Monday, January 16, 2012

Thoughtful Response from Wendy Kopp

A thoughtful response from TFA's Wendy Kopp to Ravitch's (and Matt Damon's mom's) foolishness:

Happy 2012 to the Teach For America community!  I've returned rested and re-centered for the journey ahead and hope you each had rejuvenating breaks as well.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to do more to communicate with all of you as well as those outside our organization in an effort to forge greater understanding and generate more progress for kids. In that spirit, I thought a good way to kick off the year would be to answer the question that Diane Ravitch posed earlier this week about the sincerity of the December op-ed that NEA president Dennis van Roekel and I co-authored in USA Today. Diane asked how it was that the NEA, which is committed to strengthening teacher preparation, would take this step.  She also expressed her hope that I might clarify my intentions in making this statement that "on its face appears to repudiate the TFA model."

As you know well, for more than twenty years, we as an organization have invested tremendous resources and energy into the work of building a force of new teachers who succeed with students in our nation's most challenging and hard-to-staff classrooms and in the process gain the foundational experience for a lifetime of educational leadership and advocacy. We have grounded our approach in ongoing research about the mindsets, skills and knowledge that differentiate the most successful teachers in high-need urban and rural schools and have continuously improved our programs, investing substantially in recruiting and selecting teachers who have the personal characteristics that are important to success and in providing them with intensive pre-service training and extensive ongoing support and professional development.   

While we know there is much more we can and must do to strengthen our outcomes, we take heart from the significant body of rigorous research that shows that our corps members have a positive impact on student achievement relative to other teachers in their schools. The op-ed Dennis and I wrote endorsed Education Secretary Arne Duncan's call for states to evaluate the success of the graduates of teacher-preparation programs, and in each of the two states that have done this (Louisiana and Tennessee), Teach For America came out as among the most successful programs, with our teachers looking more like veteran teachers than like other new teachers.  

Diane particularly asks whether I'm ready to change our model and embrace a "residency" approach to teacher development that the NEA has recently advocated. The reality is that our approach looks far more like a residency model than most teacher-preparation programs currently do, given our investment in selecting teachers carefully and providing them with a coherent program of pre-service and ongoing professional development that extends through their first two years. We will continue exploring ways of strengthening our own program and also share the NEA's view that we should encourage new approaches and pathways for developing the diverse teaching force we need.  Still, I believe we should proceed with caution.  The studies that have been done on existing residency models, including Boston's pioneering urban teacher residency and Tennessee's adaptation of it, do not show positive impact on student achievement within teachers' initial two years.  I also worry that such a resource-intensive approach may not be possible on a very broad scale, and our own research shows that the longer up-front teaching commitments required by residency models will turn away some of the diverse, highly sought-after individuals we need in our classrooms.

In joining together to call for greater investment in teacher recruitment and development, and in high standards for teacher preparation, the NEA and Teach For America weren't throwing under the rug some lingering questions we have about each other's approaches but were instead working to build support for areas where we strongly agree.  Implicitly, we were acknowledging the need to move beyond the too often rancorous and misinformed debate about "traditional" versus "alternative" approaches to teacher preparation and to embrace a shared mission of continuous improvement.  We also wanted to demonstrate the collaborative, generous-spirited approach that we believe will be critical if we are going to make the sustained, bold educational change we need to see in the United States.  We need to move beyond the vitriol, listen to each other, and leverage each other's strengths in a shared campaign to advance student interests.

I hope the December op-ed and this communication are helpful steps in the direction of fostering greater understanding about our beliefs and facilitating a collaborative-minded conversation that will move the needle for our kids!  More soon.  I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend and a good start to the new year!  


This text first appeared as an email to the Teach For America staff from founder and CEO Wendy Kopp on January 6, 2012. It is posted here to be shared with others in the Teach For America community.

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