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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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Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

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  1. Please explain to me why it’s news that an organizations writes an INTERNAL memo to respond to an article they feel portrayed them inaccurately. There’s no room for pettiness or “gotcha” journalism in this important conversation about how to best serve students. Very disappointing.

  2. I agree with Carolyn. Allow me to summarize The Nation article: “Large organization we wrote a critical piece about responds to said criticism, causing us to further criticize their response.”

  3. I agree with Carolyn and Seth. It isn’t clear to me why TFA is constantly maligned and criticized for trying to help children who attend the worst schools–children no one else ever thought about until Wendy Kopp started TFA.

  4. No, it’s not a big breaking news story. But it’s part of an important, ongoing analysis of TFA’s effectiveness and its potential for harm.

    TFA has undergone massive mission creep since Wendy Kopp started it over twenty years ago, going from an organization intended both to provide teachers to districts with staffing crises and to cultivate a new generation of teachers. Now, as the article notes, TFA routinely attempts to place its interns in districts without staffing shortages. Also, in the face of such large attrition among its alumni, it’s changed its stated goal from creating teachers to creating “education leaders”; it counts alumni who have careers as consultants, policy “experts” and other higher-paid non-teaching positions as “educators” along with the 11% or so who actually stay in the classroom.

    Now it’s in the process of changing its failed training practices without making any public admission of its error in believing that all one needed to be a *great* teacher is a B.A., five weeks of training, and a some passion for social justice.

    TFA has never been up front about its changes of course, but instead has doubled down on the self-promoting message about its crucial role in saving American public education.

    Because TFA has become a such major force in education reform – both as messaging machine and as a recipient of large amounts of federal funding – their internal discussions of and rationalizations for their activities should be a matter of public discussion – hence, “news.”

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