Class Warfare

Wendy Kopp-the woman who wants to save our schools.

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Michele Asselin

Another criticism of TFA, whichborrows heavily from the corporate-management playbook in its approach, is that a classroom can’t, and shouldn’t, be run like a widget company. “There’s a kind of cultural consensus that I think is really dangerous, that the private sector always does things better than the public sector, that we can operate schools in the same way we operate businesses,” says Crocco. “They’re not the same.” Fairly or not, some of this criticism has rubbed off on Kopp herself, a prime example of the new type of “social entrepreneur”—the Ivy League–educated, often business-school-trained, private-sector-schooled person—now popping up in the nonprofit world. The new social entrepreneurs use words like efficiency and accountability, refer to donors as high-net-worth individuals and genuinely believe that the problems of public education can—in fact, should—be solved according to the same principles and priorities that a McKinsey consultant might use to save an ailing corporation. (Indeed, TFA president Matt Kramer once said of the group’s recruitment practices, “We look for the same things McKinsey does.”)

Such complaints, coming from people in the teaching establishment, could be interpreted, not unfairly, as push-back from interested parties: TFA, after all, is learn-as-you-go, with recruits receiving feedback and training on the job and working to meet state licensing requirements over the course of their two-year commitment. It’s a model that directly threatens traditional teacher-training institutes like Darling-Hammond’s at Stanford or Crocco’s at Columbia, both of which train people before setting them loose in the schools. Yet humming under the critiques is a much broader concern about TFA that resonates widely among teachers and some school administrators as well: a charge of base-level elitism, of a kind of know-it-all egghead paternalism that profoundly irritates those who have worked their way up through the traditional ranks in education. TFA is built on the faith that a 22-year-old with a gold-plated educational résumé will be able to teach disadvantaged young people and propel them onto a path of mainstream success. This, many experts say, not only smacks of arrogance but also betrays profound ignorance of the lives of the kids whom TFA purports to serve.

And so the debate rages. Confronted with charges against TFA corps members, Kopp comes to life in a way she doesn’t when talking about herself. “There are just much easier ways to build a résumé,” she says. “TFA is well known to be an extremely challenging endeavor. You have to be passionate about wanting to do this and wanting to make a difference to go through all the work and ask for the intensity of the experience. I think you cannot meet the TFA corps members and alumni and have that concern.”

Kopp also points out that 61 percent of members continue teaching beyond the two-year commitment, accord­ing to a 2008 study from Harvard, and that 65 percent overall remain in education, 32 percent as teachers, according to TFA’s surveys of its alumni. However, these numbers are disputed. For instance, a June 2010 examination of a number of peer-reviewed studies about TFA coauthored by Julian Vasquez Heilig, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found that more than 50 percent of TFA teachers leave the profession after two years; by four years, 80 percent are no longer teaching. (TFA says the Heilig report is flawed; among other problems, it relied on studies that did not account for corps members who switched schools but continued teaching.)

Beyond commitment, there is the question of whether TFA teachers are effective. Here, too, the critics have attacked, and here, too, it is nearly im-possible to arrive at a definitive answer. Darling-Hammond, in a 2005 study of more than 132,000 students and 4,400 teachers in Houston public schools, found that uncertified TFA teachers actually had a negative impact on student achievement on five of six tests, although the teachers’ performance greatly improved once they achieved certification. 

Share Your Thoughts!


STLReader 04.23.2011

When TFA started, I thought it sounded like an amazing idea. But 20 years later, that's all it is - a good idea that simply doesn't work. In fact, I believe it does far more damage than good. I know two former TFA teachers and both say it's a complete joke. But it's no skin of their backs-- both are now attending law school at major universities, where the yearly tuition is more than the total income of every child in both schools, combined. To pretend that a 22-year old from an upper middle class home could possibly have the experience and maturity to teach a group of poor kids in one of the worst school districts in my state is just ... ridiculous. I don't have the answers either, but I'm sad to day that TFA isn't one of them.

Post new comment

Click to add a comment