Thursday, September 25, 2014

TFA Founder Challenges Critics with Misleading "Facts"

Wendy Kopp, founder and Chair of the Board of Teach For America (TFA), recently penned a piece in response to the growing tide of critique/criticism her organization faces.  Concluding that this criticism is misplaced and “toxic,” she attempts to silence her critics with the “facts.”
Kopp’s undergraduate thesis (B.A. in public and international affairs from Princeton) was the genesis of her national corps of teachers that turned into TFA.  The preface of that thesis notes that her organization was founded on the assumption that one of the major problems in schools was the “lack of qualified teachers” (Kopp, 1989, p. i).  Ultimately, Kopp laid out a plan for developing a cadre of alternatively certified teachers in an effort to ameliorate the teacher shortage of the late 1980s.  In fact, Kopp asserted that,

[TFA] would bill itself as an emergency response to a shortage of experienced, qualified teachers and would therefore not be telling the nation that its inexperienced members were preferable to, or as qualified as, experienced teachers. Kopp, 1989, p. 50.

This initial “billing” of TFA has radically shifted as TFA now claims that its corps members compete even-handedly with traditionally certified teachers for openings and, as Kopp asserts in her piece, TFA has explicitly transformed itself into an organization that proclaims its inexperienced members are preferable to experienced teachers.
Beyond the classroom, Kopp points out that alumni of the organization “have started and work in education nonprofits and help shape policy in districts and state education departments.”  Yet, Kopp fails to consider the types of policies (pro-charter, pro-alternative certification, pro-voucher, anti-teacher union, anti-teacher tenure) that her alums (like Michelle Rhee and John White) fervently cheerlead.  And, as a recent article concluded, TFA alumni who do become engaged in policymaking “incorporate significantly more messages aligned with TFA.”  Given TFA’s brand of education reform and a favoring of high-stakes testing, alumni who have had little introduction into teaching and pedagogy will likely continue to mimic TFA’s brand of reform (see here and here for examples).
Kopp, much like co-CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard, repeats the usual “we’re open to criticism” mantra.  However, in a forthcoming article (Brewer & Wallis, in press), we show that TFA largely ignores online critique/criticism and, instead, creates a digital echo chamber of allies.  And while Kopp’s recent piece suggests that critique of her organization is largely “toxic” given that critics don’t “consider the facts” about the organization, Kopp then goes on to provide her readers with those “facts.”  Namely, that TFA provides an “intensive program of pre-service and ongoing professional development” for its teachers.  However, she fails to point out that this “intensive” pre-service training is limited to 145 hours of training where 18 of those hours are spent in front of students.  By comparison, given that it requires 1,500 hours in Illinois to become a licensed cosmetologist, 18 hours of practice would hardly qualify as “intensive.” 
Another “fact” presented by Kopp – in a continued effort to promote its corps members as explicitly better than traditionally certified teachers – is a recent study conducted by the Mathematica Policy Institute.  That study concluded that TFA corps members who taught high school math in a public school provided their students with an additional 2.6 months of learning.  However, there are numerous issues with the Mathematica study that Kopp cites.  The sample of corps members in the Mathematica study are not representative of TFA as the majority of them were White, taught high school, and taught mathematics.  What is more, “even if the Mathematica findings are taken at face value, investments in smaller class sizes may close the gap in student achievement far more cost-effectively than TFA.  Not to mention, measuring learning by the metric of days/months of learning requires the acceptance of numerous assumptions about learning and, from a mathematical perspective, the reported 2.6 additional months of learning has been challenged here, here, here, and here.
Another of Kopp’s “facts” suggests that of the 47,000 alumni, 86% remain in education or in jobs improving lives.  This is a troublesome statistic considering: (a) the lumping together of multiple categories appears to be an attempt to inflate the actual numbers; and, (b) the data for this is gathered through TFA’s well-guarded annual alumni survey (most recently released on September 22, 2014).  In that email, co-CEO Matt Kramer notes that 23,000 alumni participated in last year’s survey.  As is such, Kopp’s numbers simply don’t add up.  At the very least, claiming that any percentages of its 47,000 alumni are engaged in any activity when the response rate is less than half of its alumni is exceedingly problematic.  That is, it is misleading for Kopp to write that 86% of her 47,000 alumni are doing anything when the organization only knows what 23,000 of them are doing.  Moreover, other TFA statistics on their alumni impact also exceed what is possible to know when only 23,000 participated in the survey – not to mention, creates an inconsistent message about the organization’s history and impact.  Accordingly, this site claims that there are 32,000 people involved in the TFA alumni network while this one claims that alumni numbers are 37,000 strong. It is important to note that TFA has been called out on reporting exaggerated  numbers in the past.

In sum, Kopp’s attempt to respond to the growing tide of criticism that her organization faces has likely done little to quell dissent and has equally provided her critics with another example of TFA-spin as Kopp exaggerates what the organization knows about its alumni in an attempt to distance the organization from the perception that its teachers abandon education after their two year commitment expires.

by T. Jameson Brewer (@tjamesonbrewer)

Brewer, T. J., & Wallis, M. (in press). #TFA: The Intersection of Social Media and Education Reform. Critical Education.

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