Not that she needs my approval, or even reads this blog, most likely, but on T.V. here in New York I saw a recent interview with TFA founder Wendy Kopp which I actually liked. This is newsworthy because I have been disappointed with Wendy, recently, for three different things:
1) I did not like her characterization of ‘reformers’ (like Rhee and other high profile alums) as ‘builders’ and critics (like me and other low profile alums) as ‘haters’ in her commencement speech at Dartmouth, which I wrote about here. I feel like I am a ‘builder’ too. But it is hard to add an extension to your house when your house is on fire. You’ve got to put the fire out first.
2) I did not like the message in her Huffington Post article, ‘In Defense Of Optimism’ which I wrote about here. She switches gears from humble to arrogant midway through.
3) I was most disappointed, however, that she participated in a task force and signed Klein and Rice’s U.S. Education Reform and National Security report, which you can read about here, which alerted the country that the education crisis is actually a national security threat. To me this is not true, and is just a way to try to scare wealthy people who don’t care about poor people to want to support radical experimental education reform since it will be in the best interests of the wealthy too.
Though I first met Wendy twenty-one years ago at my own 1991 institute (back when she only wore pink from head to toe), we’ve only talked about a dozen times over the years. She gave me permission to self-publish and sell to the 1996 corps members a version of my first book. I put her in the acknowledgements when my first book became a real published book. I’ve also emailed her from time to time over the years and she has always gotten back to me right away. She once even wrote in an email something like “thanks for challenging our thinking” after I complained about something or other.
In the early days of TFA, interviews were about how great it was that TFA encouraged a new talent pool to become teachers. To me, that is still the main selling point of TFA, and it is a good one. But in recent media about TFA, there has been too much focus on charter schools run by TFA alums and about alums who have attained positions of power, like chancellor of a large school district or commissioner of education of a state. Since I think that charters get their results at the expense of the non-charter students, I don’t like that focus. And the TFA alumni turned leaders generally promote policies that, in my opinion, harm students and teachers in the long run.
So this is why I was pleased to see the recent interview with Wendy on local New York 1. Whether this was by design, or just how it was edited together, this was like a ‘throwback’ to those old interviews. You can see it or just read the transcript here. Nothing really about charters. No exaggerated claims of super-teachers or miracle schools. Not a defensive Wendy, but a more honest and humble one. And she seemed a lot more comfortable sticking with these points too. She even admits how first year teachers struggle.
The only correction I’d make is her response to the question about why not make the commitment longer. In answer to this she says “Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment. It doubled if we asked for one year. The reason this plays out is that 22-year-olds think that two years is the rest of their life.”
Now, this is not accurate. I’ve been following TFA for 21 years and there was never a time that they asked for a three-year commitment. Maybe they sent out a survey asking ‘if’ they increased it to three years, how many people would have not done it, but they never actually tried to see what would happen.
I waver on whether it would be better to make the commitment longer. It is a good point that 3 years sounds like a long time to a 22 year old and might scare away someone who would otherwise become a teacher who actually taught for 3 or more years. I used to think that 3 years would be optimal, but I can also see a good argument for 2 years as long as 1) the training is adequate (which it currently is not) and 2) they strongly encourage people to teach longer (which is something they just started to do with their ‘teach beyond 2’ campaign). A better thing to say, for Wendy, would be that just making a longer commitment doesn’t mean anything. They can make the ‘commitment’ ten years and people will still leave when they had enough. Traditional training programs have zero year commitments, when you think about it. What if on the first day of institute TFA told everyone “We hope you all become career teachers. That’s how important education is, but start with two years and we’ll talk more when you finish those” just to plant the seed.
I’m hoping that this interview was not just from the way it was edited, but based on a new strategy by TFA to go back to their roots and focus on the talent pool, something that most people would agree with. Maybe TFA is realizing that controversial subjects like charter schools and high profile polarizing alumni ‘leaders’ are too aggressive, and are, by no means, something everyone agrees with. Maybe this is the start of TFA’s distancing itself from the unproven and mixed results of the modern ‘reform’ movement.