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NCTQ Letter Grades and the Reformer Agenda– Part VII

January 31, 2013

Let’s just cut to the chase and examine some of the icons of corporate reform sitting on this nonpartisan (remember, think “neutral”) NCTQ advisory board.

I give you– in a blog entry all to herself, and including her own NCTQ promotional paragraph– Wendy Kopp.

Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp founded and leads Teach For America, which aims to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity between low- and high-income areas by enlisting some of the nation’s most promising future leaders in its national teacher corps. Since its inception in 1989, Teach For America has fielded more than 12,000 outstanding recent college graduates, of all academic majors and career interests, as teachers in low-income rural and urban communities. Corps members seek to help level the playing field for the students they teach, and Teach For America alumni are themselves so deeply influenced by their experience that many assume ongoing leadership roles in pursuit of educational excellence and equity.

Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA, wants to “eliminate” something, but it isn’t inequity.  It’s traditional teachers.

There is absolutely nothing connecting Wendy Kopp to traditional teacher training programs. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

How is it that this woman is on this board?

Money, power, and influence, my friends.  But first, a bit of Kopp history.

Kopp earned a B.A. from Princeton and was a member of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Near the end of her degree, she applied for a number of jobs but did not receive any offers. Desperate for a job, Kopp considered teaching and investigated the teacher licensure program at Princeton; however, she had waited beyond the deadline.  Moreover, she could not wait for a possible, last-minute teaching vacancy.  Given its timing in her life, it seems that this experience occurred concurrently to her undergraduate thesis ideas about a Peace-Corps-like teaching force.

I mention this experience in Kopp’s life in order to highlight some key points that I think persist in the TFAer attitude to this day.  First, if Kopp had had an interest in a teaching career, she could have majored in education and earned licensure.  As it was, Kopp had not demonstrated a commitment to the field of education by investing her time in a major in education. On the contrary, she was simply desperate for a job; so, she tried to turn to teaching.

Second, Kopp’s desperation in turning to teaching betrays the attitude, “If I can’t find a job elsewhere, I’ll just teach,” as though education is a default for the “entitled jobless” and not a field in its own right.

Back to that undergraduate thesis:

Kopp first expressed the idea for TFA in her 1989 undergraduate thesis at Princeton. Kopp envisioned TFA as a Peace-Corps-type of teaching force composed of recent, top college graduates who would commit to provisionally enter the teaching field and agree to serve for two years in order to offset teacher shortages.  I was a student at LSU at the time that TFA first came onto the scene; in 1991, I remember a friend telling me he was joining this group to commit to teaching in a city with a teacher shortage by joining this new group, Teach for America; that he was to be given some sort of provisional certification even though he was not an education major.  It sounded like a good deal to me, and I was happy for my friend.  Who wouldn’t admire an organization who supports college graduates in their willingness to serve needy communities as emergency teachers?

In order to create such a noble organization, Kopp needed financial backing.  So, she contacted prospective funders:

I graduated from Princeton this past June and have been working to put my senior thesis into action ever since. I proposed the creation of an organization that would use the Peace Corps model — active recruitment on a national scale, a selective application process, lots of publicity, a short initial time commitment, and a centralized application, training and placement mechanism — to attract top recent graduates into teaching in the United States. With the help of a number of business and education leaders, I have created the organization as a privately funded nonprofit called TEACH AMERICA Inc. I am writing to request your help.

Using this strategy, Kopp garnered 2.5 million dollars in order to manage the initial, 500-member cohort of TFA recruits in 1990.

The honeymoon was on.  As one writer puts it: “By making the case that the organization would prove the ‘feasibility’ of ‘educational equality,’ Kopp and her staff tapped into powerful wells of sentiment. … The TFA message was designed to appeal to potential participants, without whom there could be no program. But Wendy Kopp also carefully crafted the organization’s image with major donors and grant makers in mind.”

Honeymoons end as reality intrudes.

Kopp is not a delegator; she is a top-down, authoritarian leader:

She began to hear criticism of her solo style of controlling the organization. At one of the meetings during the 1991 summer training institute, staff members threatened to quit en masse unless Kopp agreed that decisions would be made by vote of the entire staff. Not sure what to do, Kopp adjourned the meeting without taking action. The next morning, she circulated a memo indicating that decisions would not be made by a vote of the staff. “No one left,” Kopp recalled, “but it was hardly a victory.”

As the years passed, TFA continued to struggle.  By 1995, Kopp faced mounting debt to the tune of 1.2 million dollars, and this despite TFA’s receiving its first federal grant of 2 million dollars in 1994. Initial funders were backing out. Internally, TFA suffered from “undeveloped management systems” and shortages in teacher recruitment.  Kopp lacked the experience necessary for structuring and maintaining an organization the size of TFA, and the cracks were becoming caverns.

Adding to Kopp’s troubles was Linda Darling-Hammond’s 1994 critique of TFA, printed in the Phi Delta Kappan and excerpted here:

When TFA first began, the brash idealism of its founders sold funders on what is actually a very old approach to recruiting teachers during times of shortage. Though similar initiatives failed to prepare and retain teachers in previous decades, the recent political climate persuaded many funders to take a gamble on TFA, in the hope that it would prove different. However, the evidence now shows that TFA has fared no better than past emergency routes to teaching and much worse than many of today’s alternatives. Extremely costly, plagued by questionable fiscal practices, exhibiting continuing problems with training and management, and unable to prepare most of its recruits to succeed in the classroom, TFA demonstrates once again why quick fixes don’t change systems.

A former TFA board member states that it may never be possible to subject the program to a rigorous analysis because Kopp will not allow scrutiny and pushes out those who raise questions. He notes that, during his association with the organization, staff turnover was extremely high, the “financial numbers never added up” — the books were not audited despite the board’s queries and continue to be unaudited — and “the retention numbers [for recruits] were totally unreliable.”

Worse than TFA’s organizational shortcomings, however, is the trail of failure with their young students that so many TFA recruits have left behind them. While TFA has some success stories, which it touts widely, these are far outnumbered by the problems. Such failures are especially pronounced among recruits who are placed in elementary and middle schools but have had no training in child development, learning theory, or such essential skills as how to teach reading. [Former TFAer] Schorr’s concern about the effects of TFA recruits on the students they serve is a credit to his teaching sensibilities. He is one of the few who went on to earn a teaching certificate, and he was still in the classroom after three years. This places him in the minority of those who entered TFA with him: of the 489 original corps members who entered classrooms in the fall of 1990, only 206 (42%) were still teaching after two years — an attrition rate nearly twice that of other new teachers. (Emphasis added.)

Darling-Hammond’s well-documented article is worth the read. Though Kopp did not believe this single article could have a detrimental impact on TFA, it apparently did, as funders and the media began to contact Kopp regarding article assertions. In additon, educational experts and financial backers wanted proof regarding TFA claims of higher student achievement resulting from TFA presence in the classroom.

Despite the financial and organizational issues and bad press, Kopp managed to scrape by and carry TFA with her into the new millenium.

Then came the  “mission shift”:

Acknowledging retention issues, the organization began to promote itself as being equally committed to leadership development as it was to recruiting top college students into teaching. “The program was never intended to solve the teacher shortage problem or even to fix public education simply by preparing bright college students to teach for two years,” argued TFA advocate Julie Mikuta in 2008. “Instead,” she contended, “TFA intends to transform public education by exposing these talented people to the challenges of public education….” TFA’s impact will only be seen in the future, once “alumni take on more visible and influential roles.”

Why did this shift take place? From its earliest stages, TFA has framed itself for funders, taking care to promote the legitimacy of its model even if volunteers did not stay in the teaching profession.

By 2001, the TFA mission began to clearly publicize its now-twofold mission: Yes, to continue to place “top talent” in the classroom in two-year, Peace-corps style.  However, in addition, TFA would enable those “teacher leaders” to “force systemic change to ensure educational equity.”

What TFA now advocated was the systemic usurping of leadership roles in both education administration and educational policy. This opportunity to seize and command power over the state of education in the United States was not lost on corporate money.  Wendy Kopp had declared that she had a force of young, predominanty-Ivy-League idealists for sale, and Big Money arrived on the scene to make the purchase. No more insolvency issues for Wendy Kopp and TFA.

This reframing of the TFA mission attracted names now synonymous with corporate education reform funding. In the early 2000s, TFA listed as its major donors the four $10-million gifts from the Broad Foundation, the Dell Foundation, Don and Doris Fisher (founders of the Gap), and the Rainwater Charitable Funds.

Furthermore, in 2010-2011, the following were among the TFA corporate donors ($100,000 – $999,999 category):

Anheuser-Busch, ATT, Bank of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Boeing, Cargill, Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, Emerson, Entergy, ExxonMobil, Fedex, Fidelity Investments, GE, Marathon Oil, Monsanto, Peabody, Prudential, State Farm, Symantec, Travelers, Wells Fargo.

All of the above-listed mega-donors are American Legislative Exchange Council ALEC companies.  ALEC is a corporate bill mill whereby corporations write and promote legislation to their liking and benefit.  Having read hundreds of pages of ALEC education legislation model bills mailed to ALEC legislators, I can say with certainty that the current educational reform push, including letter grades for schools, “parent trigger” laws promoting charter schools, “parent choice” (voucher) legislation, and “data driven” teacher evaluation and resulting “ineffective” quotas are all ALEC creations.  And I have read the advertisements for ALEC task force postions on the TFA website.

Other 2010-11 donors include foundations such as Walton, Gates, Dell, Carnegie, Casey, Kauffman, and Rodell. (We’re talking anywhere from 10 to 50+ million. In fact, the Waltons just awarded TFA another cool 11.5 million.)

But let us not forget Eli and Edythe Broad. They are listed as 2010-11 $25k-49.9k donors. As this TFA promo all-too-clearly notes,

“Ultimately, we’re working to develop a leadership force that will work to bring about the systemic changes that are necessary to really fulfill our vision,” Ms. Kopp says.  That message … appeals to donors interested in overhauling the nation’s schools. Mr. Broad, who has committed more than $400-million to improving public education, sees Teach for America alumni as a source of talent for his other projects….

What “other projects” might those be?

Well, to give some idea, consider this triage:

…In 2010, Arne Duncan, through the Department of Education, provided Ms. Kopp with a $50M grant to help her teach the most impoverished children in our country. To explain this a bit, Wendy Kopp is on the Broad Foundation board. Arne Duncan who has close ties with Eli Broad from his days in Chicago as CEO of the Chicago school district, keeps the “Broad Prize” in the offices of the Department of Education, are you starting to see how this all works?

There is apparently a lot to “Broad involvement,” and TFA is inextricably connected.  Take our Lousiana Department of Education as an example.  Superintendent John White is a former TFAer with a “credential” from the Broad Superintendents Academy.  He hires other TFAers, and sometimes, the media shines the reality light a bit too brightly on them, like former TFAer Molly Horstman, who made the media for her being a “director” of teacher evaluation with only the Peace-corps-like two years of teaching experience and an expired teaching certificate. (It’s not like she needed it anymore, huh?)  Well, in order to solve the credential problem, John White brings in Hannah Dietsch, a former TFAer with three years of teaching but also– get this– a masters degree in education from Harvard. That sounds very fancy and above question– except that the Harvard School of Education is– you guessed it– a Broad “current investment.”  Therefore, LDOE is fast becoming Broad DOE.

As former TFAer Gary Rubenstein notes: “Twenty years ago TFA was, to steal an expression from the late great Douglas Adams — ‘mostly harmless.’  Then about ten years ago they became ‘potentially harmful.’  Now, in my opinion, they have become ‘mostly harmful.’”

Rubinstein continues:

Leaders [like Michelle Rhee, John White, and Kevin Huffman] are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as “failing,” shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools.

Rather than be honest about both their successes and their failures, they deny any failures, and charge forward with an agenda that has not worked and will never work. Their ‘proof’ consists of a few high-performing charters. These charters are unwilling to release the data that proves that they succeed by booting the ‘worst’ kids — the ones that bring down their test scores. See this recent peer reviewed research paper from Berkely about KIPPs attrition.

TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, “lacking wisdom.”

This is what Broad, and Walton, and Dell, and Gates, and others like them, including those under the ALEC veil, are purchasing and calling “educational reform.”

Wendy Kopp cannot possibly contribute productively to a review of traditional teacher training programs.  She has fashioned and financed an educational ideology that undeniably benefits from the death of all things educationally “traditional.”

 

__________________________________________________________

Previous posts in this series:

Part I: NCTQ 2012 Letter Grades and Louisiana; reformer use of the op/ed

Part II:  NCTQ Alternative Certification publication

Part III:  NCTQ Adivisory Board members Steven Adamowski, Michael Barber, Roy Barnes, and McKinley Broome

Part IV:  NCTQ Advisory Board members Cynthia Brown, David Chard, Andrew Chen, and Celine Coggins

Part V:  NCTQ Advisory Board members Pattie Davis, Michael Feinberg, Michael Goldstein, and Erik Hanushek

Part VI:  NCTQ Advisory Board members Joseph Hawkins,  Frederick Hess, Paul Hill, and E. D. Hirsch

6 Comments
  1. To be honest, even Peace Corps is a huge waste of money and effort. What on earth does a 21-year old, privileged, American college graduate have to offer the population of a village somewhere in the Third World? How to hook up online? How to play Angry Birds? How to write properly-annotated term papers? Where to find a great latte or cappucino? How is that going to help stop malaria, malnutrition, polluted water supplies, corruption, political violence? Precisely. it doesn’t.

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