Over the past weekend, a Buffalo public school teacher provided Corps Knowledge with a memo to the Superintendent and members of Buffalo’s board of education, sent by Philip Rumore, the long-tenured head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.  The memo was crafted in the days following the board’s unanimous vote to bring in 30 Teach For America corps members to fill hard-to-staff positions in Buffalo’s traditional public schools, widely considered to be among the worst in the country in serving low-income students of color.

Buffalo’s education woes are no surprise to its residents.  Over the past decade, less than 40 percent of students entering the third grade could read and do math proficiently.  By eighth grade, that number erodes to a mere five percent of the student population for English and two percent for math.  Only half of Buffalo Public School students that are currently enrolled are projected to graduate from high school. That isn’t merely shameful for the city; it’s a crisis.

Given this, you would expect that educators in Buffalo would welcome fresh ideas and faces with open arms in a unified commitment to improving educational outcomes. If only we could have such optimism.

Alas, Mr. Rumore’s memo is the latest chapter in a closely-followed playbook by local union branches to undermine the ability for Teach For America’s corps members and alumni to work with students and families for the betterment of a community. The tactics, messaging and factual errors are eerily similar to other efforts by union officials to restrict principals and superintendents from hiring Teach For America corps members in cities around the country, including, most recently in San Francisco. Luckily, it appears that the tactics were blatant enough to also be transparent – in San Francisco, principals are hiring Teach For America corps members in spite of the board’s vote; in Buffalo, the board has ignored Mr. Rumore’s memo and voted unanimously to approve the contract.

And that was the right call. Given the similarities, it would suggest the memo was as politically motivated as other attacks on the program elsewhere, and strange, given that the corps members brought in to teach Buffalo students are union members who pay annual dues that support, in part, Mr. Rumore’s salary. He claims otherwise:

“Some have said why should [the union] be concerned since the TFA teachers will be part of our union as a result of being Board of Education employees,” Mr. Rumore wrote, “Be assured that… our concerns are the same as yours – what is best for our students long term.”  At face value, such writing suggests that Mr. Rumore looked at all of the evidence and data available, considered the impact of Teach For America teachers and arrived at a nuanced opinion on how best to move the district forward. 

After all, Mr. Rumore’s claim that protecting the interests of students was at the heart of his memo to be true is honorable; unfortunately, it’s also inconsistent with his 35 year record as the leader of the Buffalo union and with the content of the memo itself. 

Mr. Rumore’s stated opposition to employing 30 Teach For America teachers (who will make up a mere one percent of Buffalo’s teaching force) rests on four factors: the teachers’ impact on student achievement, the length of training, retention and cost.

Student Achievement

Teach For America is the most studied teacher credentialing program in the country in terms of student impact, despite having a relatively small footprint in terms of the overall number of teachers who receive their credentials through the program nationwide. While that suggests political motivations on behalf of Rumore’s union colleagues, in and of itself, it also carries the benefit that there is a wealth of scholarly data available to those seeking the light of illumination rather than just the heat. Taken together, the body of research nearly universally agrees that Teach For America corps members are as effective as other teachers in raising student achievement in English Language Arts, and slightly more effective than other teachers in raising student achievement in mathematics. 

These dozens of studies (several published as recently as last year) don’t fit with Mr. Rumore’s argument, however, so instead he chose to cherry pick two studies in his memo in an attempt to influence the board. The first was authored 14 years ago in 2002. The second article Mr. Rumore cites was one he left unattributed both in author and date. Subsequent research by Corps Knowledge suggests why: not only is the article 11 years old, it also was authored by Julian Vasquez Heilig, the demagogue masquerading as academic, who hosts an anti-TFA podcast, sits on the board of Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, and receives money from the National Education Association – the national union Rumore’s is affiliated with – for his efforts

If Mr. Rumore was truly interested in “what is best for students long term,” we would expect to see the general consensus of the body of research available. Instead, Mr. Rumore found the two lowest outliers and presented them as truth – a political attempt to deliberately mislead the board of education.

Length of Training

In his memo, Mr. Rumore takes issue with the oft-repeated claim that TFA corps members only receive five weeks of training, which doesn’t take into account the ongoing weekly coaching and training that TFA Buffalo teachers receive throughout their initial two years, nor the concurrent graduate work they pursue for their certification. Given the fact that Teach For America teachers are achieving similar student outcomes to those who have graduated from four year education programs, the entire argument is a red herring, though one that contains a fascinating irony:

If Mr. Rumore is so concerned about the length of Teach For America’s initial training, he should immediately resign. After all, Teach For America corps members received five more weeks of initial teacher training than Rumore did himself.

To explain:  Phil Rumore graduated from the University of Buffalo with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and no teacher certification. He entered into the profession because, in his words, “I found out [University of Buffalo] would forgive your National Defense Loan if you taught for five years in the inner city.”

In Mr. Rumore’s world view, five weeks of training is too little if you’re a member of Teach For America. But for an educator such as himself, those five weeks aren’t necessary. 

Retention

It’s telling that the teacher retention numbers Mr. Rumore cites in his memo are numbers that are repeated by union officials in other cities, rather than specific to Buffalo. As reported in an editorial by the Buffalo News, nearly half of the current crop of Teach For America Buffalo corps members who have finished their initial two years plan on staying in the classroom – thirty percentage points higher than the unattributed numbers cited in the memo.  

Mr. Rumore is right to be concerned about teacher retention, as Buffalo’s schools have an issue with it – nearly a fifth of the city’s first year teachers do not return for a second year (unlike the 90 percent of Teach For America Buffalo teachers who do) and over a fifth of the Buffalo teaching force turns over each year, with the number skewing higher for teachers in low-income schools. The retention problem is one that has lasted for more than a decade.

Among the correlating factors: Buffalo has one of the highest max salaries obtainable by teachers in the country, while also having a below-average starting salary, the result of multiple contracts negotiated by Mr. Rumore and his team. Mr. Rumore knows that these long-tenured, high paid veterans make up the majority of those who vote in union elections, and so catering to these older union members is a smart move for someone whose continuation in his job is dependent on their votes.

Buffalo and Mr. Rumore should have an honest conversation about teacher retention in Buffalo, but we’d suggest that any real solution (rather than one designed to score political points) should begin with the 99 percent of Buffalo teachers who enter the profession through a program other than Teach For America, rather than the one percent who do.

Costs

And finally, Mr. Rumore takes issue with the $5,000 the board of education pays to Teach For America for each teacher, a cost that finances the ongoing recruitment, training and support of corps members, a total cost of $150,000 for the 30 teachers brought in this year. It’s a cost that is amenable to the the superintendent and the board, given that TFA corps members are assigned to hard-to-staff schools in even-harder-to-staff subject areas. In other cities, it’s been found that the ‘finder’s fee’ is less than what it would take to fill these positions with recruiters, campus recruiting events, advertisements and job fairs.

Yet it’s convenient that Mr. Rumore is suddenly concerned about costs and the sustainability of the Buffalo school system’s budget. This after all, is the same district that until several months ago, was spending an average of five million (and up to nine million in at least one year) on unlimited plastic surgery for teachers – a provision in the contract that Mr. Rumore’s union actively fought to create and keep, at least until it began generating a deluge of negative national press. Even after he recognized that the union would be at risk of an ongoing PR disaster by keeping the provision, Mr. Rumore decided to use it as a negotiation chip at the table. 

We’ve looked into the research and have yet to find a correlation between student achievement and rhinoplasty. So much for the fiscal conservatism Mr. Rumore supposedly champions.

Buffalo’s board of education, its superintendent, and its daily newspaper have seen—and disregarded—Mr. Rumore’s rumor for what it is: a political document that will garner Mr. Rumore much needed support among the rank-and-file veterans who make up his electorate, rather than a clarion call for student interests. Their proximity with the strategy and tactics of the Buffalo Federation of Teachers over the past thirty five years that Mr. Rumore has shaped it into one of the country’s “most powerful unions” may have something to do with it. After all, this is the same individual who authorized an illegal strike at 7 AM, after students were already on their way to school, causing widespread frustration from scrambling parents. 

And thus, despite his claims to be prioritizing the interests of Buffalo’s students, Mr. Rumore’s true motivations are apparent. The young, diverse Teach For America teachers that Buffalo has elected to bring into its older, very white teaching force will be trained – both for the initial five weeks and weekly for the next two years – to put their students’ needs and interests, and their future potential, at the heart of everything they do. They’ll be active members of their union, and they’ll vote – which, as opined by the Buffalo News, may be against Mr. Rumore – who narrowly won re-election – and his paradigm of ensuring that Buffalo’s school system serves the adults who work within it first, and students and their families second.

Mr. Rumore can twist in the wind all he wants in suggesting new or different approaches to bringing teachers into Buffalo. As the Buffalo News editorializes, “[Mr. Rumore’s] ideas are not mutually exclusive [with Teach For America]."  But the fact is, Mr. Rumore has had 35 years to build alternatives and address Buffalo schools’ chronic underperformance, and all he has truly accomplished has been consolidating his power and that of his union. That he suddenly takes interest in alternatives now, as Teach For America expands in the city, is telling.

This post was written by NYCAN Deputy Director, Ned Stanley. He writes from San Francisco.