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Posted at 09:30 AM ET, 01/05/2012

Has the NEA warmed up to Teach for America?

This post has been updated with a statement issued today by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and text of letter to him from Nancy Carlsson-Paige.

There is a growing backlash against National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel’s recent collaborations with Teach for America leader Wendy Kopp on the issue of teacher preparation.

Some NEA members have written on blogs that they are furious at Van Roekel, and early childhood expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige just declined an opportunity for her and her son, actor and activist Matt Damon, to be nominated for the Friend of Education Award from the NEA.

Damon spoke last year at the Save Our Schools rally in Washington held to protest the Obama administration education policies; Carlsson-Paige is a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University in Boston. They agreed a few months ago to be nominated for the award from the NEA, the country’s largest labor union and professional organization.

But Carlsson-Paige just sent a letter to Van Roekel (see below for text) telling him that she and Damon would decline any nomination because she was “upset and confused” by his collaboration with Kopp.

The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, which combined have more than 4 million members, have long opposed the 20-year-old Teach for America. TFA recruits newly minted college graduates who are not education majors and gives them five weeks of summer training before placing them in classrooms in high-poverty schools. Recruits are asked to commit to only two years of teaching. The unions have argued that the country’s neediest students need highly trained teachers committed to the profession.

Van Roekel appeared in late September with Kopp at an event along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and more recently co-authored an op-ed with Kopp in USA Today about the best way to prepare teachers.Van Roekel issued a statement Thursday about the Carlsson-Paige letter that says:

“I respect Matt Damon and thank him for his support of public education. I believe NEA should talk to those who support public education, even if we don’t agree on everything, and work together to serve students. Wendy Kopp and I agree that students will benefit from stronger recruiting and teacher preparation. NEA isn’t going to quit fighting for students and our members, or for stronger teacher preparation. In fact, better teacher preparation is part of our 3-point plan on Leading the Profession that was released last month.”

It isn’t clear just how much Van Roekel has ruffled feathers in his union but some educators have written that they feel he has undercut efforts to expose Teach for America’s deficiencies and perhaps get it to change.

On Daily Kos, Teacherken wrote recently that he felt “betrayed” by Van Roekel. Education blogger, Anthony Cody, on his “Living in Dialogue” blog at Education Week Teacher, wrote that the NEA president was sending mixed messages. He noted that the Kopp/Van Roekel op-ed said, “Unfortunately, not all teachers are getting the high-quality preparation they need to excel with students in the classroom.”

Cody then wrote: “Does Mr. Van Roekel believe that Teach For America’s five or six week long training is adequate preparation?”

I asked Van Roekel this week if he has warmed up to Teach for America.

He said “no” and still opposes the short training period given to TFA recruits. But he also said he has over time “learned some things” from the way that TFA operates and that “there are some things that I see a little differently.”

On Sept. 30, the two appeared together with Duncan and others at a gathering where improving teacher training was the focus. Duncan outlined new steps to bring accountability to teacher education programs by measuring the achievement of students taught by graduates of these schools.

In Duncan’s remarks, he thanked Van Roekel for showing “tremendous courage on this issue for a long time,” but spoke at greater length about Kopp, saying in part, “I don’t think anyone in the country has done more over the past 15 to 20 years than Wendy Kopp to identify the talents and characteristics that lead to great teaching.”

(That, no doubt, would not be welcome to all of the many educators and teachers who have been focused on exactly that for decades and don’t recognize Kopp’s contributions in this area as being particularly worthwhile.)

Last year some NEA members were unhappy with the leadership’s decision to give an early endorsement to President Obama in his reelection bid despite major differences in education policy. Obama has supported policies opposed by the union, including the fast expansion of public charter schools and the evaluation of educators in large part with student standardized test scores, and his administration has given tens of millions of dollars to Teach for America and similar-minded organizations. At the time of the endorsement, Van Roekel said that there was no question that whatever differences the union had with Obama, any Republican would present even bigger problems for labor.

In an interview Wednesday, I asked Van Roekel what he thought about Duncan’s praise of Kopp on the day they were all together. He didn’t directly answer but said that he appeared at that event because the NEA had participated in developing the department’s strategy on reforming teacher prep programs and that he was pleased with the result.

After Duncan spoke at this event, Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk wrote that a Q & A opportunity “morphed into a conversation between Kopp and Van Roekel — with such interesting comments on both sides that we reporters eventually just sat and listened to it unfold.”

Early in December, Van Roekel released a three-part action agenda to elevate the teaching profession with these elements:

*Raising the bar to entry by requiring that every teacher candidate have one full year of residency under the supervision of a master teacher before earning a full license, and ensuring that every teacher candidate pass a rigorous classroom-based performance assessment at the end of his or her candidacy.

*Advancing a new tiered system of achievement for career teachers by providing different compensation and responsibilities for novice, professional, and master teachers.

*Ensuring that teachers take on leadership roles in their schools to take responsibility for helping to improve instruction, curriculum, and school performance.

But a few weeks after this announcement, Van Roekel co-authored the op-ed with Kopp in USA Today about three ways that the teaching profession can be improved. There was nothing in it about “raising the bar to entry” as Van Roekel had listed first in his action agenda.

The three ways to improve the profession, which are hardly original to Kopp and/or Roekel, are:

*using data to improve teacher preparation
* bringing new talent to the teaching profession

*giving teachers opportunities for continuous professional development.

That was too much for some educators who took to the Internet to complain.

In my interview with Van Roekel, he said his “basic premise” about Teach for America has not changed.

That premise, he said, is that Teach for America’s basic strategy of asking for a two-year teaching commitment from recruits, and giving them five weeks of training before they start teaching in high-poverty schools on their own, has to change.

“I sometimes say, ‘You can’t cut hair in Arizona without a license but you can teach school without a license.’ It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

He also said that it is clear that if the Education Department is accurate about the need for the country to recruit 1.6 million teachers over the next 10 years, then Teach for America’s approach clearly “is not the solution” and a more “systemic approach” is necessary.

But he has learned, he said, about the importance of recruiting quality teaching candidates from Teach for America.

“One of the things I’ve learned they do well is recruitment,” he said. “In the regular teaching profession we don’t have a recruitment process. They do. They identify certain students and go after them to get them to apply.”

Outright antagonism toward Teach for America doesn’t make much sense, he suggested.

“They are not going away. They have too much money backing them. They are around the world now. If there are things we can learn from them, let’s take it. ... It’s talking to people with whom we don’t agree on every issue. This is way too important to only talk to people we totally agree with.”

Even before Teach for America began operating, the NEA was unhappy with its approach to recruiting teachers.

Here is a letter sent to Kopp in 1989 by Sharon Robinson, then director of instruction and professional development for the NEA, about her idea to start an organization that recruited graduates from the Ivy League to work in high-poverty schools. Today recruitment has expanded outside the Ivy League.

It says in part:

“Your idea of a National Teacher Service is an interesting one. Similar concepts have surfaced before. The prospect of attracting career educators out of an initial service experience is the most appealing aspect of your proposal. As members of the teaching profession, we have some trouble accepting any short-term service corps as occupying a significant role in this country’s educational commitment.... We feel strongly that the core of this nation’s commitment to education must flow from fully prepared, career focused, and professionally oriented persons. Even a suggestion that acceptable levels of expertise could develop in short terms simply doesn’t mesh with what those of us in the business know it takes to do the job — much less with what our young people need and deserve.”

Here is the text of Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s letter to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel:

January 4, 2012

Dear Mr. Van Roekel,

You wrote a lovely letter of appreciation last August to my son Matt Damon after he stood with teachers at the Save Our Schools rally. I was so happy to read your letter and forward it on to Matt.

In October, Paul Toner, President of the MTA, asked if Matt and I would accept the nomination for the Friend of Education Award to be given by the NEA in July, 2012. After some discussion and deliberation, Matt and I decided we would accept the nomination if it became a reality.

Recently, I read the opinion piece you wrote with Wendy Kopp in USA Today and was upset and confused by your collaboration with Teach for America. I am a life long teacher educator. I believe that one of the first things we must do to improve our nation’s schools is to extend, strengthen, and support teacher preparation. I am very familiar with TFA and believe that its short-term, minimal training of teachers undermines teacher quality and harms children who too often get an inadequate education with its teachers.

In your letter to Matt in August, you wrote about a first-grade teacher who was retiring because she wouldn’t teach to a script. You said that teaching to the test strips teachers of their professionalism. Yet it is the best-trained, most knowledgeable teachers who can offer the most meaningful, excellent education in this test-driven climate. It’s the under-prepared teachers who are most often teaching to tests and using scripts because they don’t have the knowledge base to do otherwise.

I have decided that because of your collaboration with TFA, it would not be wise for me or for Matt to be nominated for the Friend of Education Award. I regret this turn of events.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Professor Emerita

Lesley University

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By  |  09:30 AM ET, 01/05/2012

 
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