September 29, 2008

On Wendy Kopp, TFA, and Linda Darling-Hammond

Back in June, I wrote a long entry on Teach for America and Linda-Darling Hammond's critique of the Kopp organization and model. I had been puzzled at the claim by Kevin Carey and others that Darling-Hammond simply hated TFA with the type of bile that is usually attributed to Karl Rove, Bill Belichek, and others with a take-no-prisoners approach to civic life and sports.

I don't recall who e-mailed me and pointed me to the 1994 Kappan article on TFA by Darling-Hammond, and the description of its aftermath in Kopp's book. But I went back and read the article carefully, then the relevant passage by Kopp. And I will freely and openly admit that I was wrong: I now know why some describe LDH as having a visceral opposition to TFA. I think the description is wrong, but it's understandable enough, since a vivid conflict often is frozen in people's memory as an enduring symbol of a relationship. I'm sure Frank Zappa and Tipper Gore quickly got tired of being asked what they thought of the other's latest initiative, life events, whatever. But because they clashed over the labeling of popular music, that became etched in people's memories. (Well, the memories of some of us.)

This summer we've had another Kappan issue focusing on Teach for America, with both Darling-Hammond and Kopp contributing. TFA has been around long-enough, with enough scars and criticisms of it, that I can make some long-term observations. I suppose that it is the unique prerogative of an historian to live long enough that he or she can proclaim that, no, I wasn't ignoring things; I was just waiting for the dust to settle.

So let me start with some general observations about worldviews: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Darling-Hammond and Kopp worked from two very different views of teaching and teachers. (I'll do my best to present their perspectives from the best vantage point.) For Darling-Hammond, teaching is inherently a complex occupation, with the best teaching full of nuanced judgments that require deep and complex knowledge. The consequence of this perspective would be requirements for teachers to have a good deal of content knowledge, a good deal of pedagogical knowledge, and a great deal of what has come to be known as pedagogical content knowledge (or a repertoire of how to teach specific subjects).

In contrast, Kopp worked from the assumption that the greatest gap in poor districts is an insufficient supply of young, enthusiastic teachers with a minimum threshold of intellectual authority. The consequence of this perspective would be her initial recruiting model for Teach for America: the "best and brightest" new graduates from the liberal arts. Later, she acknowledged that teachers do need some basic pedagogical skills, and TFA's greatest public challenge over the past two decades has been getting its recruits up to speed fast enough to survive their classrooms (and let their students survive, too). 

One irony of these perspectives is that each operates in her professional life with the way the other views teachers. Darling-Hammond's professional life at Teachers College and then Columbia is full of the type of intellectual authority (refereed publications, confirmed recognition of her colleagues, a connection to a top-notch facility) that Kopp asserts is necessary for teachers. For Kopp, her work as a social entrepreneur is absolutely full of the type of occupational complexity that Darling-Hammond claims is the life of a great teacher. Of course, being a professor and the leader of a non-profit is not the same thing at all as being a teacher. But I am a bit surprised that neither of them has said, "Well, in some ways I have the qualities that my opponent thinks is necessary for teachers. Let me explain why that is the wrong perspective on teaching, from my role that is removed from the K-12 world."

Darling-Hammond has been consistently skeptical of TFA's activities, but she has moved from her early 1990s writings that portrayed TFA simply as an almost fraudulent organization (as in the 1994 article) to a more careful focus on the new-teacher issues (in her research on student outcomes). The 1994 article relies on a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence to portray TFA as sloppy and possibly quite dangerous to schoolchildren. Darling-Hammond has continued to be skeptical, but since I have started reading this stuff (from about 9 years ago or so), I don't recall anything in print where Darling-Hammond has veered away from a fairly strict focus on, "Okay, let's look at what's happened from the data..." You may or may not agree with her conclusions, but is there anyone who likes TFA's work who thinks that's a bad focus? (As I've noted elsewhere, I am not sure that is the only potential value in TFA, but it's a legitimate question.)

As far as I can tell, Kopp's focus for the last 15 years has been on organizational growth, shifting much of her efforts to shoring up organizational operations, especially fundraising, recruitment, and connections with districts. Several times, TFA has reworked their programs for supporting recruits after placement, but my sense is that's still in flux, while the other pieces are more stable.  

To be fair to Darling-Hammond, I think she had some evidence to support the claim that TFA was an organizational mess in the early years, and Kopp has pretty much admitted as much. Looking at what was available in print in 1993 and 1994, TFA's reputation for shoddy work really was fair game. The recent audit of TFA's use of federal funds may raise those questions again, but the point is that it wasn't an obviously wrong concern. The occasional problems with TFA's organizational reputation is inconsistent with Kopp's enterpreneural reputation as a go-getter and someone who cares about poor children. I'm not surprised it's that image clash that raises the hackles of TFA supporters; Kopp's brand is as a social entrepreneur, not someone who runs alternative certification programs. 

I think Kopp may have fed a bit of Schadenfreude here, because she helped propagate the myth that TFA tells us anything about teaching in general, that TFA is a model for the New Teaching. Instead, if she had focused on less millennial and more defensible claims, that stopgaps are ethically defensible and bolster the public system, she probably would have found a more ready audience among those who should recognize the value in finding new ways of bolstering public support for the public sector.  That's a missed opportunity, I think.

The organizational woes of TFA should tell us something, but it hasn't been discussed much among the social entrepreneurial crowd or the critics of TFA.  Let's suppose for the moment that TFA's fans are absolutely correct, that TFA really is a new model both for recruiting new teachers and also for generating social entrepreneurs. Given what we know about TFA's organizational history, that means that one of the most successful social entrepreneur organizations required almost a decade for this Great Hope to become a competent organization. We should be skeptical that any similar Great Hope could become competent in a shorter period of time.

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Posted in Education policy on September 29, 2008 10:35 PM |