Class Warfare

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

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Michele Asselin

TFA, in response, takes issue with Darling-Hammond’s methodology and analysis, saying, among other things, that the TFA teachers were not compared with teachers in their own schools. TFA, for its part, cites a 2004 independent report from the Mathematica Policy Research group that showed that TFA teachers performed as well as other teachers in six regions across the country in teaching reading and just slightly better in math.

TFA also stresses the effort the organization puts into improving teacher performance. All corps members receive ongoing training and mentorship, and all are instructed to constantly evaluate their students and then adjust their own performance accordingly. TFA’s national leaders study members’ results in order to derive data about what works and what doesn’t—the better, they say, to perfect the work of the corps. “We’re accountable for our teachers’ performance, and we have an advantage that schools of ed don’t have,” Kopp says, “which is that we see how they’re doing at month one, month six, so we can understand from our people what the folks who are very successful are doing differently and feed those lessons into our training and support programs.”

Kopp is a fierce but unruffled advocate for her program (her husband says she has developed a thick skin: “Twenty years into this, it’s not like she wakes up in the morning and her confidence is easily shaken”). “People don’t understand what we’re doing in terms of training,” Kopp says. “There’s a misconception that we think you don’t need training in order to be an effective teacher. The reality is we think it’s exceedingly tough to teach successfully.” When asked later for her biggest self-criticism, Kopp returns to this issue of teaching quality and says, “The bottom line is: Over time we have learned from some of our teachers what is possible, and yet we’re still not where we want to be in ensuring our teachers are where they ought to be. How do we ensure that our teachers are truly transformational? It’s obviously extremely challenging.”

However, it’s when you consider the issue of effectiveness together with the question of attrition that you begin to really understand critics’ concerns about the program. “The studies I’ve seen say that TFA teachers are just as effective as other new teachers after they get their credentials,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of ed­ucation at New York University and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “The research also says that the least effective teachers are those in their first two years. Most teachers begin to be most effective after their third year, and most TFA teachers are gone by then . . . Schools that serve poor kids need stable, experienced staff, not constant turnover.”

Standing in opposition to such assaults is Kopp’s unalterable belief in her mission. “You have a 1-in-10 chance to graduate from college if you’re from a poor urban or rural area, compared with a 75 percent chance if you happen to be born in a high-income community,” she says. “The only way we can solve this problem is to literally take our future leaders and put them in the midst of it and say, ‘Now go solve it.’ The biggest problem in this picture is not the dilettantism of TFA. It’s that we’ve allowed this problem to go on for decades. Where you are born determines your educational outcomes in this country. That’s the problem we should be solving.”

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Comments

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.

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