiatives, and assist other math and science teachers across the district as needed.

      If you’re interested in learning more about instructional coaching, San Jose Unified’s coaching philosophy is based on the work of Jim Knight – you can read more about the philosophy here: Thanks for reading and for asking the question!


  5. Hello Ben and Jennifer,

    It is great to see some “fair-and-balanced” TFA reporting to counterweight the Edushyster’s typical frothing-at-the-mouth digs at it. However, just because you lucidly explain with some sort of mathematical and logical ethos that poverty is important, even more important than a teacher’s union status (or lack-thereof), doesn’t mean you are an expert. See, the administration in the district where I teach was wise enough to ask us rascally LIFOs to read a brilliant book by a globetrotting journalist who followed some globetrotting students. Have you read Amanda Ripley’s page-turner? I read all of it, and it only took 1.6 wineboxes to get through. And she very clearly notes that in the utopia known as Finland that there were some poor minority students who did very well in that there mecca of education, despite their unfortunate circumstances. Because their teachers are smart. Smarter than our teachers (just ask Arne Duncan). They don’t even write in sentence fragments, even when they want to.

    Anyway, just wondering if you read Miss Ripley’s book and what you thought of her assertion that if we just got rid of football and ratcheted up the rigor, poverty wouldn’t really be an issue. Now, if I could just point out to my administrators that we shouldn’t have spent all that money on field turf for our stadium, should actually assign and grade HW (=rigor), and should look into that autonomy/don’t-test-every-other-week thing that teachers in edutopias like Finland, South Korea, and Poland enjoy and we might be onto something.

    Oh yeah, and then we can address whether all of our students are fed, un-traumatized by violence, and have a general Maslow-vian (rather than Pavlov-ian) sense of well-being. Just because that would be the right thing to do. Not because it would show up on a test. Which would then be part of my evaluation.

    Thanks, Ben for your thorough and insightful comments. (Don’t feel compelled to respond to my snark, unless you have already picked apart that aspect of Ripley’s book and can just cut and paste here.) And, as always, thank you Edushyster for finding diamonds in the rough. And roughing up the diamonds.

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