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TFA Founder Kopp Dodges Questions with “Read my book.”

July 11, 2011
Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban (photo by the author)

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.

Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp (photo by Jim Gillooly; via Flickr, with permission)

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.

teacher ed panel

Teacher education panel discussion participants, from left: Deborah Ball, Pam Grossman, and TFA's Steve Farr (photo by the author).

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:

And three guest posts from Living in Dialogue:

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2011 2:31 pm

    I think TFA needs to do a better job of helping people stay in education after their two years in the classroom and supporting them them during those two years. One way to do that would be to modify the way they recruit their staff members who train teachers by focusing on bringing in people with 5-7 years in the classroom instead of 2-3.

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    July 11, 2011 3:02 pm

    Coincidentally, Shaun Johnson also posted about TFA today, over at Huffington Post:

  3. July 11, 2011 3:06 pm

    A useful discussion. There’s a political debate which I don’t mind escalating, but when it comes to specific schools and ways of preparing teachers, I’m open to all comers. So thanks, David. Of course, what bothers me most is that we’ve settled for calling test scores the indicator of “student achievement”. And in the process we do real achievement serious harm. But then that’s also because we avoid discussing “purposes”–what it’s for? Collecting diplomas that help us get past the door for job interviews?

    There are cheaper ways to do that and way that are more productive to virtually any definition of achievement–besides just lasting long enough!

    Some of my differences with other reformers stem from different objectives–in fact, in a way, David, they stick much too closely to the status quo I came into urban public teaching to reform! They are very old-fashioned in terms of goals–just more radical when it comes to governance (who is in control–public or private ownership) ) and in delivery systems (much more sanguine about long-distance learning).

    Deborah Meier

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 11, 2011 3:34 pm

      You’ve managed to complicate the issue in perfectly appropriate ways and in a concise manner to boot. Regarding “open to all comers” – that makes sense. I want TFA teachers to succeed, I want TFA to succeed, but I don’t want TFA to build its fortunes and reputation by tearing down the teaching profession or the shredding the fabric of any given school or system. It’s the same with charter schools – I want them to be successful, but not by private governance with closed boards and meetings, not by taking a profit, not by exclusionary enrollment, and not by positioning themselves as the heroes rescuing students from an evil alternative.

      Yes, it’s essential to know what we think we’re after in education. I cringe every time I hear arguments couched mainly in terms of global economic competition – as if being cultured, confident, well-rounded and fulfilled weren’t worth considering.

      And yes, one of the critiques that Anthony Cody has articluated well (I’m sure others have too) is that TFA has gone down the path of data-driven reform and to the extent that they focus on that, their focus is part of the new status quo in education. I love your summary of which status quo we’re debating (finance, governance, policy) and which status quo we’re not debating (curriculum, assessment, philosophy of education).

  4. July 11, 2011 3:08 pm

    How could she NOT dodge Larry Cuban’s incisive questions? To do otherwise, to fail to proffer the predictable “You support the status quo” litany, would be to suggest that Ms. Kopp isn’t completely enamored with her hagiographies. TFA may have started as a nice idea. So did charter schools. But it’s big business now.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 11, 2011 3:20 pm

      Just to clarify, the questions were mine, not Larry’s – I realize that the way I started this blog post might throw some readers off a bit, coming to the main thrust of the piece a bit indirectly. My apologies.

  5. CarolineSF permalink
    July 11, 2011 3:52 pm

    Must post the Teach for America rap from Treme (in fact, Michael Krasny should have played it):

    Four years at Radcliffe, that’s all you know

    A desire to do good and a four point oh

    You’re here to save us from our plight

    You got the answer ’cause you’re rich and white

    On a two-year sojourn here to stay

    Teach for America all the way

    Got no idea what you’re facin’

    No clue just who you’re displacin’

    Old lady taught fathers, old lady taught sons

    Old lady bought books for the little ones

    Old lady put in 30 years

    Sweat and toil, time and tears

    Was that really your sad intention?

    Help the state of Louisiana deny her pension


  6. Peter D. Ford III permalink
    August 16, 2011 9:16 pm

    Mr. Cuban makes the same argument I make with my non-teaching friends, and I use also another analogy: computational fluid dynamics. Modeling fluid flow around a body involves a myriad of variables in a dynamic environment, which accounts for its complexity. A classroom is exactly the same: a myriad of variables in a dynamic environment, which an observer only appreciates when they see it as adults vs. when they were students.


  1. The Best Posts & Articles Raising Concerns About Teach For America | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...
  2. Good School Reform Posts Of The Week | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...
  3. Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders | NYS Teaching Jobs
  4. When NBCT Teacher David Cohen Challenged Wendy Kopp | Diane Ravitch's blog

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