Teacher Preparation

NEA’s Van Roekel Takes Heat for Commentary With TFA’s Kopp

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 06, 2012 2 min read
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National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel is taking a beating from some members for daring to pen an op-ed piece with Wendy Kopp, the president of Teach For America, in which they agree on some very (repeat, very!) general principles for improving the teaching force.

It’s brought some criticism from Teacher blogger Anthony Cody and Daily Kos’ Ken Bernstein, among others. Their criticism implies that Van Roekel has been compromised or co-opted by TFA in helping craft the op-ed. It points out that NEA’s governing body rebuked TFA last summer, and recently an internal NEA commission posed teacher-training recommendations that appear to be at odds with TFA’s own training regime. Even “Save Our Schools” hero actor Matt Damon and his mother have gotten in on the action.

Over at Intercepts, union-watcher and critic Mike Antonucci is enjoying the spectacle with a tub of popcorn (and a Snuggie?).

I decided to check in with Van Roekel himself to get his take on the situation. He told me in no uncertain terms that NEA and TFA still have a “fundamental difference” in belief on how teachers should be trained. (NEA wants a yearlong apprenticeship, while TFA’s model allows its teachers to become instructors of record after their summer training.)

Van Roekel said that he and Kopp also disagree on aims: Where TFA makes producing future leaders a priority, NEA thinks that a two-year commitment won’t, over the long run, help to build the teaching profession.

Those positions, by the way, are entirely consistent with what Van Roekel and Kopp discussed back in September.

NEA remains involved with the Coalition for Teaching Quality, which supports changes to the “highly qualified teacher” standard in ESEA that would have drastic consequences for TFA, if enacted. So bottom line, it’s hard to argue seriously that NEA has changed its approach to teacher training.

That said, Van Roekel said he found some things to admire in TFA, including its recruiting strategies and its yearlong mentoring support for its teachers. And he said that the union still thinks that using value-added measures as one component of looking at teacher training holds promise, because it’s being done in the aggregate, not to rate individual teachers.

When I asked Van Roekel if he was surprised by the reaction in the blogosphere, he said he was “a little taken aback that the criticism mixed and matched things.” At the same time, he added, he appreciates the dialogue, and says he’s willing to work with anyone who shares a commitment to improving teacher quality.

“I’ve said many times this is way too important for me to talk only to people I agree with at all times,” he said. “The list becomes too short.”

And what of Teach For America? Well, Kopp penned a missive to TFA staffers to offer her take. LIke Van Roekel, she seems to be calling for nuance. Here’s a selection:

We will continue exploring ways of strengthening our own program and also share the NEA's view that we should encourage new approaches and pathways for developing the diverse teaching force we need. Still, I believe we should proceed with caution. The studies that have been done on existing residency models, including Boston's pioneering urban teacher residency and Tennessee's adaptation of it, do not show positive impact on student achievement within teachers' initial two years. I also worry that such a resource-intensive approach may not be possible on a very broad scale, and our own research shows that the longer up-front teaching commitments required by residency models will turn away some of the diverse, highly sought-after individuals we need in our classrooms.

In joining together to call for greater investment in teacher recruitment and development, and in high standards for teacher preparation, the NEA and Teach For America weren't throwing under the rug some lingering questions we have about each other's approaches but were instead working to build support for areas where we strongly agree. Implicitly, we were acknowledging the need to move beyond the too often rancorous and misinformed debate about 'traditional' versus 'alternative' approaches to teacher preparation and to embrace a shared mission of continuous improvement."

What are we to make of all this? The reaction to a fairly vague op-ed certainly seems to be another example of the increasingly polarized, all-or-nothing policy climate we find ourselves in these days, both in the education field and beyond. (And it’s a climate that, to be fair, both TFA and NEA in their past lives have had a hand in creating where their relationship has been concerned.)

What do you make of it, readers?

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