TFA Founder Kopp Dodges Questions with “Read my book.”
Larry Cuban wrote a wonderful blog post recently, one that I’ve been planning to discuss in more detail, though now I’m going to bring it up in a way I hadn’t originally intended. In “Jazz, Basketball, and Teacher Decision Making” Cuban offers interesting analogies and scientific studies to illuminate just how complex teaching really is. Teachers make several dozen instructional decisions every hour, hundreds per day. For those decisions to be effective in promoting student learning, teachers need to know the difference between the meaningful information and the meaningless “noise” that we take in every second as we observe a classroom. We need a clear sense of priorities for each student and for each moment – and though this idea will shock some people who barely understand teaching – the top priority is not always to stick to the lesson plan. (More on that idea in a blog post coming soon). In order for each decision to be the best it can be, we need to have a variety of options and approaches, and both the theoretical and practical background to weigh those options and make the right selection in a moment’s time, and then constantly adjust.
Accomplished teachers don’t make the right decision every time, but we analyze our decisions, reflect on our practices, and come back the next day expecting to be that much better prepared for the decisions ahead. To follow Cuban’s analogies, you wouldn’t expect a very young musician or athlete to have the repretoire to excel in their practices, even if they have a precocious level of technical skill. There is some expertise that comes only through time and practice.
So, this morning, as I spent an hour listening to Teach for America (TFA) founder Wendy Kopp on “Forum” (a public affairs news discussion program on KQED-FM San Francisco), I was thinking about TFA’s goals to transform education, and whether or not their own practices will bring about those stated goals. After all, they pin their hopes and claims on mostly young and inexperienced teachers, and on the testing data they generate which may or may not correlate to effective teaching.
The discussion began with consideration of the achievement gap, and Kopp suggested that there’s now evidence that schools and school systems can overcome that achievement gap. Encouraging news, though devoid of much specificty about exactly how much extra time (money), energy (money), training (money), and support services (much more money) might have supported any successful efforts. The program’s host, Michael Krasney, did ensure that Kopp addressed some of the critiques of TFA – or rather, he made sure to raise the critiques himself, and he and the producers allowed critical calls – but I don’t feel Kopp really responded to the critiques in a thoughtful way.
I put in a call myself, and was on the air in the final eight or nine minutes of the program if you care to listen to the audio online. Paraphrasing myself from memory here, I tried to make the point that TFA corps members are generally sent to low-performing schools that suffer from a lack of stability. There, more experienced teachers devote a great amount of time and effort to help train and support their new, TFA colleagues, even though TFA is not really dedicated to the idea that their corps members should remain in teaching as a long-term career. (I’m not arguing that they’re against that idea, but their vision is about seeing their alumni distributed throughout the education and political system). I expressed my concern that the TFA model does not concern itself in promoting stability in the schools that need it most. I passed along what I have read and heard about TFA teachers being under intense pressure to generate great results, to the point that they make a fetish of “achievement” data. To me, it looks like a recipe to produce a younger, cheaper, and more compliant teaching force, while logic, models from other professions, and any international schools comparison would suggest that we need to cultivate a stable, experienced, professional cadre of career teachers.
Wendy Kopp’s reply came in two parts. One: “Read my book.” Two: it’s unfortunate that the education reform debate has resulted in people resisting innovation.
If either of those parts of her reply really answers my questions about TFA, I fail to see it. Her book may or may not answer my question, but she had the microphone and the time to make the case to me and the listeners (how many of whom do you think have read the book?). Instead, she ducked the question. The suggestion that my comment was about resisting innovation was just a nicer version of “if you disagree with us then you support the status quo.”
If we take Wendy Kopp at her word, then she recognizes that there are “no silver bullets” and no singular scapegoats in education reform. She was explicit in saying that the recent political focus on teacher quality is not going to solve our problems. What’s unfortunate is that if she truly embraces the pluarlity of viewpoints, perspectives, and solutions that we need to improve public education for all students, Kopp needs to respect the pluarality of viewpoints about Teach for America; her credibility as a leader in the broader field of education would be enhanced by conceding that TFA could have unintended negative consequences in the schools it hopes to serve. She might even take a step to distance herself and the organization from education reformers who have tried to promote TFA to use it as a wedge dividing stakeholders with varying viewpoints. Instead, Kopp came across as an advocate whose top priorities are promoting her organization and her book.
As a side note, I recently attended a panel discussion on teacher preparation that included Steve Farr, TFA’s Chief Knowledge Officer, and Kopp’s co-author for her recent book. In a discussion with some leading professors from Stanford and Michigan Schools of Education, Farr went was much more engaged in substantive debate, and more persuasive about the potential contributions of Teach For America in the broader landscape of teacher preparation in the United States. He was articulate regarding the trade-offs that are made in various approaches to recruitment, training, and assessment of new teachers. However, that particular talk did not take up the issues I raised in my phone call to Forum.
I’ll leave it up to you if you want to read Kopp’s book and see if it has the answers. Let me know if you’ve read it, and if you’d recommend it, and if you think it answers my questions. I might give it a skim sometime. In the meantime, here are some readings about the issues I raised in my phone call, and other unintended negative consequences of the way TFA operates:
- Teach for America: A False Promise – National Education Policy Center
- A Love-Hate Relationship with Teach for America - Anna Martin (link goes to Part One of a multi-part blog at the Washington Post)
- Teach for America: From Service Group to Industry – Rachel Levy
- Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America – Barbara Miner
- Teach for America and Me: A Failed Courtship - Dr. Mark Naison
- Take Me to Your Leader - Nancy Flanagan (with a comment by me following the blog post, in which I criticize Kopp’s understanding of California public education policy and the people who do the work of educating our students).
And three guest posts from Living in Dialogue: