K-12

The two sides of TFA: An internal memo shows the teacher group’s defensiveness over a story about how it changed in the face of criticism

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.

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report.

Case Study: TFA Responding to Bad PR

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Sarah Garland

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for… See Archive

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