July 4, 2008

Marketing passion, but not too much

There’s a lot of chatter about this Wendy Kopp woman, founder and president of Teach for America. That’s the ed program crawling its way into the hearts and minds of eduticians across the country who want to make it seem as if they’re interested in correcting society’s ills.

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]


  1. I actually drafted a post entitled, "Educational Reform, the New Hollywood" because of the smoke and mirrors aspect of the whole thing.
    Not only are they selling passion but an image- attractive, Ivy Leaguers
    It's sickening.

  2. TFA teachers would never have the passion for teaching because most these Ivy Leaguers are going into TFA for the money. The american economy is bad. There are no entry jobs for them in NY or any other states and what is left is TFA of the Teaching Fellows. A friend of mine just graduated from Boston University and is going for training in this Summer to start teaching in September. For her TFA is the only option because she could not find a job anywhere but at TFA. Money passion = TFA.

  3. It's all just a business that makes Wendy Kopp rich while the two year YFA wonders burn out because of poor classroom management and are overwelmed with the family problems their students bring with them.

  4. I has extensive contact with a TFA dad from the west coast - different than the one who commented on the Charlie Rose site. His daughter was in an elementary school in Brooklyn and from the day she set foot in the building in Bed Stuy the administration had it in for her. All kinds of games went on and finally a deal was worked out for her to resign by the end of January of that first year. She would have been out earlier if her dad had not gotten a lawyer involved.

    Appeals to TFA for some intervention went unheeded. The attitude is "we're not endangering a relationship with school administrators and support the teacher. Suck it up."

  5. Have any of you actually worked directly with TFA teachers?

    I happen to teach with a number of them in my math department and have found them to be incredibly humble and devoted to improving their teaching. They are constantly asking other teachers (including the veterans) for advice on lessons and management. They have never presumed (in my presence) to know what is best because they had six months of training, and have never flaunted how lucky the students are to have them as their teachers.

    My own mentor teacher was TFA and has been teaching now for 9 years, 3 in middle school and now 6 in high school. He not only has had incredible success with the toughest, lowest level students, but has taught a successful Calculus BC course for five years.

    I teach at a large Bronx HS with a strong administration. We do hand pick the teachers in our department. I do not think it is a fluke that we have struck gold with every single one.

  6. Yes, of course, we've worked with TFA's, but you've missed the point of this article, which is about Kopp and what she's going around trying to sell.

    No one said anything about TFAs flaunting themselves, or presuming to know what's best, or their degree of humility. Your school may have struck gold with every single TFA on staff, but will they stay teaching?

    Your mentor may actually be a case in point: If he's already mentoring at 9 years, I don't think his career goal is to be in a classroom teaching kids full time. He may be doing it part of his day, but that's not the same as devoting your life to teaching kids.

  7. I would like to know the name of the H.S. that has struck gold with the TFA.

  8. I, too, would like to know the large Bronx High School who struck gold, since there are very few large high schools left in the Bronx. The large high school in the Bronx where I work refused to hire any more TFA teachers-not because they weren't sweet people, but because the short commitment proved to be harmful to children.

  9. The teacher I mentioned that mentored me hasn't decreased his time in the classroom (or after school tutoring) at all during his time helping other teachers. His commitment is to the students, above all else.

    My point is that the TFA teachers I work with are staying beyond their commitment. The extent to which they push themselves to best educate their students (and succeed by many metrics, including in class exams or regents exams) is impressive. They tutor students after school every day, without even a mention or request for per session (though it is provided by the department AP.) The level of their commitment should not be minimized by the fact they may not be in the profession for twenty years. I wouldn't expect that to matter much to the students in these teachers' classrooms.

    I don't think TFA is THE solution to the education crisis in our country, but I also don't think that's what Wendy is claiming or has claimed. I have yet to speak to a TFA teacher that claims that the program is the easy way into the classroom, and that is why he or she became part of it. As is the TFA story told by members, even if they do not stay in the profession, having people in other industries with education experience is important. Don't we complain now about people telling us what to do with NO education background? Isn't some better than none?

    The passion that I've seen in the classrooms of the TFA teachers in my department is genuine and directed towards helping their children learn and improve. I would argue these teachers have the passion to "continue reaching out to young minds" for as long as they can. What might push them out, however, is the isolation felt in wondering why he or she is the only teacher on the fourth floor working with kids until 5 PM.

    I teach at Lehman HS.

  10. You keep trying to tell us about the TFA trainees you know and their passion, but again, I'm not talking about the quality of their work or how devoted they are.

    This whole blog is about Kopp and her Business Plan to sell a product which lots of us going into teaching have whether we enter through TFA's portals or from elsewhere.

    Nor has anyone said anything about TFA being the "easy way into the classroom." Incredibly short before you're thrown in the deep end, yes: the trainees suffer, and the kids suffer. Horribly wrong. But easy, no.

    I don't understand what you're trying to say in the last 2 sentences of the penultimate paragraph.

    One more thing: just because you and your colleagues are staying til 5 at this point in your new careers doesn't mean that is the right thing to do for the profession — though I do understand that people on probation do a lot of extra work (writing new lesson plans, making a positive impression on supervisors, etc.) because they have to. But, one shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking you're doing more for kids than people who don't stay til 5.

    You can see that from a unionist point of view, stocking schools with probationer trainees and re-stocking the ranks with more probationers when the first wave leaves is great from the DoE's point of view: They get a permanently cheap and zealous staff. Fabulous from a business point of view.

    (I must say I am surprised that your mentor is teaching full time, tutoring after school, and training you. Paid per session maybe, or perhaps a Circ. 6-R duty. I'm curious how that works at your school. Lehman is it?)

  11. If you think TFA is bad, Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education said in a letter the editor in the Washington Post on March 31, 2007. The headline in the article says "No Child Left Behind Act Works in Arizona." What Margaret Spelling did not tell America is that Arizona lowers the cut scores to make it appear that the state is meeting its "proficiency." Do not believe it folks. Other states are lowering cut scores as well. I did a little math with a little bit of research. Arizona lowered cut scores by 16% in between 2003-2005. If that trend continues, students will only need to score one out of four questions. That's right by 2014, the cut scores will have been lowered to four percent.

    Ya think Kopp and Spelling are blood relatives? What a joke.

  12. There are two parts to TFA's mission to ensure all children have access to an excellent education: 1) Get bright and committed teachers into underserved urban and rural classrooms (where there is a tremendous need that would largely go unfilled without TFA); 2) Create a corps of former teachers who, as a result of their two (or more) years in some of the most challenging classrooms of the US educational system, have a clear idea of the state of education in the US and are thereafter lifelong advocates for improving opportunities for children.

    It's true that a large proportion of TFA teachers don't stay in education forever (in Los Angeles, where I served, 65% of corps members stay on for a third year of teaching). And it's also true that teaching is an art form that even the most dedicated and intelligent and driven person cannot hope to truly master in two or five or even ten years. I saw tremendously talented TFA teachers and I saw very poor TFA teachers (just like I saw tremendously talented non-TFA teachers and very poor non-TFA teachers). I am not in a position to make generalized comments on overall TFA corps member quality.

    However, those who criticize TFA corps members for not staying in the classroom beyond their two year commitment are missing the second part of TFA's mission. In order to bring about the type of systemic change needed to truly improve educational outcomes for poor students, classroom teachers need allies in the business, health, political, and legal arenas. While I was a teacher, I was very frustrated that so many of the problems I was faced with in the classroom were beyond my locus of control as a classroom teacher. We need doctors, lawyers, school board members, administrators, politicians, and urban planners who deeply and viscerally understand the US education system – THESE are the people who are powerfully placed to actually bring about change. TFA has achieved macro-level educational reform precisely BECAUSE its corps members did not stay in the classroom. We need people in local, state, and national government who realize that more testing is not the answer to our educational problems. We need businesspeople (with deep pockets) who take an interest in what is happening in urban and rural schools. We need doctors and nurses who are committed to a more equitable distribution of health resources in the US.

    For example, I am a former TFA corps member who left the classroom after the two year commitment. I went on to get a Master's in Public Health and now coordinate a nutrition program for young people in urban Washington, DC. Inadequate nutrition directly impacted student performance and behavior in my classroom and I see my continuing contribution to achieving educational equity as giving (more talented/experienced) teachers healthier and happier students to work with.

    Asking that TFA corps members remain classroom teachers implies that all problems and solutions are found within the public school system. Anyone who has actually taught can recognize that there is a complicated web of social, economic, and cultural factors far beyond a classroom's four walls that contribute to educational success. Whether all TFA corps members are successful in the classroom misses the point that TFA alums who have left the classroom are still dramatically remaking the educational landscape in the US for the better.

  13. People who do not teach an an inner city school, or who do not stay that long often do not understand the dynamics and the culture.
    In an inner city school, many of the students come from unstable and inconsistent backgrounds. Very often, the only stability they find is in in their school.
    It is amazing to see the relationships which develop over the four high school years between student and teacher.
    These relationships often last well beyond high school.
    We become a family.
    When our school culture first changed (largely fostered by Bloomklein) from one of a group of experienced career teachers to an influx of temporary ones, our students took it very hard.
    They actually began rebelling and rioting, yelling "We don't give a f-k" through the hallways.
    Their last stable environment had collapsed.
    Don't think for a second that children are not affected by teachers who quickly breeze in and out of their lives. In fact, not understanding this reveals a coldness and lack of understanding that is a bit frightening.
    Children are not test scores to be raised for a couple of years and schools are not testing factories.
    They are living, breathing places with a culture all of their own.