Links to the rest of this series here
My ‘open letter’ series culminates with this letter to the founder of Teach For America, Wendy Kopp. I suppose that I’ve ‘known’ Wendy for twenty-one years as I first spoke to her at my own institute back in 1991. I can’t say, though, that I know her very well. Over the past twenty-one years I’ve probably spoken to her an average of once a year with each interaction being just a few sentences.
In 1996 when I was working at the Houston institute, I had a very important elevator ride with her when I asked if it would be OK if I self-published my essays about teaching and sold them to the 1996 corps. She asked to see the writing and a few days later I received a hand-written letter that said that she really liked the essays and that I could go ahead and sell them. That collection of essays was eventually adapted into my first ‘real’ published book, ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ in 1999. Because Wendy was instrumental in getting the original self-published book permitted and that she founded TFA, I included Wendy on the acknowledgement page of ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ and her name still appears in every copy, even thirteen years later while the book is in its second edition. I sent her the book in 1999 and I received another very nice hand written letter saying how much she liked my “snazzy” book. When I went to the book signing for her first book “One Day” she wrote something in my copy like “thanks for your contribution to the movement and for your humor” which definitely meant that she knew who I was.
Over the years I’d pay my respects at various TFA events. It is surprisingly easy to get a few words with her at a TFA thing. She is often standing by herself, for some reason, by the Swedish meatballs. I spoke to her at the TFA 20 year alumni summit for a minute or two and she was very nice to me.
I’ve also emailed Wendy a bunch of times and she has always gotten back to me pretty quickly. For a while I was trying to get involved with improving the summer training and she even thanked me for my persistence once and for something like “challenging our thinking.”
As a somewhat funny twist of fate, after moving to New York City in 2001, I have run into Wendy around town about four times throughout the years. A few times we have been in the same subway car. Most recently was about a year ago when I was with my wife and daughter in a smoothie shop when Wendy came in, her family packed into a mini-van, double parked with her husband at the wheel, scrambling to get a bunch of smoothies. We spoke for a few minutes and I also introduced her to my wife and daughter. Walking home afterwards I was thinking that had it not been for Wendy creating TFA, my life would have been so different that I would most certainly be either married to someone else, or even not married at all. Either way, my wonderful daughter would not now exist! So Wendy has had quite an impact on my life.
What follows is the 8th, and final, letter in my open letter series: Meeting my maker.
Hope you and your family had a happy New Years.
Without Teach For America there wouldn’t be a ‘me,’ or at least there would be one but I’d likely be doing something very different and likely much less fulfilling with my life. And without you there wouldn’t be a Teach For America. So in that sense you ‘made’ me. To put this into pop culture terms, if I’m Luke Skywalker then you’re, um, Anakin Skywalker.
I don’t know if there are many people whose identity is as wrapped up with TFA as me. Starting twenty-one years ago I’ve pledged my time and my heart into this organization. I’ve been a corps member, a staff member, an alumni summit attendee, a volunteer recruiter, a workshop presenter, a keynote speaker, a panel member, a financial donor, a mentor, and a dinner host. And for the first nineteen of those twenty-one years, I was so proud to be a member of Teach For America. Anybody who knows me knows that my summer wardrobe used to consist primarily of Teach For America T-shirts that I’ve obtained over the years at various TFA functions. My wife, in fact, still uses the gray TFA tote bag as our main bag for transporting our kids’ belongings to and from daycare
And after nineteen years of being a proud TFA alum, for the past two years I have been somewhat ashamed of it. Though I am one of the few people to have attended the 5 year, the 10 year, the 15 year, and the 20 year alumni summits, I fear that I will not want to attend the 25 year unless TFA becomes again an organization I can identify with. And I don’t mean this as a threat, really. There will be enough people at the 25 without me, but I hope that you see my current dissatisfaction with TFA as somewhat of a ‘litmus test.’ If an alum as gung ho as me is having doubts, surely there are many others too And though there are many alumni who share my frustration, and many other non-TFAers too, you must know, I will only claim to speak for myself in this letter.
I joined TFA twenty-one years ago because I wanted to use my love and knowledge of math to do something good for society. I taught in Houston for four years, three of which I’d call ‘successful.’ Over the years I’ve been critical of the TFA training model. It’s not that I don’t think it is possible to train teachers, particularly secondary teachers, in five weeks. It’s just that it has to be a very good five weeks, which I still think it isn’t. The student teaching component is just too short with classes that are just too small. But I still support the idea of alternative certification, and have said so even in my ‘anti-TFA’ NPR interview. I also, unlike many TFA critics, am OK with the two year commitment. Though I’d like it to be upped to three years, I can see that maybe two years lures in some people who could teach for a long time after they get hooked on teaching. So two of the largest criticisms of TFA, the short training and the short commitment are not things that I have been complaining about.
My biggest issue with TFA is that despite the fact that it claims to be such a diverse organization, I find that the most important type of diversity — that of ideas, is lacking. In your first TFA ‘Pass The Chalk’ Blog post you say that there is no “official TFA line,” and, yes, there have been some diverse points of view represented on that blog, but I feel that this is not enough. Actions, as they say, are more powerful than words so saying that TFA values all points of view does not make it true. This was most evident to me as I sat through various speeches at the Teach For America 20th anniversary summit two years ago.
Going into the summit, I was hopeful that it would have some of the humility you displayed in the ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ chapter in your latest book. In that chapter you admit that improving education is very complex and much harder than you had originally thought. You wrote about how the silver bullets, like charter schools, aren’t necessarily THE solution and how ‘bad’ teachers and unions aren’t THE problem.
So it was disappointing to me that the theme of the summit, based on who the featured speakers were, was generally about how charter schools were THE answer and how ‘bad’ teachers and unions are THE problem. (And yes, I know that the people who I’m accusing of saying this would quickly deny that they have said this, but, again, actions speak louder than words.) I saw this mainly in the opening and closing ceremonies, particularly during the ‘Waiting For Superman’ reunion panel. In general, the 20 year event left me with a sour taste in my mouth. It felt like TFA was trying to convey the idea that “We figured it out. Now we just have to scale up,” despite the fact that nobody has really conclusively figured ‘it’ out. This reminded me of George W. Bush’s famous 2003 ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign on the aircraft carrier, eight years before the end of the Iraq war. I don’t see much evidence that anyone has really figured out much. ‘High performing’ charter networks have trouble getting consistency within their own schools. Districts where the ideas of ‘accountability’ and ‘choice’ have thrived have only shown success with some very creative math.
TFA is very proud of a small subset of high-profile alumni, all of whom have a very clear agenda based on shutting down ‘failing’ schools and firing ‘bad’ teachers. They also seem to have a blind faith in the power of evaluating teachers by comparing their students’ results to the prediction of an inaccurate math formula. I believe that whatever ‘good’ might come from a culture of fear, it is far outweighed by the ‘bad.’
When you created TFA, one of the ideas, I think, was to tap a new source of people who could put their minds to the problem of improving education in this country. At the time, I doubt you ever expected that some of the alumni would become the leaders of a ‘reform’ movement, while some other alumni would become huge critics of that same movement. And though I’ve recently seen some steps toward having more voices represented by TFA (the recent alumni magazine was pretty balanced and there were some balanced things on ‘Pass The Chalk’) I feel like the fact that it took so long for this process to start, and that there still isn’t enough of it, I get concerned that this is only a superficial type of inclusion.
Is TFA also proud of the reform critics? Are we not also part of the ‘best and the brightest’? Or is it that the alumni who lead the reform movement are ‘bester’ and ‘brighter’ than the critics? When your children are competing against each other in a sporting event, do you actively root for one over the other?
But for me the thing that bothers me most about these reformers is the dishonesty. In the closing ceremony of the 20 year thing I heard Duncan say something about how the decision to shut down a large Chicago High School was justified by the miraculous charter school that took its place. After I got home from the summit I did about ten minutes of fact-checking before I learned that this charter school was far from miraculous as they had about a forty percent dropout rate. This inspired my first post that would be called, I guess ‘anti-reform’ though I really think of it as anti-lying. Generally a white lie here and there doesn’t bother me, particularly when it is a victimless crime. But in this current era of teacher bashing there are many victims as schools get closed and teachers get fired for not living up to what others have lied about accomplishing. The reason I’ve spent so much time fighting against this strategy of reform is that I truly believe that it is making things worse for teachers and students. Five percent of students get ‘saved’ from their ‘failing’ school while the other ninety-five percent of kids have their schools slowly squeezed dry. When the few benefit at the expense of the many, it just isn’t fair.
What I can’t understand is why if improving education in this country is so important to you, why you would not want the ideas of how to do this to be subject to public scrutiny. Like scientific progress, hypotheses are formed and then tested with replicable experiments. There is no place for lying or even exaggerating in an important scientific endeavor.
Over the years I’ve seen TFA, and you, present stories of success that I don’t think stand up to scrutiny. Though in your own book you admit that TFA teachers haven’t been so heroic to make much progress in fixing the schools in a ‘transformative’ way, we still hear various claims like how many first year TFAers are teaching a year and a half of material in one year or how TFA teachers are beating teachers from other training programs in terms of value-added measures. Also I’ve read, from you, about the amazing results of some schools with a big TFA presence, and how well schools with TFA principals, and how well school districts with TFA leaders are doing. I’ve investigated these claims and have found all of them to be exaggerated or misleading.
I think part of the reason is that you may have a distorted sense of what these schools and districts are really like. Your knowledge of them comes from what you hear from their leaders, which of course is skewed, but also, I’m sure, from what you’ve seen with your own eyes during school visits. But you must realize that what you see on a school visit is different from what someone else would see on such a visit. Surely everyone is putting on a good show when you visit so I can easily see how you might think these schools are better than they actually are. What you need is some kind of costume so you can go incognito and get the type of experience I got when I recently visited the ‘high performing’ KIPP high school in New York City. Though I am pretty boisterous when I write, in real life I suppose I have a way of blending into the woodwork. So what I saw there was not very impressive. I didn’t see any classes where teachers were getting that mythical period and half of growth in one period. I saw some good teaching, mostly average teaching, and even some very bad teaching. I saw a novice teacher struggle to control a class of nine students. They were walking all over him and accomplished very little that period. I also saw the ‘grit’ training program which amounted to the students getting the teacher to define very clearly how little homework they would have to do to still get their candy bar rewards.
As far as charter schools go, you must also be aware of how much attrition they have. As you are married to one of the top executives in KIPP, I have trouble believing that you don’t know this. I don’t presume to know what your relationship with your husband is like, but I seriously doubt that it is one where your husband could invoke the famous line by Michael Corleone in the first Godfather movie — “Don’t ask me about my business”– if you were to inquire. The fact is that most ‘high-performing’ charters are ones that manage to get more motivated kids and families and who lose the less motivated ones throughout the years. And the schools that do have the same kids as the neighborhood ‘failing’ school, those schools often have test scores that are extremely low too.
Over the past two years, Wendy, I have seen some things you’ve done that I have appreciated. I liked your ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ chapter in your book. I like that you panned Brill’s book ‘Class Warfare.’ I also liked that you came out, publicly, against the publication of the New York City teacher’s value-added scores. But I’ve also seen some things you’ve supported that have nullified, for me, these others. Your signing the Joel Klein / Condoleezza Rice ‘U.S. Education Reform and National Security’ report was probably the worst, in my view. There is little evidence that our students’ failure to measure up on some international standardized tests is a national security issue. It seems to me to be an alarmist report that is supposed to make wealthy people who wouldn’t otherwise care about poor people to support the Klein style of reform. Another was that TFA signed that letter to Duncan about how teacher education programs need to be more accountable for the test scores of the students their trainees teach. Like they say about glass houses, organizations that only have their teachers in training teach for 12 hours over the summer should not throw stones. I also wasn’t thrilled to see TFA receive money from the promotion of ‘Won’t Back Down.’ That movie was such propaganda, it is no wonder that it is one of the poorest grossing films of all time.
So what is the point of this letter? It really isn’t to get you to write back to me. If you were to write back, I’d appreciate it since it would prove to people that you respected me enough to take the time to read it. Also, it might encourage some of the other people I’m still waiting on to respond to me. I don’t expect any of the responses to have any more than ‘stock footage’ anyway. The point of this letter is to vent my frustration and to enable people throughout the country to understand my point of view. My most popular post ever got nearly 50,000 hits so this letter has the potential to do the same.
More than a response, I’d like to see TFA really making an effort to showcase more critics of the reform style of firing teachers and shutting down schools. I know that I might have burned too many bridges with my criticisms on NPR and everything, but there are many others who have similar views and I’d like to see them, at least, on some panel discussions at future TFA events. If I see more of that, even if it is just for show, I might consider going to the 25 year alumni summit in 2015. Further on down the road, perhaps one day TFA will be so open to representing differing points of view that someone like me would be an appropriate person to speak at even a TFA fundraiser.
Twenty years from now I have no doubt that TFA will have ‘evolved’ to be more inclusive of differing points of view. Whether you do so reluctantly so as not to become obsolete, or if you do it because you really want open debate even if it means that some prominent alumni are challenged, it is where, I believe TFA is headed. When that happens, this current crop of TFA alumni leaders will be looked at as a dark time for TFA. Right now many of the most prominent TFA alumni are among the most despised people in education. How can that be good for TFA? Twenty years from now, when TFA is gearing up for the 45 year alumni summit, you will be celebrating alumni leaders who had the wisdom to use strategies that actually made things better. Keep an eye on someone like Dr. Camika Royal, maybe a future Secretary of Education.
Well, I think I wrote everything I wanted to. If you’d write a public response, I’d definitely appreciate it. I wrote enough that you don’t have to worry about me writing a follow-up open letter. Unless you have specific questions for me, I’ll preserve my contacts with you and keep them, as before, to once or twice a year.
Update: Wendy has responded, and her response can be found here.