An internal media strategy memo from Teach For America (see text below) reveals “the lengths” it went to to counter a story in the media that it considered negative and how it was alerted to the piece even before it was written by a U.S. Department of Education official. And it discusses how to improve media coverage by, among other things, fostering relationships with journalists at certain outlets.
The memo, titled “Teach For America’s Responses to Critical Media: On The Record Case Studies,” was obtained by The Nation, which published it along with a story titled, “This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach For America.” It goes into great detail about TFA’s reaction to a piece written by Alexandra Hootnick, titled “Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach For America Is Expanding. What’s Wrong With That?” and published in April on the Web sites of both The Nation and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news Web site focused on inequality and innovation in education.
After the memo was publicized by The Nation this week, TFA published it in full on its own Web site and a TFA official wrote a blog post (see text below) calling it a “media response strategy” typical of many organizations.
The TFA memo discusses the organization’s strategy when it has a “long lead time,” which it had in the case of Hootnick’s story, thanks to an unnamed Education Department official who alerted TFA to the author’s FOIA request. TFA has enjoyed close relations with President Obama’s Education Department, which has awarded it millions of dollars. In fact, in 2011, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told TFA founder Wendy Kopp, “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,” while the then-president of America’s largest teachers union, Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association, was standing with her.
In recent years, TFA has become increasingly controversial with critics charging that it places highly inexperienced corps members — largely young college graduates who are given five weeks of summer training — into classrooms filled with high-needs students. There were also concerns expressed that corps members are required only to promise to stay for two years, and though some stay longer, some leave before the two years are up, causing a great deal of turnover in many schools with at-risk students who greatly need stability. And, as Hootnick’s article discussed, TFA is seen by critics as taking jobs away from traditionally trained and veteran teachers.
The memo also details how TFA handles “same day rapid response” media situations, using a piece in Mother Jones as an example.
The Nation’s article calls TFA’s strategies “troubling,” especially because it “takes tens of millions of government dollars every year” and that its last three years of available tax filings reveals that “Teach For America has spent nearly $3.5 million in advertising and promotion.” The memo, the Nation said, indicates that “much of this promotion goes toward attacking journalists.”
Sarah Garland, executive editor of The Hechinger Report, wrote this piece (which appeared on The Hechinger Report’s Web site) about the memo:
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, The Hechinger Report published a story about a group of idealistic young Teach For America recruits who arrived in Seattle hoping to start jobs teaching in some of the city’s most struggling schools. Many of them remained unemployed, however, because Seattle didn’t really need more teachers. In fact, the district had an oversupply: “13,800 teachers had applied for just 352 full- and part-time positions,” Alexandra Hootnick reported in her piece, which also appeared in The Nation.
The story examined the nonprofit teacher training organization’s rapid expansion – funded in part by public tax dollars – during a time of teacher layoffs. After the article appeared, TFA published a point-by-point rebuttal on its own site. (There were no factual errors or corrections in Hootnick’s article, which was edited by multiple editors at Hechinger and The Nation in addition to undergoing a full fact check.)
How much TFA didn’t like the story – and the lengths to which the organization went to push back against it – is now evident in an internal memo obtained by The Nation and published on its site with an accompanying article.
In the memo, TFA details its efforts to respond to the story since it first heard Hootnick was inquiring about the organization’s expansion efforts from a Department of Education official, who let the nonprofit know she had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for public documents.
“To get in front of her article, with Peter Cunningham’s counsel, we worked with Kwame Griffith to publish a Pass the Chalk piece on our commitment to improving how we tailor growth in which he proactively addressed many of the criticisms we anticipated would be (and were) included in the article,” the memo reads.
The document also notes that TFA’s communications team “drafted two traditional letters to the editor on behalf of Seattle Executive Director Lindsay Hill and alumnus Kenneth Maldonado who was featured in the article.” And it suggests that in future, the organization attempt to “cultivate stronger relationships with outlets like The Nation, Slate, Atlantic, etc.”
TFA’s defensiveness and concern about coverage that could hurt its public image is perhaps understandable given the fraught and fractured nature of the current education reform debate, which has only grown more heated in recent years. The urgency is great – children’s lives and the future of the country are at stake. Yet fevered battles over the Common Core standards, efforts to weaken or end teacher tenure and the spread of charter schools leave less room for productive conversations about how to improve schools as different sides try to earn points and get ahead of their enemies.
Still, compromises and cooler conversations about how adversaries might find common ground are also happening, often behind the scenes or at the district or even school level. In Texas, for example, a traditional public school is not only sharing a building but also sharing teachers with a charter and trying to learn from the charters’ successes. In Pittsburgh, the teachers union has worked with district leaders to create new teacher evaluations that are less about punishing low performing teachers and more about helping them improve.
TFA, which has long starred in its own mini education reform debate over its model of sending bright young college grads into the nation’s toughest classrooms for a two-year commitment, has occasionally been another case in point. As Hootnick notes in her article, TFA has often responded by making changes when faced with pushback in the communities it serves. For example, she wrote, “with pressure ramping up, TFA recently announced a pilot initiative to begin training 2,000 recruits during their senior year of college — a year of preparation versus a five-week crash course — as well as extending classroom support to teachers after their two-year commitment ends. Last year, the organization’s co-CEOs pledged to ‘tailor our scale to the needs of each individual community.’”
And in Mississippi, as Hechinger Report writer Jackie Mader noted in a recent article, the organization has worked on recruiting natives of the state to combat concerns about carpet-bagging and encouraged its members to devote themselves to deeper, longer lasting change in the local schools.
Here at The Hechinger Report, you’ll often find us exposing problems in education and examining missteps by groups trying to address those problems. But at the same time, we’re always on the look out for stories of people coming together to find solutions and examples of districts and advocates who have learned from mistakes and made mid-course corrections. We can learn from both kinds of stories, but the latter may perhaps be more valuable for the educators and advocates out there trying to move the needle in American schools.
And as any good teacher might tell you, while it’s not easy to throw out a carefully crafted plan even when things are going awry in the classroom, it’s usually worth it in the end to put kids in front of ego.
Here’s a response from TFA’s Takirra Winfield, dated Oct. 29, published on the TFA Web site:
Today there was a piece in The Nation discussing an internal memo (you can see the full document here) about how we respond to factual inaccuracies in traditional and social media. Like most organizations we have a media response strategy, and in the interest of transparency, I want to share how we’re thinking about addressing the public feedback we get.
One strain of feedback comes from corps members, alumni, partners and critical friends who have ideas for how we can evolve and continue to get better. We know that listening to these voices will only result in a more effective program that better serves students both today and in the long run. Based on their advice and what we’ve learned over time, we’re partnering more closely with communities and doing more to support corps members as they develop their conviction about all that’s possible for our public education system. These changes are described more fully in a recent letter that our co-CEOs sent to our alumni network, which you can read here.
Another strain of feedback contains factual inaccuracies about our program and the impact of our corps members and alumni. We think it’s important to address these inaccuracies when they arise so that the conversation can move forward in a productive way. The internal memo that appeared in today’s Nation blog post by George Joseph is an example of how we’re working to ensure that the facts about our program are clear in the public dialogue. This is also why we launched our On the Record page earlier this year. We recognize that no matter what we do some people are simply going to disagree with our approach. While we know it isn’t likely that we’ll see eye-to-eye with these individuals, we’re hopeful we’ll reach the day where we can have a productive conversation with them to better our work towards educational equity.
One of our core values at Teach For America is respect and humility, which we define as valuing the strengths, experiences, and perspectives of others and recognizing our own limitations. Both internally and externally, as individuals and collectively, our doors are always open, inviting ideas, recommendations, suggestions, and feedback. I’m encouraged by the changes that important feedback is helping us to make and I’m also encouraged that we’re doing more to share the facts about our work when there is misinformation out there. Both are critical for fueling constructive conversation and progress.
At the end of the day, this is about our kids and families, and instead of playing the blame game, we should be working hard to have a fruitful conversation about the future of education. Our children are depending on us.
And here’s the actual TFA memo: