Sunday, September 21, 2014

Teach For America Protests Too Much....

By reputation, Teach For America has never been particularly good at dealing with its critics, internal and external. A former TFA corps member and manager describes its overall approach as follows:
Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything. During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media. This inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made me start to see that Teach For America had turned into more of a public relations campaign than an organization truly committed to closing the achievement gap. Unfortunately, the organization seemed to care more about public perception of what the organization was doing than about what the organization was actually doing to improve education for low-income students throughout the United States.
We had a TFA representative stop by here a few years ago, and she refused to clarify TFA's reported policies that bar corps members from criticizing the organization. A corp member attempted to clarify the situation:
When I accepted TFA's offer, I do accurately recall a very lengthy contract we had to sign electronically. And I do remember being very disturbed by a section that dealt with public criticism. In the most PC way possible, the bottom line was that it was extremely frowned upon and consequences could arise. I whole-heartedly remember this part because as a young college grad with a free spirited, libertarian-esque personality, this was a red flag for me.

What I've learned so far in my time with TFA is that public criticism is against the core values. Also, the higher ups tell us public criticism hurts the organization as a whole, and hurts our mission of ultimately helping inner-city, high need students. It's all a guilt trip. And for the record, I have seen TFA corp members severely 'blacklisted'(though not expelled) for public and non-public criticism.
A person who was, at the time, a TFA corps member confirmed to me that TFA retaliates against corps members who publicly criticize the program. The attitude toward criticism seems to start at the top, as evidenced by an editorial authored by TFA founder, chair and former CEO Wendy Kopp, bluntly titled, Criticism toward Teach for America is misplaced. What first caught my eye was Kopp's claim about the subsequent employment history of TFA corps members:
In the 25 years since, Teach for America has enlisted more than 47,000 individuals to commit two years to teaching in some of America’s neediest schools. Long after they finish their commitment, 86 percent of Teach for America alumni still work full time in education or professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities. About 11,000 alumni are teachers; more than 800 are school leaders.
For 11,000 of 47,000 corps members to become teachers isn't bad at all. But what in the world does "education or professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities" mean? I tried to find out from the TFA website, dated September 8, 2014:
For America’s network of more than 37,000 alumni continue to work toward educational equity, with 86 percent working full-time in education or with low-income communities....

Today, 10,600 corps members are teaching in 50 urban and rural regions across the country, while more than 37,000 alumni work across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education.
The first statement makes it appear that there are 37,000 alumni. The second may mean that, for some reason, they were referring to their 37,000 alumni who don't work as teachers separately from the alumni who hold teaching positions. What the positions variably described as "professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities", "working... with low-income communities" and "work[ing] across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education" may be, we can only guess.

And then there's another statement, also from September 8, 2014,
Today, 86% of our alumni work in education and we’re continuously working to expand our partnerships with schools and the district to provide continued mentorship, networking opportunities, and professional development to support our alumni educators.
The claim that 86% of alumni "work in education" is very different, and much more clear, than the other nebulous statements. Meanwhile, back on July 2,
Teaching is the single most popular profession among our alumni, and we’re proud of our 11,000 alumni teachers and the work they do every day. We’re also proud of the 86% of our alumni whose work—inside and outside of education--continues to take on the systemic challenges of poverty and racism and directly or indirectly strengthens our public education system.
So when TFA says that its alumni "work in education" they mean work "inside and outside of education"? As for the 86% whose work "take[s] on the systemic challenges of poverty and racism and directly or indirectly strengthens our public education system", exactly what does that mean? Why do I keep hearing that same hollow number, without its being backed up by any actual data about the actual employment and careers of TFA alumni? Kopp herself writes, "64 percent of alumni now work full time in education and another 22 percent work in jobs that relate to improving education or quality of life in low-income communities." It's not a huge surprise that college graduates who gain several years of experience in the field of education end up employed in fields that relate to their experience, whatever their intent when they enrolled, but it would be very nice to have Kopp break down exactly what she means by "in education". As for the additional 22%, the fact that TFA is inconsistent and nebulous in its description of that group and its activities suggests that they're not being entirely honest. They should release their data and actual information about that work, such that the cloud is lifted.

Kopp acknowledges that some of the criticism of TFA constitutes "valuable feedback". Presumably that feedback includes criticism of TFA's history of low minority representation, inadequate training, the short tenure of corps members, and the like, issues that TFA has attempted to address. But Kopp's not writing her editorial to respond to her critics. By all appearances, she's trying to avoid responding to her critics, and as part of that effort she resorts to the spotlight fallacy:
But some of the criticism is based on misrepresentation and toxic rhetoric. Critics say, for example, that Teach for America “endangers students’ education.” Some characterize our teachers with phrases such as “Ivy League short-term student saviour” and allege that we are “an experiment in ‘resume-padding’ for ambitious young people.” One organization mounted a social media campaign to discourage students from applying.
Looking at Kopp's first example, I don't find it to include the sort of unfair attack she describes. The quote she attacks, in its full context, reads as follows,
Inadequate teacher training: TFA’s summer institute, the minimum training its corps members receive before becoming classroom teachers, lasts only a mere five weeks. Additionally, the practical classroom experience that TFA recruits receive during this training does not give an accurate representation of the everyday tasks of teaching. There already exists an inequality in the teacher quality and experience level between low-income and more affluent communities. TFA’s inadequate training perpetuates this inequality and endangers students’ education by giving them a poorly trained, unprepared instructor.
An honest response to that criticism would involve describing how the five week summer institute constitutes adequate teacher training and thus does not endanger students' education. The article to which Kopp linked is calm, reasoned and raises many valid points. What does it say about Kopp that her response is to pluck a quote out of context and use it to try to dismiss the substance of the author's criticism? Kopp herself implicitly admits that the five week program is problematic,
Most recently, in March, our co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard launched two pilot programs: one to provide a year of upfront training for recruits, and the other to extend our professional development to teachers who remain in the classroom for a third, fourth and fifth year.
With 47,000 alumni, there would be no need for such a pilot program if in fact the organization didn't recognize the deficiencies in its model for training corps members and preparing them for the classroom.

The second criticism, that "Some characterize our teachers with phrases such as “'Ivy League short-term student saviour'", is also interesting, as the actual article accuses TFA of projecting that attitude in its sales pitches to college students:
Many assume the TFA promo of Ivy League Short-term Student Saviour, but not all.

Kopp advances the ungrounded idea that TFA recruits can “close the achievement gap” because they are the “best and brightest”– and that they can do so going into America’s toughest teaching situations in two-year stints. And after “closing the gap,” TFAers can fulfill the nation’s need for their “best and brightest” leadership in key educational roles, including those of district or state superintendent, or charter school/education company “founder.”
The author of the blog post later elaborates,
TFA works hard to promote the image of the “best and brightest” as successfully and altruistically “giving back” by offering their indispensable “talent” to rescue students from achievement gaps that are clearly the fault of those who attended “non-target” institutions in order to earn degrees in what TFA considers a non-profession for its lack of “results.”

However, based upon the above discussion threads, some more astute TFAers realize that Kopp’s promotions are little more than selfish, strategically-endorsed, well-funded fiction.
An honest response by Kopp would not involve accusing the author of making the statement, but by explaining how that's not a fair characterization of how TFA pitches itself to college students or how college students perceive its outreach. It might also acknowledge that the comments by prospective TFA corps members, to which the critic links, support the impression that many corps members see TFA as offering to help pave their path into highly paid careers. For example, from 2011,
So for those of you who are unaware, Teach for America and Goldman Sachs firmly cemented their partnership this year. Goldman will be offering (at least) 20 minorities in the incoming Teach for America class summer internships.
The Godlman Sachs announcement prominently features the TFA logo, and states,
Through this program, Goldman Sachs will offer up to twenty paid summer internships to eligible African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans who have also been accepted to the incoming Teach For America corps. The internship with Goldman Sachs takes place between the first and second years of teaching. At the end of the summer, qualified participants may receive an offer to join Goldman Sachs full-time at the conclusion of their Teach For America commitment.
While it's easy to see how that type of partnership could help recruit TFA corps members who were interested in using TFA as a stepping stone to a career in finance, it doesn't do much to undermine the impression many hold that many TFA corps members view their participation as a short-term exercise to build their résumés, not as part of a longer-term commitment to education.

The third quote is presented in a similarly dishonest manner. In context,
Several years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.
Once again, this is a comment about TFA's recruitment efforts, and the message TFA itself sends to prospective corps members. It would have been nice if Kopp had been able to deny that the incident occurred, particularly given her organization's umbrage over the idea that it markets itself as an opportunity for students to pad their résumés. Being unable to deny the incident, it would have been nice if Kopp had sought to set the record straight, and to clarify how despite the recruiter's message the organization takes great pains to in fact exclude students whose primary interest is in attending an elite graduate program, and strives to ensure that every corps member is fully equipped to manage a classroom from day one. Frankly, Kopp's attack on the messenger does little more than suggest that she cannot defend her own program.

As for the social media campaign? A Twitter hashtag, "#ResistTFA", from a small student-led organization. And do you know where you end up if you look up that organization to try to find out why it is asking that students resist TFA? Right back on the first page to which Kopp linked. That is, even with her out-of-context cherry-picking, two of Kopp's examples of supposedly unfair criticism were part of the same criticism. Let's take a quick look at the criticisms Kopp chose to disregard while painting her critic as unfair:
  • Inadequate teacher training: TFA’s summer institute, the minimum training its corps members receive before becoming classroom teachers, lasts only a mere five weeks [and includes inadequate practical classroom experience]....

  • Promotion of teacher turnover: TFA only requires a two-year commitment to teaching, and as a result, over 80% of corps members leave the classroom after four years [and the organization emphasizes producing "'leaders' rather than career educators"....

  • Conflict with traditionally-trained career teachers: A further effect of the two-year commitment is that most TFA corps members will not teach long enough to be entitled to the higher salaries and benefits that come with increased experience [positioning them as a low-cost alternative to traditionally certified teachers]....

  • Charter schools: TFA has been found to be a key player in the charter school expansion movement as many of these privately-run, publicly-funded schools are mainly staffed by TFA corps members.... however, charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools and offer little in terms of creative approaches to pedagogy....

  • Standardized tests: TFA often claims to foster educational excellence because its teachers effectively boost their students scores on standardized tests [and in some cases that appears to be accurate].... However, we resist the notion that standardized tests are on the whole educationally beneficial....

  • Degradation of the teaching profession: The more TFA recruits committed to teaching for only two years come to replace traditionally-certified educators, the more the teaching profession as a whole becomes a temporary job rather than a profession....

There's plenty there to which Kopp could respond, giving a substantive reply to the valid criticisms and explaining why TFA holds a different opinion on matters such as the importance and impact of high stakes standardized testing. What is she waiting for? Kopp claims, "It is crucial that we have an honest, open-minded conversation about what it will take to improve educational — and ultimately life — outcomes for kids", but it's her approach to TFA's critics, not the actual statements and positions of TFA's critics, that is preventing the discussion from proceeding.

Kopp argues,
In the communities where we’ve been providing teachers for 15 years or more, the impact of Teach for America is clear. Twelve years ago, D.C. students were scoring at the bottom compared with their peers in other large cities. Today, although there is still much to be done, schools in the nation’s capital are improving faster than any other urban district’s. This change is the result of the efforts of many people, but without Teach for America alumni, we’d lose much of the energy behind it.
The energy we might lose being a handful of TFA alumni who are working in the DC school system. Except, even assuming that the TFA alumni bring something special to the table, if TFA is recruiting people who are committed to education why should we assume that those people would not have ended up in education but for TFA? If TFA is taking the position that it attracts people who aren't inclined to go into education and then, through training and classroom experience, transforms them into people committed to the future of education in our society, perhaps that's a case they can make -- but as long as they choose to insist that they are trying to recruit students who are committed to education, not simply looking to build their résumés, they undermine any argument that they could make that their program is transformative.

Kopp asks the question,
Would the United States really be better off if thousands of outstanding and committed people did not apply to Teach for America?
But that's not the right question. TFA's critics don't seem bothered by the idea of a teacher corps that steps in to fill a void, providing classroom teachers where there would otherwise be a teacher shortage. TFA's critics appear to be bothered by the suggestion that any random Iy League graduate, following a five-week training course, is as good or better than a traditionally trained classroom teacher, and thus that TFA corps members should displace traditionally certified teachers in schools and districts where no teacher shortage exists.

Some corps members turn out to be great classroom teachers, while others have nothing but problems -- but one pretty constant criticism I hear from corps members and alumni is that they were out-of-their-depths during their first year of teaching. TFA appears to be belatedly responding to that problem with its pilot project for more complete teacher training, but it is fair for critics of TFA to point out that its teacher preparation program is often insufficient, and that wealthier school districts would not even consider employing TFA corps members in lieu of traditionally certified applicants for teacher positions.

It is also fair to point out that under Kopp's leadership, TFA came to be associated with attacks on the professionalism and competence of traditionally trained teachers as part of its desire for growth, and as part of its effort to maintain contracts to provide corps members to districts that didn't have or were no longer experiencing a teacher shortage. It is more than fair to point out that poor kids don't deserve schools that are inferior to those available in middle class communities, including competent teachers -- and that, whatever qualified candidates TFA brings into the inner cities, it is at best a band-aid solution and at worst an impediment to the hiring and retention of long-term, qualified classroom teachers.

Kopp closes by arguing,
This country is failing our kids, and the conversation we’re having is not helping. It’s not elevating the teaching profession. It isn’t changing kids’ lives or giving them the best chance to fulfill their potential. It’s undermining trust in the efforts of so many to improve education, and driving away what we need most: The energy and attention of every person willing to work for our children.
To me, that seems like a fair criticism of Kopp's own approach to the discussion. It doesn't appear to bother her at all that attacks on the teaching profession over recent decades, with associated efforts to reduce teacher compensation and benefits and to remove job protections, have decreased teacher satisfaction and have caused many teachers and prospective teachers to choose other career options. It only seems to bother her that people are criticizing TFA. Perhaps I'm wrong -- Kopp has been around for a long time. Perhaps she has made a statement in defense of career teachers, or in response to attacks on the teaching profession, that I haven't seen. Can anybody help me out?

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