Teacher Preparation

Conversations Between TFA’s Wendy Kopp and NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 30, 2011 2 min read
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Teach For America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel had a substantive discussion about the teaching profession today, showing that while some of their strategies for improving it may differ, they’re on the same page on many issues.

Though set up as a press conference on the Department of Education’s teacher-training reform initiatives, the Q & A opportunity morphed into a conversation between Kopp and Van Roekel—with such interesting comments on both sides that we reporters eventually just sat and listened to it unfold.

Kopp and Van Roekel probably agreed on about 90 percent of the things they discussed, parting ways in only a few instances. For example, both made a point of saying they really want to get beyond negative stereotyping of the teaching profession. Kopp lamented: “For the last 20 years, we’ve been blaming kids and families [for poor achievement], and then ... it went to blaming teachers.”

Both agreed that school systems need to do a better job of improving the teaching force, through a combination of strong preparation, recruiting practices, and teacher support.

And they even got into some pretty sticky territory, namely the argument about how much good schooling can overcome poverty. Kopp said her organization thinks poverty does matter, which is why it has been so focused on changing systems that routinely send poor children into under-resourced schools. Van Roekel said that districts and states must help remove obstacles to learning caused by poverty—such as through school-based health centers—but added that “you don’t blame [poverty]” for poor results.

This kind of dialogue can’t have come easily, given the uneasy rapport the two organizations have long had. NEA’s Representative Assembly took a pretty hardline stance against TFA at its meeting this summer. And observers have faulted TFA for not being more outspoken against the legislative attacks on teacher collective bargaining (scroll down to Jennifer Goldstein’s commentary piece in this collection).

Now, Van Roekel and Kopp did disagree on one key area, and that is essentially the two-year TFA commitment. Van Roekel said he admired the organization’s recruitment strategies and wanted more TFA teachers to stay in the field. He described what he called a “Career Teachers For America” program with “the same heavy recruitment, keep them in the profession for five to 10 years.” He added: “We need the same people there; the stability in that learning community is huge.”

Kopp, meanwhile, underscored the leadership positions TFA teachers take. “It changes their whole life, their career trajectory, their priorities,” she said. Many who go on to work in the education field help to “reshape the policy context” to make it better for students.

What will come out of this dialogue? It’s anyone guess. Generally, it helps to remember that Van Roekel still faces thousands of members who made clear at the Representative Assembly that they don’t like TFA, and likewise, there are probably a few TFA corps members who have had disparaging things to say about unions.

But in a climate of such contention in the field, it’s refreshing to see this kind of meeting of the minds. Let’s hope the dialogue continues, and filters down through their respective organizations.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.