Kopp's been capitalizing on one outstanding idea: passion sells. She actually acquired enough business sense at Princeton, her undergrad alma mater, to focus in on the main reason most people are driven to teaching in the first place — that kids can learn, and we want to help them do it.
All the rest, as I see it, is just a business plan.
If you’re looking for what all the hype is about, something substantive perhaps, what makes TFA worth all the buzz it’s created, you won’t find a thing. Kopp said on Charlie Rose this week that the young adults selected for the program have a “deep belief” that kids facing real challenges in low-income communities can “excel academically,” and that this deep belief is “part of the ultimate solution.” She says that good TFA members are “on a mission to move [the] kids forward” and are “completely goal-oriented in [their] instruction.”
Pardon me while I take a moment to reflect on what I’ve been doing in the classroom for 20 years, then marvel at the fatuousness of her remarks.
Even her own credentials, which include a whole bunch of honorary doctorates, show no evidence of real graduate study on any level. When she speaks of the young adults in her programs, she calls them "corps members," and when they're done with TFA, “alums." She doesn't call them “teachers" much, she says she’s out to create “leaders.”
Frankly, I don't think she cares so much what she creates, as long as it comes with a national reputation and a piece of the action.
Rose couldn’t nail her down on anything of substance: not the goals (maybe test scores, but those are questionable on every possible level), not the skills her corps members have acquired, not any specific methodologies that work well, not an enumeration of those concrete results she likes to mention. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
For people who can’t sit through a half hour of her platitudes, AVoiceIn immortalizes her evasion techniques over at The Chancellor’s. The questions she poses over there are more informed than any of the answers Kopp served up to Rose.
The overblown illusion of doing something vital for education is nothing more than an elaborate piece of theater.
It's all set in schools located in low-income neighborhoods. She gets bright college grads to play the parts of teachers while they finish up their Masters. These starlets soon learn that they are really not the answer to the problems the kids have — at least no more or no less so than any other new teachers who got their training elsewhere — and at some point, they move on to their next gig, sometimes the minute their commitment to the program has ended.
TFA’s got a website for a playbill. It gives the history and synopsis of the program, bios of the leading artists and designers, information on how to join the company or become a patron, and a list of benefactors (including Wal-Mart). It's even got some reviews (NY Times, Time Magazine, etc.). Slick.
Take your pick whether TFA is a great comedy or just a big corporate sell, but at least recognize what it most definitely is not: a training program for grad students who are looking to make a career out of classroom teaching.
As Norm says in Ednotes about the Charlie Rose interview:
I'm sure people will find their own favorite moment in her appearance, but mine was when Rose asked her what percentage of Teach for America recruits are still teaching and her answer was 65% - are involved in education, some as lawyers doing some work connected to education.
I was waiting for his follow-up: "I didn't ask you that. What percentage are still teaching kids?"
I'm still waiting.
A really damning account of the TFA experience was posted as a comment on Rose's website by a “TFA Dad ” whose daughter had quit the program after three months. Disgruntled as he is, and as much as I sympathize with him over what his daughter had to confront on a daily basis, what he writes nails what's wrong with putting untrained people in difficult classrooms. He ends with this rabbit punch:
Kopp is living in a dreamworld and my daughter's experience was a nightmare. TFA may have some success stories but there are just as many failure stories that are not mentioned and ignored by the Karen Salernos and Wendy Kopps.He doesn’t say if she’s planning to stay with teaching, but somehow I doubt it.
If the truth be known, I think Kopp’s early wonderment when she understood for the first time that kids have all kinds of smarts and all kinds of talents you'd never know about unless you'd spent time with them is quite genuine. It’s also the kind of insight that leads to good teaching: that it’s up to you to find ways to reach kids who have not had too many chances in life. You can get passionate about this kind of stuff when you see your work taking hold.
What is so gross about Kopp’s enterprise, though, is that she’s been able to turn this admirable insight and all the passion that comes along with it into a marketing device. She sells the idea that she’s onto something special, something that no one else yet comprehends.
It's the passionate need to continue reaching out to young minds that keeps career educators in classrooms for decades.
And that's the weird irony in all this. Kopp couldn't sell that kind of passion if she wanted to, because the last thing superintendents and chancellors are looking for these days is an empowered staff of veteran teachers with all the big salaries that go along with them. Pushing that kind of passion would be a very bad business venture indeed.
Additional thought (June 8th):
I strongly recommend AVoiceIn's excellent post on TFA's theatrics from another angle:
. . . These carefully constructed marketing packages might not be quite as alarming if what they were promoting was not so dangerous. Unfortunately, though, like so many other propaganda campaigns, these individuals are the figure heads for some very harmful agendas . . . [more at Educational Reform, the New Hollywood]