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.