A letter to Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp — and her response

koppFormer Teach For America corps member Gary Rubinstein, who has become a serious critic of the organization for years, wrote an open letter to TFA founder Wendy Kopp, published on Rubinstein’s website, Teach For Us, along with other open letters to school reformers. He first met Kopp in 1991, when he spoke to her the year he joined TFA. In 1996, he asked her for permission to publish his essays about teaching and she said yes; that collection became his 1999 book “Reluctant Disciplinarian,” which he sent to Kopp. She told him she liked it, and the two have exchanged some emails over the years.

Rubinstein says TFA had a powerful impact on his life, and that is why he keeps writing about his concerns with the organization, which recruits new college graduates, gives them five weeks of summer training in teaching and then sends them into urban and rural classrooms. Critics say recruits are largely unprepared to teach needy children and the two-year commitment for TFA recruits creates turnover in the very schools where stability is most needed.

Here is the open letter he wrote recently to Kopp, and following it is her response.

Dear Wendy,

Hope you and your family had a happy New Years.

Without Teach For America there wouldn’t be a ‘me,’ or at least there would be one but I’d likely be doing something very different and likely much less fulfilling with my life.  And without you there wouldn’t be a Teach For America.  So in that sense you ‘made’ me.  To put this into pop culture terms, if I’m Luke Skywalker then you’re, um, Anakin Skywalker.

 

I don’t know if there are many people whose identity is as wrapped up with TFA as me.  Starting twenty-one years ago I’ve pledged my time and my heart into this organization.  I’ve been a corps member, a staff member, an alumni summit attendee, a volunteer recruiter, a workshop presenter, a keynote speaker, a panel member, a financial donor, a mentor, and a dinner host.  And for the first nineteen of those twenty-one years, I was so proud to be a member of Teach For America.  Anybody who knows me knows that my summer wardrobe used to consist primarily of Teach For America T-shirts that I’ve obtained over the years at various TFA functions.  My wife, in fact, still uses the gray TFA tote bag as our main bag for transporting our kids’ belongings to and from daycare.

 

And after nineteen years of being a proud TFA alum, for the past two years I have been somewhat ashamed of it.

Though I am one of the few people to have attended the 5 year, the 10 year, the 15 year, and the 20 year alumni summits, I fear that I will not want to attend the 25 year unless TFA becomes again an organization I can identify with.  And I don’t mean this as a threat, really.  There will be enough people at the 25 without me, but I hope that you see my current dissatisfaction with TFA as somewhat of a ‘litmus test.’  If an alum as gung ho as me is having doubts, surely there are many others too.  And though there are many alumni who share my frustration, and many other non-TFAers too, you must know, I will only claim to speak for myself in this letter.

 

I joined TFA twenty-one years ago because I wanted to use my love and knowledge of math to do something good for society.  I taught in Houston for four years, three of which I’d call ‘successful.’  Over the years I’ve been critical of the TFA training model.  It’s not that I don’t think it is possible to train teachers, particularly secondary teachers, in five weeks.  It’s just that it has to be a very good five weeks, which I still think it isn’t.  The student teaching component is just too short with classes that are just too small.  But I still support the idea of alternative certification, and have said so even in my ‘anti-TFA’ NPR interview.  I also, unlike many TFA critics, am OK with the two year commitment.  Though I’d like it to be upped to three years, I can see that maybe two years lures in some people who could teach for a long time after they get hooked on teaching.  So two of the largest criticisms of TFA, the short training and the short commitment are not things that I have been complaining about.

 

My biggest issue with TFA is that despite the fact that it claims to be such a diverse organization, I find that the most important type of diversity — that of ideas, is lacking.  In your first TFA ‘Pass The Chalk’ Blog post you say that there is no “official TFA line,” and, yes, there have been some diverse points of view represented on that blog, but I feel that this is not enough.  Actions, as they say, are more powerful than words so saying that TFA values all points of view does not make it true.  This was most evident to me as I sat through various speeches at the Teach For America 20th anniversary summit two years ago.

 

Going into the summit, I was hopeful that it would have some of the humility you displayed in the ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ chapter in your latest book.  In that chapter you admit that improving education is very complex and much harder than you had originally thought.  You wrote about how the silver bullets, like charter schools, aren’t necessarily THE solution and how ‘bad’ teachers and unions aren’t THE problem.

 

So it was disappointing to me that the theme of the summit, based on who the featured speakers were, was generally about how charter schools were THE answer and how ‘bad’ teachers and unions are THE problem.  (And yes, I know that the people who I’m accusing of saying this would quickly deny that they have said this, but, again, actions speak louder than words.)  I saw this mainly in the opening and closing ceremonies, particularly during the ‘Waiting For Superman’ reunion panel.  In general, the 20 year event left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  It felt like TFA was trying to convey the idea that “We figured it out.  Now we just have to scale up,” despite the fact that nobody has really conclusively figured ‘it’ out.  This reminded me of George W. Bush’s famous 2003 ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign on the aircraft carrier, eight years before the end of the Iraq war.  I don’t see much evidence that anyone has really figured out much.  ‘High performing’ charter networks have trouble getting consistency within their own schools.  Districts where the ideas of ‘accountability’ and ‘choice’ have thrived have only shown success with some very creative math.

 

TFA is very proud of a small subset of high-profile alumni, all of whom have a very clear agenda based on shutting down ‘failing’ schools and firing ‘bad’ teachers.  They also seem to have a blind faith in the power of evaluating teachers by comparing their students’ results to the prediction of an inaccurate math formula.  I believe that whatever ‘good’ might come from a culture of fear, it is far outweighed by the ‘bad.’

 

When you created TFA, one of the ideas, I think, was to tap a new source of people who could put their minds to the problem of improving education in this country.  At the time, I doubt you ever expected that some of the alumni would become the leaders of a ‘reform’ movement, while some other alumni would become huge critics of that same movement.  And though I’ve recently seen some steps toward having more voices represented by TFA (the recent alumni magazine was pretty balanced and there were some balanced things on ‘Pass The Chalk’) I feel like the fact that it took so long for this process to start, and that there still isn’t enough of it, I get concerned that this is only a superficial type of inclusion.

 

Is TFA also proud of the reform critics?  Are we not also part of the ‘best and the brightest’?  Or is it that the alumni who lead the reform movement are ‘bester’ and ‘brighter’ than the critics?  When your children are competing against each other in a sporting event, do you actively root for one over the other?

 

But for me the thing that bothers me most about these reformers is the dishonesty.  In the closing ceremony of the 20 year thing I heard [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan say something about how the decision to shut down a large Chicago High School was justified by the miraculous charter school that took its place.  After I got home from the summit I did about ten minutes of fact-checking before I learned that this charter school was far from miraculous as they had about a forty percent dropout rate.  This inspired my first post that would be called, I guess ‘anti-reform’ though I really think of it as anti-lying.

 

Generally a white lie here and there doesn’t bother me, particularly when it is a victimless crime.  But in this current era of teacher bashing there are many victims as schools get closed and teachers get fired for not living up to what others have lied about accomplishing.  The reason I’ve spent so much time fighting against this strategy of reform is that I truly believe that it is making things worse for teachers and students.  Five percent of students get ‘saved’ from their ‘failing’ school while the other ninety-five percent of kids have their schools slowly squeezed dry.  When the few benefit at the expense of the many, it just isn’t fair.

What I can’t understand is why if improving education in this country is so important to you, why you would not want the ideas of how to do this to be subject to public scrutiny.  Like scientific progress, hypotheses are formed and then tested with replicable experiments.  There is no place for lying or even exaggerating in an important scientific endeavor.

 

Over the years I’ve seen TFA, and you, present stories of success that I don’t think stand up to scrutiny.  Though in your own book you admit that TFA teachers haven’t been so heroic to make much progress in fixing the schools in a ‘transformative’ way, we still hear various claims like how many first year TFAers are teaching a year and a half of material in one year or how TFA teachers are beating teachers from other training programs in terms of value-added measures.  Also I’ve read, from you, about the amazing results of some schools with a big TFA presence, and how well schools with TFA principals, and how well school districts with TFA leaders are doing.  I’ve investigated these claims and have found all of them to be exaggerated or misleading.

 

I think part of the reason is that you may have a distorted sense of what these schools and districts are really like.

Your knowledge of them comes from what you hear from their leaders, which of course is skewed, but also, I’m sure, from what you’ve seen with your own eyes during school visits.  But you must realize that what you see on a school visit is different from what someone else would see on such a visit.  Surely everyone is putting on a good show when you visit so I can easily see how you might think these schools are better than they actually are.  What you need is some kind of costume so you can go incognito and get the type of experience I got when I recently visited the ‘high performing’ KIPP high school in New York City.  Though I am pretty boisterous when I write, in real life I suppose I have a way of blending into the woodwork.  So what I saw there was not very impressive.  I didn’t see any classes where teachers were getting that mythical period and half of growth in one period.  I saw some good teaching, mostly average teaching, and even some very bad teaching.  I saw a novice teacher struggle to control a class of nine students.  They were walking all over him and accomplished very little that period.  I also saw the ‘grit’ training program which amounted to the students getting the teacher to define very clearly how little homework they would have to do to still get their candy bar rewards.

 

As far as charter schools go, you must also be aware of how much attrition they have.  As you are married to one of the top executives in KIPP, I have trouble believing that you don’t know this….   The fact is that most ‘high-performing’ charters are ones that manage to get more motivated kids and families and who lose the less motivated ones throughout the years.  And the schools that do have the same kids as the neighborhood ‘failing’ school, those schools often have test scores that are extremely low too.

 

Over the past two years, Wendy, I have seen some things you’ve done that I have appreciated.  I liked your ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ chapter in your book.  I like that you panned Brill’s book ‘Class Warfare.’  I also liked that you came out, publicly, against the publication of the New York City teacher’s value-added scores.  But I’ve also seen some things you’ve supported that have nullified, for me, these others.  Your signing the Joel Klein / Condoleezza Rice ‘U.S. Education Reform and National Security’ report was probably the worst, in my view.  There is little evidence that our students’ failure to measure up on some international standardized tests is a national security issue.  It seems to me to be an alarmist report that is supposed to make wealthy people who wouldn’t otherwise care about poor people to support the Klein style of reform.  Another was that TFA signed that letter to Duncan about how teacher education programs need to be more accountable for the test scores of the students their trainees teach.  Like they say about glass houses, organizations that only have their teachers in training teach for 12 hours over the summer should not throw stones.  I also wasn’t thrilled to see TFA receive money from the promotion of ‘Won’t Back Down.’  That movie was such propaganda, it is no wonder that it is one of the poorest grossing films of all time.

 

So what is the point of this letter?  It really isn’t to get you to write back to me.  If you were to write back, I’d appreciate it since it would prove to people that you respected me enough to take the time to read it.  Also, it might encourage some of the other people I’m still waiting on to respond to me.  I don’t expect any of the responses to have any more than ‘stock footage’ anyway.  The point of this letter is to vent my frustration and to enable people throughout the country to understand my point of view.  My most popular post ever got nearly 50,000 hits so this letter has the potential to do the same.

 

More than a response, I’d like to see TFA really making an effort to showcase more critics of the reform style of firing teachers and shutting down schools.  I know that I might have burned too many bridges with my criticisms on NPR and everything, but there are many others who have similar views and I’d like to see them, at least, on some panel discussions at future TFA events.  If I see more of that, even if it is just for show, I might consider going to the 25 year alumni summit in 2015.  Further on down the road, perhaps one day TFA will be so open to representing differing points of view that someone like me would be an appropriate person to speak at even a TFA fundraiser.

 

Twenty years from now I have no doubt that TFA will have ‘evolved’ to be more inclusive of differing points of view.  Whether you do so reluctantly so as not to become obsolete, or if you do it because you really want open debate even if it means that some prominent alumni are challenged, it is where, I believe TFA is headed.  When that happens, this current crop of TFA alumni leaders will be looked at as a dark time for TFA.  Right now many of the most prominent TFA alumni are among the most despised people in education.  How can that be good for TFA?  Twenty years from now, when TFA is gearing up for the 45 year alumni summit, you will be celebrating alumni leaders who had the wisdom to use strategies that actually made things better.  Keep an eye on someone like Dr. Camika Royal, maybe a future Secretary of Education.

 

Well, I think I wrote everything I wanted to.  If you’d write a public response, I’d definitely appreciate it.  I wrote enough that you don’t have to worry about me writing a follow-up open letter.  Unless you have specific questions for me, I’ll preserve my contacts with you and keep them, as before, to once or twice a year.

 

Sincerely,

Gary Rubinstein

Houston 1991

 

 

Wendy Kopp responded to Rubinstein’s letter. Here is what she wrote:

Dear Gary,

From my kids’ perspective, Darth Vader is one of the cooler things I’ve been compared to over the years. Thank you for your letter, and for starting this open letter series. I love the spirit. You raise a lot of important issues and I’ll get to as many of them as I can. I want to start by addressing your biggest concern: that Teach For America lacks ideological diversity, or at least fails to encourage and embrace it.

Active and vocal alumni like you are proof that there’s no shortage of diverse opinion within the Teach For America community. But you’re right that we haven’t done enough to highlight ideological diversity and reach out to alumni who feel that their opinions aren’t welcome. Part of the explanation is that before we embraced online forums and social media — largely in the past year — there were far fewer opportunities and places where we could surface alumni opinion.

 

Teach For America was built on the idea that our best hope of reaching “One Day” is to have thousands of alumni use their diverse experiences and ideas to effect change from inside and outside the education system. We cannot realize our vision without including individuals from many different backgrounds and perspectives. In fact, in the past I’ve chosen not to “take sides” or communicate my thinking on certain issues precisely because opinion varied so widely within our community. I felt responsible for creating a big tent.

 

However, I’ve learned the hard way that silence just reinforces misunderstanding. Going forward, our goal is to show the plurality of opinion within our community and provide more outlets to challenge one another and share our best thinking.

 

I believe there is real misunderstanding about what opinions Teach For America wants to hear – misunderstanding we haven’t done enough to combat. When corps members and alumni assume their opinions defy conventional wisdom and no one wants to hear them, they often choose not to speak up. This becomes a self-perpetuating problem. The people who do speak up express similar views, which reinforces the impression that we all think one way and discourages dissenting opinions.

 

Changing this will require more than providing discussion forums – it involves the difficult work of changing culture. As you’ve noticed, over the past year we’ve made a concerted effort to do just that by encouraging honest engagement and debate on several platforms, both inside and outside the organization. After I wrote an op-ed on teacher rankings, we gave alumni who disagreed with me a place to express themselves in our alumni magazine One Day. Last year we launched our Pass The Chalk blog where we feature a range of opinion on the most controversial and consequential topics we face. Check out pieces like, “In Support of Teacher Tenure,” or “Why Won’t Back Down Doesn’t Bring Us Forward.” During the Chicago teachers strike we posted views from both sides.

 

It’s a disservice to paint our community members with a broad brush and say we’re all about “shutting down failing schools and firing teachers.” The “reformers” you lump together in fact vigorously disagree about the best policies and approaches.

 

Allow me to make a plug here. It’s Teach For America’s responsibility to ensure that all alumni know their voices are heard and valued, and to surface the range of opinion they represent. But everyone in this community shares responsibility for the direction we take. We need more alumni to take the initiative to submit a blog post, convene a panel of alumni, or start a difficult conversation. It’s up to you to shape the direction of this movement.

 

As for the 20th anniversary summit, your description doesn’t jive with what really went on. Diverse speakers and panelists including AFT President Randi Weingarten, DC Mayor Vince Gray, Los Angeles School Board member and alum Steve Zimmer, and Congressman John Lewis all offered different perspectives on Teach For America and the fight to end educational inequality. We hosted sessions on a wide range of issues our alumni told us were most important to them.

 

In my opening speech I was clear that while we have learned a lot and made progress, we have yet to move the needle against educational inequality in the aggregate. We’re nowhere near claiming victory when only 8% of low-income students are graduating from college.

A core part of Teach For America’s mission has always been affecting positive change in the traditional public school system. 53% of our corps members and the majority of our alumni who stay in education work in district schools. Our alumni leadership team recently launched our School Systems Leadership Initiative, which encourages and prepares alumni to take leadership positions in their district systems.

 

If you read some of the articles I’ve written, you’ll know that I often speak out against the idea that teachers or unions are “the problem.” In the Atlantic, I described the current mistrust and micromanagement of educators as an impediment to reform and called for districts to empower them with more flexibility to meet students’ needs. In the Wall Street Journal, I wrote about how difficult it is for even the most exceptional teachers to achieve results working in schools and systems that aren’t designed to support them.

The challenges and complexities of our work are immense, and I’d never claim to have all the answers. Every week I’m humbled to learn new things. But complexity is no excuse for inaction when there’s a crisis this great and so much is at stake.

 

My evolving understanding of the best ways to close the opportunity gap is deeply informed by independent data and extensive first-hand experience in districts across the country over more than two decades. Time and again, when we see meaningful results in a classroom, school, or district, we see similar mindsets and practices behind it. That tells us we can, in fact, learn from and spread these successes. You don’t have to take my word for it – there are numerous studies and reports on what distinguishes effective teachers and schools.

 

I can’t respond to your blanket charge that our success stories are unfounded other than to say that when you think you’ve found a claim that doesn’t hold up to the evidence, you should challenge me directly. We believe strongly in transparency and accountability, which is why Teach For America encourages rigorous independent evaluations of our program. Our mission is too important to operate in any other way.

 

KIPP is more than capable of speaking for itself so I won’t get in to a lengthy debate here. I’m sure they’d welcome a robust discussion on their methods and results, which even critics admit are some of the most impressive of any school in the country. Speculation that KIPP’s impact on student achievement is due to attrition or having more motivated families are claims disproven by third-party research by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and Mathematica Policy Research, Inc, which conducts an ongoing evaluation of KIPP and publishes reports on their findings.

 

I don’t think you are giving the principals and teachers at KIPP enough credit. The motivation you see from students and their families reflects the hard work they’ve put into building a strong school culture of achievement that’s contagious. Home visits and cultivating family involvement have been cornerstones of KIPP’s approach from the beginning. If you talk to KIPP parents, they’ll tell you that they became more invested and invigorated along the way because of the spirit of the school and its educators. That said, KIPP staff are their own toughest critics and would be the first to say they don’t have it all figured out and their current efforts are nowhere near good enough.

 

I’ll wrap up by saying I was struck by the analogy in your letter of Teach For America as a parent watching two children competing against each other at a sporting event. Every time we talk about education this way, we alienate the majority of people who don’t consider themselves partisans of any camp —their loyalty is to their kids and solutions that work.

 

Education leaders and districts across the country have shown us that we can bridge traditional divides and work together to do what’s best for kids. But we have to stop thinking of ourselves as locked in an ideological battle and focus on doing everything in our power to give students today the education they deserve. I believe that entails an obligation to understand what’s working and act on the lessons from successful teachers and schools while asking what more we must do to realize our vision of equal opportunity for all.

 

I look forward to talking more the next time we run into each other near the Swedish meatballs.

 

Until then,
Wendy

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