A few days ago, June 10th, Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth (read it or see it here). Aside from the appropriate motivational stories that make a commencement speech inspirational and relevant, Wendy also dedicated a fairly significant portion of her speech to the TFA critics.
Now I’ve been criticizing TFA for nearly 20 years, but in all that time, up until very recently, I still felt like part of ‘the family.’ Just as an American can feel that the country isn’t moving in the optimal direction, but still love his country, I focused, for 19 out of the past 20 years, on how TFA might improve their training. In the past 15 months, however, ever since the TFA 20 year alumni summit, I’ve realized that TFA is part of something now that has the potential to do a lot more harm to kids than just simply putting a few thousand undertrained teachers into the classroom. TFA, by putting the spotlight on a small group of aggressive alumni who act like they ‘know’ how to ‘fix’ schools — mainly by shutting down schools, replacing them with charters, and firing a lot of teachers — has backed something that I truly believe will make education worse in this country. This is a shame because there are a whole lot more alumni who you have never heard of — alumni who taught for ten years and then became principals at public schools that serve all kids including, in some cases, their own. Those unsung alumni are not publicized by TFA since their schools are not presenting the illusion of transformative change.
In the current ed reform battle, there are various ways to name the sides: I usually say the corporate reformers vs. those who think the corporate reforms cause more harm than good. This, though, is not that snappy. One charged way to describe the sides is: the ‘reformers’ vs. the ‘anti-reformers’, where both terms are meant sarcastically when I say them, but sincerely when a ‘reformer’ does. In Wendy’s speech, as she is speaking more generally, though of course she is basing it on her experience in ed reform, she calls the sides the ‘builders’ and the ‘haters’. Here is a quote from the speech:
There’s a divide, and it’s getting bigger, between the builders and the critics, between the fighters and the spectators. When you turn on the news or venture into the blogosphere, what you see is that the naysayers have the power while the people who are on the front lines charting a new course or working to make things better weather constant criticism.
To put it in layman’s terms, there are a lot of haters out there.
You will find that it is almost always more comfortable to sit on the sidelines and critique the builders from afar, but at the end of the day, the people who make a difference, the people who shape history, are not the haters.
I suppose I’m one of these ‘haters’ though I don’t ‘hate’ the concept of TFA. Getting enthusiastic graduates who have been very successful so far to become teachers, some of them for prolonged periods of time, is good (assuming the training is adequate, which it isn’t). What I ‘hate’ is the corporate reform movement and the destruction it is causing.
As a ‘hater,’ I guess, I disagree with this characterization. To say “the naysayers have the power” in the context of ed reform is crazy. The corporate reformers are backed by billionaires and the opposition has free Twitter accounts, some of us with dial-up connections.
And I also resent that the positive word ‘builder’ is used to describe high profile TFA alumni like Michelle Rhee (StudentsFirst), John White (Ed Commissioner of Louisiana), Cami Anderson (Chancellor of Newark), Kaya Henderson (Chancellor of D.C.), and Kevin Huffman (Ed commissioner of Tennessee). The only thing these people are ‘building’ are weapons of mass destruction. If those are the ‘builders’ that Wendy is referring to, I will proudly continue to say ‘nay’ with all my vast power.