This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach for America

This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach for America

This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach for America

An internal memo reveals how TFA’s obsessive PR game covers up its lack of results in order to justify greater expansion.


Last year, Wendy Heller Chovnick, a former Teach For America manager, spoke out against her former organization in The Washington Post, decrying its “inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism.” In recent years, such criticism has centered on Teach For America’s intimate involvement in the education privatization movement and its five-week training, two-year teaching model, which critics claim offers recruits a transformative résumé-boosting experience but burdens schools with disruptive turnover cycles.

In the interview, Chovnick referenced the extent to which Teach For America manufactured its public image, explaining, “Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything. During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media.”

An internal media strategy memo, obtained by The Nation, confirms Chovnick’s concerns, detailing TFA’s intricate methodology for combating negative media attention, or what it calls “misinformation.” Given that TFA takes tens of millions of government dollars every year, such strategies are troubling. According to its last three years of available tax filings, Teach For America has spent nearly $3.5 million in advertising and promotion. As the strategy memo indicates, much of this promotion goes toward attacking journalists, including ones previously published in this magazine. The memo details the numerous steps TFA’s communications team took in order to counter Alexandra Hootnick’s recent piece for the The Nation, “Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach For America Is Expanding. What’s Wrong With That?

According to the memo, Teach For America knew Hootnick’s piece was going to be critical, thanks to a source in the Department of Education, who had notified TFA of a Freedom of Information Act request she had made:

In the summer of 2012, alumna Alexandra Hootnick (Bay 2008) reached out directly to several people on staff, asking to speak as part of her work for her Columbia journalism school thesis. She said her topic was TFA’s expansion efforts through the lens of Seattle and our i3 grant. It quickly became clear she was unlikely to portray TFA in a positive light—we learned from the U.S. Department of Education she had made a large FOIA request—and that her thesis could become a media piece.

In a phone call with The Nation, Teach For America did not name its source in the Department of Education, but did say it came from a DOE program officer involved with TFA, due to their status as DOE grant recipients. TFA spokesperson Takirra Winfield added, “We are a grantee of the DOE, so we received notification of the FOIA request as a part of their standard operating procedure.” Notably, a review by the Nation indicated that none of the so-called “disinformation” cited in the TFA memo was actually incorrect.

Teach For America’s Counter-Information Strategy

Thanks to this notice from the Department of Education, TFA’s communications team was aware of Hootnick’s investigation a full year before she informed TFA that she was going to publish a piece in The Nation.

Anticipating Hootnick’s article, TFA’s communications team crafted a pre-emptive counter-informational blog post with TFA Executive Vice President of Regional Operations Kwame Griffith four months before Hootnick’s piece came out, addressing “many of the criticisms we anticipated would be (and were) included in the article.” But this pre-emptive response was only the beginning. Less than an hour after The Nation published Hootnick’s piece online, TFA worked with “America’s Crisis Guru™” to publish an immediate response piece and mitigate any potential online backlash:

Within an hour of its subscribers-only availability our Regional Communications team had prepared a summary of the article along with key statements/quotes. At the advice of crisis communications consultant Jim Lukaszewski, our team created a side-by-side comparison of the assertions in the article and the actual facts.

By TFA’s own count, this counter-post was able to effectively challenge Hootnick’s article, generating about 6 percent of the week’s total social media conversation about TFA, while Hootnick’s generated 7 percent. On top of all this, 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.” For letters drafted by a PR team, they strike a pretty personal tone. The letter TFA drafted for Lindsay Hill, for example, concluded, “As an African-American and a parent who cares deeply about the education of my son and his peers in our Rainier Beach community, this gap is personal. We need to stop the misleading headlines and commit to the real work of teaching our students.” And for Maldonado, who had previously spoken critically of his TFA experience to Hootnick, but is now employed by TFA, the communications team crafted a moving recantation, arguing Hootnick’s piece “just felt like digging into old wounds.”

One thing, however, did not go according to plan. The memo notes how long The Nation took to post these response letters, pointing to TFA’s need to gain stronger pull within potentially critical publications: “Despite submitting Lindsay’s letter a little over a week after the piece ran and Kenneth’s within two weeks, it took The Nation three additional weeks to run both pieces. This points to our need to continue to cultivate stronger relationships with outlets like The Nation, Slate, Atlantic, etc.”

Teach For America’s Outsized Influence

While Teach For America may lack insider influence in certain progressive media outlets, the organization, which represents less than 0.2 percent of America’s teaching force, enjoys disproportionate sway in the political realm, from local school districts to federal agencies. Sixty-three percent of recruits work, as Teach For America puts it, “full time in education,” yet a 2010 study found that 80 percent of Teach For America recruits quit after three years. The disparity suggests that while TFA recruits may not be able to stomach teaching, they do feel up to the task of other education-sector activities, like policy reform and foundation management. In fact, TFA founder Wendy Kopp designed the organization to facilitate just such a transition for corps members.

In 1989, for her Princeton undergraduate thesis, Kopp conceived of making TFA “an attractive choice for top grads by surrounding it with an aura of status and selectivity,” which would in turn “counteract teaching’s image as a ‘soft’ and downwardly mobile career.” In 1996, seven years after the program launched, she told The New York Times: “I’d like people to someday talk about TFA the way they talk about the Rhodes Scholarship.” But this prestige is designed to elevate the careers of TFA corps members, not the profession of long-term teaching. As recently as 2012, when asked about the TFA’s long-term goals for recruits, Kopp told Bloomberg Businessweek, “I think the way to understand Teach for America is as a leadership development program.” She continued, “In the long run, we need to build a leadership force of people. We have a whole strategy around not only providing folks with the foundational experience during their two years with us, but also then accelerating their leadership in ways that is strategic for the broader education reform movement.”

Indeed, while Teach For America has failed at providing the nation with many long-term educators, they have provided a stream of political operatives, who have gone on to help fuel their former organization’s expansion and codify its narrow, corporate vision of education reform. Though TFA corp members often complain of a lack of institutional support in the classroom, TFA has been proactive in setting up regional professional networks and leadership organizations to groom corp members for influential political platforms after their classroom stints. TFA’s “Leadership for Educational Equity,” “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Teach for America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders,” has helped groom numerous policy makers, policy leaders and education reform lobbyists; in fact, according to the latest IRS documents available, in 2012 alone TFA’s Leadership for Educational Equity, a 501c(4), spent nearly $3.2 million on “leadership development,” the vast majority of which came from five undisclosed donors. Furthermore, TFA’s tax records from 2010 to 2013 reveal the organization gave over $7.3 million to Leadership for Educational Equity.

With this extensive organizational infrastructure behind them, Teach For America alumni have climbed to prominence in the education policy sphere. As Hootnick noted in her piece for The Nation, “More than seventy alumni currently hold public office, including two state senators. Within the federal government, their ranks include two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller.” And despite its non-profit status, which prohibits partisan political advocacy, from 2010 to 2013 TFA poured nearly $2.4 million into lobbying and “direct contact” with political figures to pass state legislation recognizing TFA’s five-week summer training as an alternative to traditional teacher certification, and to secure “adequate federal funding.”

The track records of prominent TFA alumni, however, reflect less of an understanding of education policy than an obsessive drive to expand charter schools and the ranks of their former organization. Take, for example, the story of John White, the head of New Orleans’ Recovery School District. After Hurricane Katrina, which Education Arne Duncan infamously called “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education illegally fired 7,500, mostly black, teachers across Louisiana, a move which opened the floodgates to hundreds of TFA recruits, whose numbers quadrupled in the New Orleans region post-Katrina. In 2011, John White, a TFA alum who quit teaching after three years, was appointed head of New Orleans’s Recovery School District, where even some prominent conservatives questioned his lack of experience. Nonetheless, White received the blessing of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who told him, “If you want to lead and you want to lead change, just go find a place where it’s happening. Go find a school system where it’s happening and go do it.”

So like the missionaries before him, White went down to New Orleans to spread the gospel of education reform to the natives and refashion their schools in TFA’s image. Under White’s three-year regime thus far, every single traditional public school in the district has been shuttered, transforming the New Orleans Recovery School District into the nation’s first all-charter school district. In White’s tenure, Teach For America’s presence has grown to nearly 400 corps members, a trend that shows no sign of abating, considering the $5 million TFA has requested from the Louisiana legislature to recruit 550–700 additional corps members and 1,000+ alumni to fuel expansion across the state.

Elsewhere, White’s friend Cami Anderson, TFA’s former executive director, was named Newark superintendent in 2011. Since then, Anderson has pushed to make the district 40 percent charter school, a plan that sparked controversy because it would disproportionately close schools in black neighborhoods and replace 700 veteran teachers with 370 TFA recruits, funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Similarly, in 2013, TFA officials were intimately involved in Chicago’s historic shutdown of forty-nine public schools and firing of over a thousand teachers and a thousand support staff. TFA came under fire when slides from a Chicago Board of Directors meeting from January 2013 were leaked, showing that TFA directors had already projected the growth of fifty-two charter schools by 2017. The presentation showed that even as neighborhoods were still reeling from school closures, TFA was working behind the scenes to replace them with more charters, a move which would all but guarantee more spots for TFA recruits. Despite protest against theses draconian austerity measures—the Board of Education voted to increase payment to TFA from $600,000 to almost $1.6 million, bringing in 325 TFA recruits to Chicago classrooms, 200 of whom would work in charter schools.

The paths to power for White, Anderson, and other controversial alumni, like former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, are strikingly similar. Heralded as policy wunderkinds, all three of these former TFA corp members took the reigns of their districts before reaching the age of 40. All three were appointed with relatively few professional credentials and criticized for their lack of administrative experience. Yet, like many Teach For America alumni, they rose quickly to prominent political positions, bolstered by TFA’s prestige and the elite patronage networks to which TFA gave them access.

Why TFA Invests So Much In Its Image

The incredible assumptions of talent afforded to TFA members, both as instructors and later as political figures, are integral to the logic holding the organization together. For decades, sociological research has shown that anti-poverty measures, not energetic young college students, are the driving factors in improved education outcomes. Yet for over twenty years TFA’s organizational model has been based upon the idea that a college student, fresh from a five-week summer camp, could swoop into an poor, overcrowded classroom and inspire her students to overcome all barriers of structural inequality. Thus, the fundamental premise of Teach For America elides this need for wealth redistribution, perhaps explaining TFA’s massive corporate donor appeal.

As Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University, explained to The Nation, the numbers do not justify TFA’s organizational premise. “TFA has a single study that they always trot out to show they have a positive impact at a standard deviation about 0.07,” said Vasquez Heilig. “While yes that number is bigger than 0, as researchers we do not consider that very significant, especially when reforms like class size reduction and universal pre-K do so much more.” Vasquez Heilig continued, “Prior studies have not demonstrated that TFA does better than than traditionally certified teachers, though they have shown that they do better than alternatively certified teachers, which makes sense because those teachers get thirty hours versus TFA’s five weeks. Its a choice between bad and worse.” Echoing the concerns of many other education researchers, Vasquez Heilig also claimed a lot of positive research TFA cites is often misleading, failing to meet basic research standards, such as clarifying the pool of teachers to whom recruits are being compared.

Further, despite overwhelming sociological research to the contrary, most TFA alumni believe that in the world of education, just as in that of high finance, getting rid of the dead weight is the key to raising the bottom line (i.e., higher test scores). Note, for instance, Michelle Rhee’s rhetoric at a Harvard education policy panel: “If someone told you as a business, that if you removed the bottom 6 percent of your performers, that you would move from 25th in the market to top-5, you would do it in a heartbeat. You would not even think twice about it. But we have an incredibly hard time in this country. We like teachers. It is an incredibly noble position in this country. But we have to look at the reality.”

Though decorated with the trappings of quantitative analysis, this so-called “reality” is highly manipulable. At Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, one of Rhee’s heralded turnaround schools, in only two years the student body leapt from a math proficiency level of 10 percent to 58 percent. These enormous gains were attributed to Rhee’s merit pay system, which supposedly incentivized the Noyes teachers to work harder; in both 2008 and 2010, Rhee’s district rewarded these teachers for their output with $8,000 bonuses. A USA Today investigation, however, found that over the course of three years, 80 percent of Noyes’s classrooms churned out standardized exams that were flagged for “extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests,” indicating that cheating was taking place. During Rhee’s tenure, over 103 public schools were flagged for having alarmingly high erasure rates while from 2007–08 alone over $1.5 million was handed out to teachers, principals and support staff for their “improvements.”

Despite being aware of these troubling irregularities, Rhee’s administration refused to “look at the reality,” instead pushing administrators to generate higher test scores at all costs. Similarly, last year John White faced investigation from the Louisiana Senate for alleged cover-up of rampant test score inflation at twenty schools, which Louisiana Voice found resulted in over $160,000 in teacher bonuses. Despite these juked numbers and consistent failures, TFA alumni like Rhee, White and Anderson continue to be hailed as innovative policy experts—unjustified “wonk” reputations that their Teach For America experiences marked them with from the inception of their careers.

Thus, despite much empirical evidence to the contrary, Teach For America’s premise remains tenable thanks to the enormous prestige afforded to TFA recruits. In this light, TFA’s PR extensive apparatus begins to make sense; lacking results, their image is the only thing left for the organization to stand on. Hence it is not surprising that TFA’s internal media strategy memo reveals an interest in all negative social media interactions, down to every last tweet. In April, for example, controversy erupted on Twitter over a TFA advertisement in the traditionally progressive magazine Mother Jones. Note how effectively TFA’s communications team used its Twitter influence to stop detractors from spreading “factually inaccurate things” and “making noise” (emphasis added):

When the email from Laura McSorley went out to Mother Jones’ e-mail list on April 30th we saw a small group of detractors use this as opportunity to rehash negative and factually inaccurate things about TFA on Twitter. These detractors generated 214 posts from 78 unique individuals within a couple of hours. This had a Twitter reach of 108,658 and Twitter exposure of 316,520.

As soon as we saw this conversation beginning to build our communications team drafted a short response (see appendix) which shared the overwhelming positive reception we’d received from the magazine’s readers and our disappointment that a small group would use this as an opportunity to rehash factually inaccurate information and distract attention from the critical issue of early childhood education.

We posted this response on our On The Record page within a few hours of the detractors making noise and tweeted it out from our national handle twice because the conversation wasn’t immediately dying (Tweet 1 (April 30) and Tweet 2 (May 1)). These tweets generated 5 posts from 5 unique supporters and a Twitter reach of 107,519 (the “@teachforamerica” Twitter handle represented 106,131 of the 107,519 supporters) and a Twitter exposure of 213,621. There were 269 clicks on the link to the On The Record page. At this point the conversation died.

In the last two years, however, TFA’s communications team has had to ramp up its efforts, as its organization has increasingly come under fire. Both online and offline criticisms of the organization, once articulated primarily by teachers’ union officials, have been taken up by parents associations, student unions, and even former TFA alumni, including the Nation’s Hootnick, some of whom have begun organizing nationally against their former organization. As the TFA media memo noted, the #ResistTFA hashtag, organized by Students United For Public Education, “had a Twitter exposure of 20 million and a Twitter reach of 2.8 million.”

The anti-TFA movement appears to be picking up steam. Last month, the national student labor organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, announced a national campaign to kick Teach For America off campus at 15 colleges across the country. While the campaign will not immediately affect the organization’s corporate funding, the ongoing PR toll could damage TFA’s brand. As organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Leewana Thomas explained, “By disrupting TFA’s campus recruitment efforts, we can cut off their efforts to capitalize on universities’ academic prestige.” At Harvard, for example, this September, USAS activists delivered a letter asking administrators to cut ties with TFA.

“We’ve asked schools to cut ties with TFA because our schools are a major source of corp members for TFA,” said Harvard USAS activist Hannah McShea, “The idea is that these kids [recruits] are going to be super-energetic and passionate, but honestly they [students] need more than that. On the national level, Teach for America hasn’t been receiving a lot of criticism for about twenty years. This is a new thing for them.”

In a statement to The Nation, Teach For America claimed, “Most organizations have a media response strategy and TFA is no different—we work to correct the record when things are inaccurate. We also work to proactively share the stories of our teachers, students and the communities we partner with.” But as more and more of these same teachers, students and communities speak out against their experiences with Teach For America, the organization is less able to “correct the record,” salvage its brand and thereby justify its continued expansion.

As McShea put it, “The TFA idea of reinvigorating its base with us supposedly extra smart students will be damaged if the Ivy League kids cut themselves off. To tell them, ‘you can’t have our eagerness and our supposed smarts anymore,’ that would be really powerful.”

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