What Wendy Kopp Got Wrong With Teach For America
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Last week, the Huffington Post ran an op/ed piece by Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA. The title was In Defense of Optimism. I read it, tweeted it, and moved on, but it has been rattling in my head for some time now, so here are some thoughts in response.
To start, I think the original premise of TFA was not a bad one, and I have no doubt that Ms. Kopp is absolutely genuine in her desire to improve education for the under-served children in America (she mentions inner-city urban and rural in her piece). That is an important and laudable goal, and Ms. Kopp has chosen to devote a large part of her adult life to that goal, which is nothing to sneeze at. Plenty of people say a lot more and do a whole lot less.
As I understand it, the original premise of TFA was that, in a school which lacked teachers (literally, did not have or was not able to hire qualified teachers), a bright, enthusiastic, young person with a college degree and some small amount of preparation would be better than nothing. And I can’t disagree with that. It would be better than nothing.
However, there were two things in the essay which, having reflected, really stand out to me. One is very specific, and one underlies the entirety of Ms. Kopp’s opinion.
The first is her assertion that,
A significant body of rigorous research shows that they [TFA teachers] are more effective than other beginning teachers and, on average, equally or more effective than veteran teachers.
This statement is given as accepted fact, and the addition of the word ‘rigorous’ gives the impression of academic certification, without the need for all those pesky citations. At the very least, this statement has been seriously disputed by professionals whose job it is to understand both teacher effectiveness and the methodology by which one might determine teacher effectiveness. Frankly, given my reading of current research and the critical discussions around that research, I would claim the exact opposite, that there is a significant body of rigorous research that shows that TFA teachers are in fact significantly less effective that either new teachers produced by more traditional teacher preparation programs, or than veteran teachers.
To avoid falling into the same trap Ms. Kopp does, here are some links to articles addressing these issues (I was happy to see that some of these were posted in the comments at HuffPo pretty quickly):
- National Education Policy Center: Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence
- Philip Kovacs at EdWeek: Teach for America Research Fails the Test (this is a great overview of the issue)
There are some others, but these are the two most frequently cited to counter claims of TFA effectiveness. Even if one finds those articles unconvincing, the fact that they exist does indicate that it is possible to to disagree about the effectiveness of TFA teachers. In fact, the NEPC report is especially weighted, as the organization's entire purpose is to delve into published research and offer critical response to findings.
As several commenters at HuffPo pointed out, the assertion that TFA teachers are better than either new teachers or veteran teachers doesn’t really pass muster at ground level either. Why aren’t parents in the "leafy suburban" school districts crying out for those awesome TFA teachers? Knowing that this is anecdotal evidence, and so considering it as such, I can’t help but point out that new teachers in my school, with all the traditionally mandated training, student teaching, and for the most part Master’s Degrees and considerable other relevant experience, take a pounding in their first few years. One of the main reasons is precisely that they are new, and this job is really hard, and getting a degree and licensure is just the beginning of learning how to do it. And kids and parents know it.