I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Tall Tales of Wendy Kopp

Yesterday, Anthony Cody had a question for Teach For America's founder, Wendy Kopp: he wanted proof that her teachers really do stay in teaching for an average of eight years. I looked at the facts for a bit and came to the conclusion that it's very unlikely Kopp's claim is accurate.

Cody asked his question because he is a thinking person with an actual, working brain in his head. When he hears a claim like Kopp's - a claim that stands in contradiction to all of the evidence we have about TFA - he's inclined to be skeptical. He'd like to see some actual proof before he joins in the happy, reformy sing-a-long.

But we live in a world where journalists and pundits regularly refuse to fact-check reformy claims of awesomeness. And no one knows this better than Wendy Kopp.

All the way back in 2008, Kopp did a long interview with Charlie Rose. The interview was a mess; worse, no one seemed to care, save blogger Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler:
You see, this second tale, which served well for years, had recently hit some embarrassments. It involves Michelle Rhee, a close associate of Kopp, the new chancellor of DC’s public schools. For years, Rhee had told an uplifting tale of her own heroics, as she moved up the non-profit ladder. And omigod! Speaking with Rose last week, Kopp offered Rhee’s story again:
KOPP: Take the Michelle Rhee, the chancellor in New York—sorry, in Washington D.C. She would be the first to say, and she’s said many times, that the reason she’s—she operates so relentlessly and with such urgency is because of her teaching experience in Baltimore, where she took a class of kids who were at the 13th percentile against the national norm—she taught the same kids for two year. They were at the 90th percentile at the end of those two years.
She knows from her own personal experience —and no one could ever shake her conviction, because she knows from working with kids and families that we don’t have these problems because the kids can’t do the work or because the families don’t care, all the reasons that most people in America think we have the problem. But clearly because we as adults haven’t given them the opportunities they deserve.
We’re sorry, but careful people should doubt that tale. As you may recall, Rhee had told this story for a decade, with all its very detailed data, using it to build her mystique until, last year, she stood in line to be the DC chancellor. And omigod! A total shock! Asked to back up her inspiring claims, she couldn’t produce the data! Needless to say, the data exist from her three years of teaching—but the Baltimore City Schools, for murky reasons, somehow just couldn’t produce them! Anyone with any sense would know what this awkward mess probably meant—but last week, Kopp was still reciting Rhee’s story, right down to that granular detail. “She took a class of kids who were at the 13thpercentile,” Kopp enthused, seeming to give us precise bits of data. Such detail suggests that a story is true—that the data have been carefully studied. Sorry—that’s not the case here at all. But Kopp rattled on all the same.
Again, this was all they way back in 2008! Give Somerby great credit for calling b.s. on Rhee's tale - because, as Gary Brandenberg reported three years later, this story was completely phony. Rhee didn't even come close to meeting the claims she was making; she wound up backpedaling on the entire thing (and yet is still touted as a miracle worker by in many in the media).

Yet Kopp was happy to tell a pleasing tale about the young Miss Rhee going into Baltimore and caring so very much about the young ones that she worked a miracle out of sheer will. Kopp told the same tale about another, unnamed TFAer... and Charlie Rose ate the whole thing like it was ice cream. He didn't bother to ask where the proof was. He didn't bother to ask if Kopp could corroborate the story. He didn't bother to ask whether such a massive gain was commonplace for TFA.

And it didn't occur to him that stories like this may be true, just like stories about the face of the Virgin Mary appearing on grilled cheese sandwiches may be true. But that doesn't mean they signify anything; that doesn't mean they are anything more than outliers.

I wish I could say that Wendy Kopp is an anomaly, but the sad truth is that she is not. The reformy world is full of happy, shiny, wonderful tales of heroic teachers and brave "reformers" who "prove poverty is not destiny." That, of course, is their job. They are paid to make us believe that the chronic poverty in which this country is mired is a result of failed schools. They are paid to distract us from looking at where the problems really lie.

They are professional story tellers. And business is good.


Unknown said...

Is there any data on TfA attrition rates prior to the 2 year commitment is completed? Several of my university students know someone who started teaching through TfA but dropped out of classroom mid-year of their teaching placement. These reports are anecdotal but they are consistent from different students over several years.

How would one get this particular information?

Galton said...

It may be redundant but,


Jazzman does it AGAIN.