What Wendy Kopp Got Wrong With Teach For America

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):

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.

So to claim as a given that TFA teachers are "better" than other new teachers or veteran teachers is specious at best. Of course on a case by case basis some TFA teachers may be more effective than some other teachers (laying aside for a the moment the incredible difficulty of determining "effectiveness" at all). That is true of any group of people working at any task. And I do not doubt that, as Ms. Kopp, states, many TFA alums go on to have great careers as teachers- I know some of them, and they are great. But even they will say they wish they had had more preparation, and many return to school to ‘catch up’ to more traditionally prepared teachers.

So, are TFA teachers better than nothing? You bet. But are they better than trained professionals? Come on, you don’t even need to read research to be pretty sure that’s just not true.

The second thing that really bugged me about Ms. Kopp’s editorial was what wasn’t there. There was no consideration of the larger context in which TFA operates. We don’t live in a bubble. There are large, complex forces at play in the issues of education today. Not considering them is a major failure, especially in the case of TFA.

Like so many good ideas in education (charter schools in particular), what was once a good idea (as I said, a TFA teacher is most definitely better than NOTHING), has been co-opted for other purposes.

We are witnessing an attempted takeover of one of the last public institutions left in this country, one that is fundamental to the democratic ideal upon which this country was founded. While I believe that there is plenty of good intention in this attempt, the fact that it has been coupled with huge amounts of public money has distorted those good intentions, or perhaps done away with them all together.

TFA teachers usually exist outside the normal contract structure for the the district. So one thing TFA teachers most definitely are is cheaper. Further, the cost to the district includes money paid to TFA, not just the cost of the teacher. While I am pretty expensive by comparison a, mid-career teacher with considerable advanced education, no one else is making a profit from my position. No part of my cost to the district is paying for office buildings, executives (CEO’s- Ms. Kopp), marketing or anything else.

No so of a TFA teacher. And while some TFA teachers go on to have careers in education, most don’t. And the retention rate for traditionally prepared teachers is much higher than TFA -- which should be obvious. Traditionally prepared teachers at least intend to have a career in teaching, even if they change their minds, while most TFA teachers do not. So the cost of a TFA teacher stays low and relatively stable, compared to a more traditionally prepared teacher. And a TFA teacher is way cheaper than me.

So TFA has become another wedge in an attempt to change the teaching profession as a whole. Which, if you think the whole thing is broken, may not be a bad plan. But the whole thing isn’t broken. Despite the drumbeat of media and special interest right now, the main problem isn’t that “America’s schools are failing,” it is that the schools in America that serve the least advantaged communities continue to struggle as they have for a long time (despite the TFA), mainly because of the crushing effects of poverty on those communities. However, if we examine the majority of American schools, minus the ones that contend with poverty, American schools stack up quite well against any other system in the world. And if you consider schools like the one I teach in, on the whole, schools like that beat the crap out of every other education system in the world, by a lot, using any measure you would care to use (for an overview with citations, see this post at Schools Matter, by Stephen Krashen).

The drumbeat of failure is being used as a battering ram to destroy opposition to the privatization of schools. TFA teachers are cheaper, younger, and precisely because they are less trained, less likely to protest working conditions that are horrendous and teaching methodology which is oppressive. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of them neither intend to, nor actually do, continue in education, and so do not participate in a body of collective knowledge about the profession and do not have the commitment to the profession or institution as a whole. Further, in an environment where school districts are positively anemic for funding, and ‘academic success’ has been redefined as passing government mandated (but privately produced and sold) testing, young cheap teachers who don’t really understand what ‘education’ might mean or know how to have a conversation about the nature of knowledge are more willing to engage in ‘drill and kill’ test prep tactics that feed the testing machine but don’t really educate children in any meaningful way.

The reality of underprivileged schools is not providing TFA teachers where there are no teachers, but using TFA teachers to replace teachers. Teachers who are expensive and likely to protest. The emphasis on charter schools, which often do not have to engage in collective bargaining, and mass firings of ‘failing school’ veteran teachers are other prongs on the trident of privatization.

To fail to see her organization in light of these things is a major failing on Ms. Kopp’s part. As long as she chooses to present TFA in a ‘bubble’ her yearning, “for a more collaborative effort and a more open public discussion about how to ensure that the children growing up facing the immense challenges of poverty gain the opportunities they deserve” will do little to further her cause, and much to further the cause of deconstructing the last truly public structure in the this country.

I haven’t even considered here how Kopp dismisses the possibility of learning from a country like Finland. That will have to wait for another post. So if Ms. Kopp is ‘defending optimism,’ that’s a defense that’s pretty easy to do from inside a bubble. Out here in the world, I’m not feeling so optimistic.

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