Jul 07 2012

I approve of the recent Wendy Kopp interview on New York 1

Not that she needs my approval, or even reads this blog, most likely, but on T.V. here in New York I saw a recent interview with TFA founder Wendy Kopp which I actually liked.  This is newsworthy because I have been disappointed with Wendy, recently, for three different things:

1)  I did not like her characterization of ‘reformers’ (like Rhee and other high profile alums) as ‘builders’ and critics (like me and other low profile alums) as ‘haters’ in her commencement speech at Dartmouth, which I wrote about here.  I feel like I am a ‘builder’ too.  But it is hard to add an extension to your house when your house is on fire.  You’ve got to put the fire out first.

2)  I did not like the message in her Huffington Post article, ‘In Defense Of Optimism’ which I wrote about here.  She switches gears from humble to arrogant midway through.

3)  I was most disappointed, however, that she participated in a task force and signed Klein and Rice’s U.S. Education Reform and National Security report, which you can read about here, which alerted the country that the education crisis is actually a national security threat.  To me this is not true, and is just a way to try to scare wealthy people who don’t care about poor people to want to support radical experimental education reform since it will be in the best interests of the wealthy too.

Though I first met Wendy twenty-one years ago at my own 1991 institute (back when she only wore pink from head to toe), we’ve only talked about a dozen times over the years.  She gave me permission to self-publish and sell to the 1996 corps members a version of my first book.  I put her in the acknowledgements when my first book became a real published book.  I’ve also emailed her from time to time over the years and she has always gotten back to me right away.  She once even wrote in an email something like “thanks for challenging our thinking” after I complained about something or other.

In the early days of TFA, interviews were about how great it was that TFA encouraged a new talent pool to become teachers.  To me, that is still the main selling point of TFA, and it is a good one.  But in recent media about TFA, there has been too much focus on charter schools run by TFA alums and about alums who have attained positions of power, like chancellor of a large school district or commissioner of education of a state.  Since I think that charters get their results at the expense of the non-charter students, I don’t like that focus.  And the TFA alumni turned leaders generally promote policies that, in my opinion, harm students and teachers in the long run.

So this is why I was pleased to see the recent interview with Wendy on local New York 1.  Whether this was by design, or just how it was edited together, this was like a ‘throwback’ to those old interviews.  You can see it or just read the transcript here.  Nothing really about charters.  No exaggerated claims of super-teachers or miracle schools.  Not a defensive Wendy, but a more honest and humble one.  And she seemed a lot more comfortable sticking with these points too.  She even admits how first year teachers struggle.

The only correction I’d make is her response to the question about why not make the commitment longer.  In answer to this she says “Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment.  It doubled if we asked for one year. The reason this plays out is that 22-year-olds think that two years is the rest of their life.”

Now, this is not accurate.  I’ve been following TFA for 21 years and there was never a time that they asked for a three-year commitment.  Maybe they sent out a survey asking ‘if’ they increased it to three years, how many people would have not done it, but they never actually tried to see what would happen.

I waver on whether it would be better to make the commitment longer.  It is a good point that 3 years sounds like a long time to a 22 year old and might scare away someone who would otherwise become a teacher who actually taught for 3 or more years.  I used to think that 3 years would be optimal, but I can also see a good argument for 2 years as long as 1) the training is adequate (which it currently is not) and 2) they strongly encourage people to teach longer (which is something they just started to do with their ‘teach beyond 2′ campaign).  A better thing to say, for Wendy, would be that just making a longer commitment doesn’t mean anything.  They can make the ‘commitment’ ten years and people will still leave when they had enough.  Traditional training programs have zero year commitments, when you think about it.  What if on the first day of institute TFA told everyone “We hope you all become career teachers.  That’s how important education is, but start with two years and we’ll talk more when you finish those” just to plant the seed.

I’m hoping that this interview was not just from the way it was edited, but based on a new strategy by TFA to go back to their roots and focus on the talent pool, something that most people would agree with.  Maybe TFA is realizing that controversial subjects like charter schools and high profile polarizing alumni ‘leaders’ are too aggressive, and are, by no means, something everyone agrees with.  Maybe this is the start of TFA’s distancing itself from the unproven and mixed results of the modern ‘reform’ movement.

14 Responses

  1. Grace

    The message to become career teachers is sure strong over here at Philly Institute.

    • Meg

      Ditto for staff in Memphis – and not just at Institute, throughout the year and at second year summit as well.

    • Jacob (CM '00)

      That’s interesting because when I was finishing my two year commitment in NYC in 2002 I was told by TFA site staff that “it’s not our job to encourage you to stay on,” even though I did stay on for another six years.

  2. When I was in TFA, there was no encouragement to stay in the classroom and quite a bit to leave it. In that, though, I think TFA is joined by far too much of the education system. I am regularly invited to apply and headhunted for out-of-classroom education jobs. I’ve also been told that as a good teacher, it’s my duty to move into leadership. Despite the fact that I have no interest in out of the classroom jobs and am extraordinarily unsuited to administrative or policy positions, I feel that there’s a growing assumption that teaching is not a profession but a step on a career ladder.

    I suspect that TFA’s existence feeds this idea, but I don’t think it’s entirely responsible for it. Teaching is not a respected career presently; it’s either a service one does for awhile or just a necessary experience.

  3. Linda

    To Grace

    That is the best news I have heard from TFA. I hope you will consider it. Teachers know much more than the self-appointed “leaders”. Best of
    luck to you. After the initial barrage of data and information my advice is to put it all aside and get to know the kids individually: their likes, dislikes, hobbies, strengths etc.

  4. veteran

    I really like this interview as well.

    I think TFA is slowly getting it that they need to not bash every non TFA corps member in the schools, because some of those they are bashing may be their own alum! And regardless of alum or not they shouldn’t be bashing people who are trying to help the problem. I believe they are slowly recognizing teachers through- the teach beyond 2 campaign that you mentioned, financially supporting teachers with the National Board cert process, an occasional article about alums teaching in One Day and (FINALLY) an alumni excellence in teaching award. In some regions TFA even held a luncheon honoring current Alum teachers. This is a big improvement from the “When are you going to get out of teaching and become somehing?” that I’ve usually heard over the years from staff.
    For me summit was very hurtful. There was a quick passing statement about some charter corps members that were still in teaching. But the stage was filled with alums who are not. Most of the presentations on Saturday were not about teaching but about leading. Both are important but as a teaching alum,I would love for TFA to make more of an effort of support to teachers of America- not just those who do it for two years.

  5. Amanda

    Talk of becoming a career teacher (or at least staying 3 or 4 years) is constant here in the Delta.

    Most people I’ve met plan on staying at least 3 or 4 years. Our CMAs and other staff all did. We’ve many who plan for it to be their career as well.

    This may be a recent change but 2012 CMs in the Delta are definitely being encouraged to stay beyond their two years.

  6. Liz

    Rumor has it that the Executive Director of NYC region recently stepped down from her role with TFA in order to go back into the classroom and, ya know, actually teach.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      At a KIPP school, as I predicted when the original announcement came out several months ago.

  7. Linda

    And isn’t that a Kopp/Barth venture as well?

  8. In my region (RI), something like 80% of the 2010 corps members are not only staying in teaching, but in their placement schools. And they’re the ones who are celebrated most (at least implicitly) at all-corps events and such. We also have a master’s degree partnership with Brown University that requires staying on an additional year, with a fellowship that requires two additional years. If there’s pressure from TFA to move into “leadership” after two years, I haven’t witness or experienced it here.

  9. Jim Capatelli

    Hi Gary. I’m a big fan. Please keep up the consistent, cogent and conscientious blogging.

    Regarding Ms. Kopp’s recent interview, you wrote, “Maybe this is the start of TFA’s distancing itself from the unproven and mixed results of the modern ‘reform’ movement.”

    Sorry, Gary. I don’t think so. I think it’s called a tactical shift based on pragmatism given the growing awareness among parents that this billionaire-funded “reform” movement is largely a sham.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I agree that it probably is a tactical shift of what ‘message’ to present in the media, but it is an important first step. For the longest time, there weren’t any steps in the right direction.

    • Linda

      Yes, exactly….adjust your message slightly, tell the recruits to say they are going to stay a little longer, dial back on the leadership rhetoric so it looks like we value teachers (the lowly kind who spend their whole life teaching and never aspire to leadership positions, you know the lazy union kind), etc….but TFA should take a look at their own website where they say their members go on to leadership positions and their members are “fueling a REVOLUTION in education” and their members get better results than the “other” teachers. Their website even creates an us vs. them attitude.

      So, TFA, start cleaning up your site to match your new rhetoric, even though you still believe your organization is going to save us all.

      Interesting, Jim, when they talk about status quo…TFA has been around for 20 years, so maybe they are the status quo.

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