Matt Damon’s mom is wrong

Jay Mathews
Columnist January 15, 2012

Almost all of us say that as a nation we should work out our differences and unite to solve our problems. But we don’t mean it.

Exhibit A is the bad blood between the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, and Teach for America, the most popular public-service option for graduates of selective colleges.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The NEA has been at odds with TFA since the teacher recruitment program began. NEA leaders dislike the idea, conceived in 1989 by 22-year-old Princeton undergraduate Wendy Kopp, of giving young people selected for academic achievement and ambition just five weeks of summer training before having them teach in some of our lowest-performing urban and rural public schools. TFA’s steady growth and rising status at prestigious universities has not soothed NEA’s distress.

This is both a national and a local issue. The NEA’s national headquarters is in the District. One of the largest contingents of TFA teachers works in the District and Prince George’s County.

My colleague Valerie Strauss reported about the latest NEA-TFA skirmish on her Answer Sheet blog. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University in Boston, wrote NEA President Dennis Van Roekel to say she and her actor and activist son, Matt Damon, would refuse an expected NEA award. She said she was “upset and confused” that Van Roekel appeared at a September event with Kopp and co-authored with Kopp an op-ed in USA Today about the best ways to prepare teachers.

“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,” Carlsson-Paige said. “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.”

Other teachers joined in the criticism of Van Roekel. He told Strauss he shared Carlsson-Paige’s opposition to TFA’s abbreviated training but thought the NEA could learn from Kopp’s success in recruiting top college graduates.

I understand why many NEA members are bothered by TFA. They feel it demeans their profession to give classroom responsibilities to young people with so little preparation. They know novice teachers in the United States need even more training than what they are getting in regular education school programs. Experts say new teachers should be closely monitored by veteran educators and given more contact with students before running classes by themselves.

Many TFA members in turn dismiss the NEA as an old organization stuck in its ways, jealous of what TFA energy and creativity have added to inner-city schools.

Both sides ignore this fact: The classroom performance of beginning Teach For America instructors is about the same as that of education school graduates just starting out. On average, both do poorly. More supervision and support would help both groups. How does aggravating the feud make that happen?

Some old-timers think students these days don’t learn as much as we did in school. Mainstream journalists make fun of gossip reporters on TMZ or in the supermarket tabloids. But open-minded people get a different impression when they see high school students doing calculus problems and science projects unknown in my day and observe the ability of tabloid journalists to deliver what readers want to know.

Smart NEA members, like Van Roekel, look at the successes TFA has had and see no reason not to work together. They know that some extraordinarily talented teachers and principals would not be pursuing careers in schools today if TFA had not offered a way for them.

Carlsson-Paige and Damon, my favorite actor, are entitled to their opinions. But objecting to our leading teachers union having anything to do with our leading post-college public-service program doesn’t help our schools or our children.

For Jay Mathews’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.

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