Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Matt Kramer, a former co-chief executive of TFA, serves on the board of NYCAN’s parent organization, 50CAN. He is a former board member. The story has been updated.
A nonprofit group has begun a public relations campaign to defend Teach for America against critics of the program that places newly minted college graduates in teaching jobs in some of the country’s most challenging classrooms.
The new campaign, called Corps Knowledge, is an offshoot of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now (NYCAN), a network that supports public charter schools and school choice and wants to weaken teacher tenure laws.
Derrell Bradford, NYCAN’s executive director, said the campaign aims to counter attacks on Teach for America’s image, which some people loyal to the program think has been damaged by “a few disgruntled alumni” and other critics.
Several TFA alumni have written negatively about their experiences, saying that TFA’s five-week training session did not adequately prepare them for teaching in struggling schools and that the two-year commitment that TFA requires adds to the teacher churn in high-needs schools.
“Some of the best people I’ve ever known have worked for TFA — great, caring, smart — and it’s tough to see your friends get dragged through the mud,” said Bradford, who has $500,000 for the campaign and is aiming to raise an additional $1 million to expand it.
The campaign has one full-time employee, has hired an external public relations firm and will focus initially on social media and on publishing opinion pieces.
The Corps Knowledge campaign is run independently of TFA, although many of those involved in NYCAN and TFA know each other. Matt Kramer, a former co-chief executive of TFA, has served on the board of NYCAN’s parent organization, 50CAN. Kevin Huffman, a TFA alumnus and former Tennessee education commissioner, sits on the board of Corps Knowledge.
“We certainly talk, but this is separate from TFA,” Bradford said. “TFA is letting us take her sister out, and we said we would bring her back on time.”
The campaign plans to highlight the positive stories of TFA, which turns 25 this year. The program is designed not so much to groom career teachers as to inspire recruits to work on the larger issues of urban education in varied ways. And they do: TFA alumni run charter schools and traditional school districts, make state and federal education policy and fill the talent pipeline for an education reform movement that promotes school choice, merit pay and tougher accountability measures for teachers.
But the new campaign also is answering Teach for America’s harshest critics.
One of them, Gary Rubinstein, writes a blog about education that frequently contains posts about Teach for America. “I just want TFA to be more truthful about what their alumni are and are not accomplishing,” said Rubinstein, who was a TFA volunteer in Houston and is in his 14th year of teaching math at Stuyvesant High School in New York. He said TFA offers “exaggerated claims of success” that lead politicians to create “reckless reform policy.”
Corps Knowledge challenged Rubinstein in a post on its Facebook page called “The Misanthropy of Gary Rubinstein” in which it suggested Rubinstein had given up on low-income students to work at Stuyvesant, one of the highest-performing public schools in the country. “He now simply scorns those who are still fighting the good fight,” the post said.
Rubinstein bristled at the comment.
“They attacked me because I’m teaching at Stuyvesant, where something like 20 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, and they’re not even teaching at all,” he said. “Anyone who’s teaching at all shouldn’t get blasted for teaching.”
Corps Knowledge has emerged as Teach for America has experienced a drop in applications. The organization, the country’s largest supplier of classroom teachers, blames the decline in the number of applicants on an improving economy that offers other career opportunities for students graduating from selective colleges. Interest in traditional teacher training programs around the country also has waned.
Teach for America is boosting its recruitment efforts, spending more time on outreach on college campuses, an official with the organization said.