Open Letters FROM Reformers I Know. Part 2: Wendy Kopp

January 31, 2013

Though she was the last one to receive an open letter from me, Wendy Kopp is the second person to respond.  I’ll probably make some comments about the letter in the ‘comments’ section later on, but for now I want to give her the full forum.  You can read my letter to her here.

1/23/13

Dear Gary,

From my kids’ perspective, Darth Vader is one of the cooler things I’ve been compared to over the years. Thank you for your letter, and for starting this open letter series. I love the spirit. You raise a lot of important issues and I’ll get to as many of them as I can. I want to start by addressing your biggest concern: that Teach For America lacks ideological diversity, or at least fails to encourage and embrace it.

Active and vocal alumni like you are proof that there’s no shortage of diverse opinion within the Teach For America community. But you’re right that we haven’t done enough to highlight ideological diversity and reach out to alumni who feel that their opinions aren’t welcome. Part of the explanation is that before we embraced online forums and social media — largely in the past year — there were far fewer opportunities and places where we could surface alumni opinion.

Teach For America was built on the idea that our best hope of reaching “One Day” is to have thousands of alumni use their diverse experiences and ideas to effect change from inside and outside the education system. We cannot realize our vision without including individuals from many different backgrounds and perspectives. In fact, in the past I’ve chosen not to “take sides” or communicate my thinking on certain issues precisely because opinion varied so widely within our community. I felt responsible for creating a big tent. 

However, I’ve learned the hard way that silence just reinforces misunderstanding. Going forward, our goal is to show the plurality of opinion within our community and provide more outlets to challenge one another and share our best thinking.

I believe there is real misunderstanding about what opinions Teach For America wants to hear – misunderstanding we haven’t done enough to combat. When corps members and alumni assume their opinions defy conventional wisdom and no one wants to hear them, they often choose not to speak up. This becomes a self-perpetuating problem. The people who do speak up express similar views, which reinforces the impression that we all think one way and discourages dissenting opinions.

Changing this will require more than providing discussion forums – it involves the difficult work of changing culture. As you’ve noticed, over the past year we’ve made a concerted effort to do just that by encouraging honest engagement and debate on several platforms, both inside and outside the organization. After I wrote an op-ed on teacher rankings, we gave alumni who disagreed with me a place to express themselves in our alumni magazine One Day. Last year we launched our Pass The Chalk blog where we feature a range of opinion on the most controversial and consequential topics we face. Check out pieces like, “In Support of Teacher Tenure,” or “Why Won’t Back Down Doesn’t Bring Us Forward.” During the Chicago teachers strike we posted views from both sides.

It’s a disservice to paint our community members with a broad brush and say we’re all about “shutting down failing schools and firing teachers.” The “reformers” you lump together in fact vigorously disagree about the best policies and approaches. 

Allow me to make a plug here. It’s Teach For America’s responsibility to ensure that all alumni know their voices are heard and valued, and to surface the range of opinion they represent. But everyone in this community shares responsibility for the direction we take. We need more alumni to take the initiative to submit a blog post, convene a panel of alumni, or start a difficult conversation. It’s up to you to shape the direction of this movement.                       

As for the 20th anniversary summit, your description doesn’t jive with what really went on. Diverse speakers and panelists including AFT President Randi Weingarten, DC Mayor Vince Gray, Los Angeles School Board member and alum Steve Zimmer, and Congressman John Lewis all offered different perspectives on Teach For America and the fight to end educational inequality. We hosted sessions on a wide range of issues our alumni told us were most important to them. 

In my opening speech I was clear that while we have learned a lot and made progress, we have yet to move the needle against educational inequality in the aggregate. We’re nowhere near claiming victory when only 8% of low-income students are graduating from college.

A core part of Teach For America’s mission has always been affecting positive change in the traditional public school system. 53% of our corps members and the majority of our alumni who stay in education work in district schools. Our alumni leadership team recently launched our School Systems Leadership Initiative, which encourages and prepares alumni to take leadership positions in their district systems.

If you read some of the articles I’ve written, you’ll know that I often speak out against the idea that teachers or unions are “the problem.” In the Atlantic, I described the current mistrust and micromanagement of educators as an impediment to reform and called for districts to empower them with more flexibility to meet students’ needs. In the Wall Street Journal, I wrote about how difficult it is for even the most exceptional teachers to achieve results working in schools and systems that aren’t designed to support them.

The challenges and complexities of our work are immense, and I’d never claim to have all the answers. Every week I’m humbled to learn new things. But complexity is no excuse for inaction when there’s a crisis this great and so much is at stake.

My evolving understanding of the best ways to close the opportunity gap is deeply informed by independent data and extensive first-hand experience in districts across the country over more than two decades. Time and again, when we see meaningful results in a classroom, school, or district, we see similar mindsets and practices behind it. That tells us we can, in fact, learn from and spread these successes. You don’t have to take my word for it – there are numerous studies and reports on what distinguishes effective teachers and schools.

I can’t respond to your blanket charge that our success stories are unfounded other than to say that when you think you’ve found a claim that doesn’t hold up to the evidence, you should challenge me directly. We believe strongly in transparency and accountability, which is why Teach For America encourages rigorous independent evaluations of our program. Our mission is too important to operate in any other way.  

KIPP is more than capable of speaking for itself so I won’t get in to a lengthy debate here. I’m sure they’d welcome a robust discussion on their methods and results, which even critics admit are some of the most impressive of any school in the country. Speculation that KIPP’s impact on student achievement is due to attrition or having more motivated families are claims disproven by third-party research by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and Mathematica Policy Research, Inc, which conducts an ongoing evaluation of KIPP and publishes reports on their findings.

I don’t think you are giving the principals and teachers at KIPP enough credit. The motivation you see from students and their families reflects the hard work they’ve put into building a strong school culture of achievement that’s contagious. Home visits and cultivating family involvement have been cornerstones of KIPP’s approach from the beginning. If you talk to KIPP parents, they’ll tell you that they became more invested and invigorated along the way because of the spirit of the school and its educators. That said, KIPP staff are their own toughest critics and would be the first to say they don’t have it all figured out and their current efforts are nowhere near good enough.

I’ll wrap up by saying I was struck by the analogy in your letter of Teach For America as a parent watching two children competing against each other at a sporting event. Every time we talk about education this way, we alienate the majority of people who don’t consider themselves partisans of any camp —their loyalty is to their kids and solutions that work.

Education leaders and districts across the country have shown us that we can bridge traditional divides and work together to do what’s best for kids. But we have to stop thinking of ourselves as locked in an ideological battle and focus on doing everything in our power to give students today the education they deserve. I believe that entails an obligation to understand what’s working and act on the lessons from successful teachers and schools while asking what more we must do to realize our vision of equal opportunity for all.      

I look forward to talking more the next time we run into each other near the Swedish meatballs.

Until then,

Wendy

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship.