Wendy Kopp, TFA, and life in a bubble.

Yesterday the Huffington Post ran an op/ed piece by Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA. The title was In Defense of Optimism.  I read it, tweeted it, and moved on, but it has been rattling in my head for 24 hours now, so here are some thoughts in response.

To start, I think the original premise of TFA was not a bad one, and I have no doubt that Ms. Kopp is absolutely genuine in her desire to improve education for the under-served children in America (she  mentions inner-city urban and rural in her piece). That is an important and laudable goal, and Ms. Kopp has chosen to devote a large part of her adult life to that goal, which is nothing to sneeze at. Plenty of people say a lot more and do a whole lot less.

As I understand it, the original premise of TFA was that, in a school which lacked teachers (literally, did not have or was not able to hire qualified teachers), a bright, enthusiastic, young person with a college degree and some small amount of preparation would be better than nothing. And I can’t disagree with that. It would be better than nothing.

However, there were two things in the essay which, having reflected, really stand out to me. One is very specific, and one underlies the entirety of Ms. Kopp’s opinion.

The first is her assertion that

A significant body of rigorous research shows that they [TFA teachers] are more effective than other beginning teachers and, on average, equally or more effective than veteran teachers.

This statement is given as accepted fact, and the addition of the word ‘rigorous’ gives the impression of academic certification, without the need for all those pesky citations. At the very least, this statement has been seriously disputed by professionals whose job it is to understand both teacher effectiveness and the methodology by which one might determine teacher effectiveness. Frankly, given my reading of current research and the critical discussions around that research, I would claim the exact opposite, that there is a significant body of rigorous research that shows that TFA teachers are in fact significantly less effective that either new teachers produced by more traditional teacher preparation programs, or than veteran teachers.

To avoid falling into the same trap Ms. Kopp does, here are some links to articles addressing these issues (I was happy to see that some of these were posted in the comments at HuffPo pretty quickly).

National Education Policy Center: Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence

Philip Kovacs at EdWeek: Teach for America Research Fails the Test (this is a great overview of the issue)

There are some others, but these are the two most frequently cited to counter claims of TFA effectiveness. Even if one finds those articles unconvincing, the fact that they exist does indicate that it is possible to to disagree about the effectiveness of TFA teachers. In fact, the NEPC report is especially weighted, as the organizations entire purpose is to delve into published research and offer critical response to findings.

As several commenters at HuffPo pointed out, the assertion that TFA teachers are better than either new teachers or veteran teachers doesn’t really pass muster at ground level either. Why aren’t parents in the ‘leafy suburban’ school districts crying out for those awesome TFA teachers? Knowing that this is anecdotal evidence, and so considering it as such, I can’t help but point out that new teachers in my school, with all the traditionally mandated training, student teaching, and for the most part Master’s Degrees and considerable other relevant experience, take a pounding in their first few years. One of the main reasons is precisely that they are new, and this job is really hard, and getting a degree and licensure is just the beginning of learning how to do it. And kids and parents know it.

So to claim as a given that TFA teachers are ‘better’ than other new teachers or veteran teachers is specious at best. Of course on a case by case basis some TFA teachers may be more effective than some other teachers (laying aside for a the moment the incredible difficulty of determining ‘effectiveness’ at all). That is true of any group of people working at any task. And I do not doubt that, as Ms. Kopp, states, many TFA alums go on to have great careers as teachers- I know some of them, and they are great. But even they will say they wish they had had more preparation, and many return to school to ‘catch up’ to more traditionally prepared teachers.

So, are TFA teachers better than nothing? You bet. But are they better than trained professionals? Come on, you don’t even need to read research to be pretty sure that’s just not true.

The second thing that really bugged me about Ms. Kopp’s editorial was what wasn’t there. There was no consideration of the larger context in which TFA operates. We don’t live in a bubble. There are large, complex forces at play in the issues of education today. Not considering them is a major failure, especially in the case of TFA.

Like so many good ideas in education (charter schools in particular), what was once a good idea (as I said, a TFA teacher is most definitely better than NOTHING), has been co-opted for other purposes.

We are witnessing an attempted takeover of one of the last public institutions left in this country, one that is fundamental to the democratic ideal upon which this country was founded. While I believe that there is plenty of good intention in this attempt, the fact that it has been coupled with huge amounts of public money has distorted those good intentions, or perhaps done away with them all together.

TFA teachers usually exist outside the normal contract structure for the the district. So one thing TFA teachers most definitely are is cheaper. Further, the cost to the district includes money paid to TFS, not just the cost of the teacher. While I am pretty expensive by comparison, mid-career teacher with considerable advanced education, no one else is making a profit from my position. No part of my cost to the district is paying for office buildings, executives (CEO’s- Ms. Kopp), marketing or anything else.

No so of a TFA teacher. And while some TFA teachers go on to have careers in education, most don’t. And the retention rate for traditionally prepared teachers is much higher than TFA- which should be obvious. Traditionally prepared teachers at least intend to have a career in teaching, even if they change their minds, while most TFA teachers do not. So the cost of a TFA teacher stays low and relatively stable, compared to a more traditionally prepared teacher. And a TFA teacher is way cheaper than me.

So TFA has become another wedge in an attempt to change the teaching profession as a whole. Which if you think the whole thing is broken, may not be a bad plan. But the whole thing isn’t broken. Despite the drumbeat of media and special interest right now, the main problem isn’t that “America’s schools are failing,” it is that the schools in America that serve the least advantaged communities continue to struggle as they have for a long time (despite the TFA), mainly because of the crushing effects of poverty on those communities. However, if we examine the majority of american schools, minus the ones that contend with poverty, American schools stack up quite well against any other system in the world. And if you consider schools like the one I teach in, on the whole, schools like that beat the crap out of every other education system in the world, by a lot, using any measure you would care to use (for an overview with citations, see this post at Schools Matter, by Stephen Krashen).

The drumbeat of failure is being used as a battering ram to destroy opposition to the privatization of schools. TFA teachers are cheaper, younger, and precisely because they are less trained, less likely to protest working conditions that are horrendous and teaching methodology which is oppressive. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of them neither intend to, nor actually do, continue in education, and so do not participate in a body of collective knowledge about the profession and do not have the commitment to the profession or institution as a whole. Further, in an environment where school districts are positively anemic for funding, and ‘academic success’ has been redefined as passing government mandated (but privately produced and sold) testing, young cheap teachers who don’t really understand what ‘education’ might mean or know how to have a conversation about the nature of knowledge are more willing to engage in ‘drill and kill’ test prep tactics that feed the testing machine but don’t really educate children in any meaningful way.

The reality of underprivileged schools is not providing TFA teachers where there are no teachers, but using TFA teachers to replace teachers. Teachers who are expensive and likely to protest. The emphasis on charter schools, which often do not have to engage in collective bargaining, and mass firings of ‘failing school’ veteran teachers are other prongs on the trident of privatization.

To fail to see her organization in light of these things is a major failing on Ms. Kopp’s part. As long as she chooses to present TFA in a ‘bubble’ her yearning, “for a more collaborative effort and a more open public discussion about how to ensure that the children growing up facing the immense challenges of poverty gain the opportunities they deserve” will do little to further her cause, and much to further the cause of deconstructing the last truly public structure in the this country.

I haven’t even considered here how Kopp dismisses the possibility of learning from a country like Finland. That will have to wait for another post. So if Ms. Kopp is ‘defending optimism,’ that’s a defense that’s pretty easy to do from inside a bubble. Out here in the world, I’m not feeling so optimistic.

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12 Responses to Wendy Kopp, TFA, and life in a bubble.

  1. @KellyDillon1 says:

    You just expressed all of the arguments that have been marinating in my brain since my departure from TFA four years ago. I applied to the program because I wanted to teach and make a difference but did not have an education degree. The optimism and energy surrounding TFA was infectious. I was thrilled to become a part of it.

    That sense of thrill quickly turned to dread when I got to Institute, the five-week “training” course in Houston. I expected to learn the basics of teaching. What I actually learned was that TFA expected big things from me once I completed my two-year commitment. Politics trumped pedagogy. We only taught one summer school class per day for four weeks, and that class was little more than test prep. Our goal was to examine students’ results from the state standardized test, identify which standards they needed to work on, and then create individual lessons to address those standards. That’s not how learning works. Stressed out, worn down, and daunted by the idea of doing this for two years, I decided to leave TFA before accepting a position in a school. I went to grad school, got certified, did my student teaching, and got a job in a stable suburban district.

    I don’t regret that decision at all, but it took me a while to get there. Before I left the program, my supervisor told me that if I quit TFA, I would quit every other job I ever started and would never make a difference in students’ lives. In my head I knew his “prophesy” was ridiculous, but in my heart I believed him. I felt incredibly guilty for giving up on students who needed a teacher. I wondered if I would ever have the courage to return to the urban classroom.

    After teaching for a little while and really looking at what it means to teach and learn, I know now that I did my abandoned students a favor. They deserved a teacher with training, experience, and confidence. I had none of those at 22. Four years later, I do. Ready to put my training and experience to the test, I am applying for jobs in Washington, DC, for next school year.

    I do not criticize anyone for wanting to join TFA. The organization attracts a lot of smart, well-intentioned people to the profession. My criticism is that it exploits these traits in the service of a false ideology that teachers alone will overcome institutionalized poverty to close the achievement gap. Furthermore, it suggests that good teachers are born from privilege and the Ivy League, not made through training and experience. TFA is bad for the teaching profession and should be questioned at every turn.

    • MisterS says:

      Thanks for your comment Kelly.I have heard your story and other similar stories many times recently. I appreciate your willingness to share, and salute your commitment to underserved students now that you feel ready. -Mr. S

    • Thank you for sharing with such eloquence. Your story is powerful and needs to be heard. Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. Philip Kovacs says:

    This is Brilliant.

    I appreciate the cite, and I will be using this particular talking point: “Why aren’t parents in the ‘leafy suburban’ school districts crying out for those awesome TFA teachers?”

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Jason O'Brien says:


    I have the utmost respect for you, my friend. What needs to happen is that other former TFA corps members need to share stories such as yours. TFA’s goals are not ending educational inequality, rather they’re to place as many former TFA corps members in “leadership” positions around the U.S. If TFA really cared about kids, they would make a sustained effort for systematic change IN SCHOOLS and not encourage their corps members to leave the classroom and try to sway policy in favor of TFA. The “cult” mentality is pervasive and needs to be spotlighted…Telling a 22 year old “if you quit this, you’ll quit every job you ever take” is a perfect microcosm of the “do what we say or else” mentality that pervades TFA. Kelly, please encourage any friends or colleagues who have similar stories to share them as publicly as possible.

  4. Pingback: Some more thoughts on TFA from Gary Rubinsteins Blog | The Paper Graders

  5. Pingback: Considering the Larger Context in Which TFA Operates | Reconsidering TFA

  6. Elaine says:

    Mr. S, thank you for this excellent statement. You covered most of the things that are wrong about TFA: the only thing you left out is that TFA recruits people for the purpose of using their positions in poor urban and rural schools as a resume-booster, a springboard to a high-paying career outside of teaching (including corporate “education management”).

    I invite you to join 43,000 teachers across the country at the Badass Teachers Association to learn more about why TFA is so wrong for our country. https://www.facebook.com/groups/BadAssTeachers/

  7. Lauren says:

    I re-posted elsewhere with this comment, and I thought I’d just put it here, too, so you actually get to see it! Thanks for writing… “When TFA was recruiting on in the late 90s, part of the public mantra was that the organization’s goal was to put itself out of business, as soon as possible… that THAT would be a measure of its success. Woe to those of us who were naive… The two points in this response – about research and context – and how TFA responds to both, help articulate what is so evident to those who have been in the org’s orbit–namely that its drive is to survive and thrive above all else. That is not service; that’s SELF-service, and at a high price for public education, for communities, for children, and even for (some) well-meaning young people who join not with hopes of padding resumes to the detriment of the public good, but with deep desire to be a part of something just… We all confuse these well-meaning young people when we aren’t SUPER clear with them about what it is they’re considering joining, and what other options exist for them that won’t dishonor the honorable goal of joining the teaching profession.”

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