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The Odd Couple: Dennis & Wendy

Editor's note: Bridging Differences returns today from its holiday break.

Dear Deborah,

While we were on holiday break, Dennis Van Roekel and Wendy Kopp co-signed an opinion piece in USA Today, setting off a heated controversy.

It was a surprising statement, mainly because of its authors and what they represent. Here was the president of the nation's largest teachers' union, with more than 3 million members, joining in solidarity with the founder of an organization that recruits and assigns several thousand college graduates each year for short-term commitments to teaching jobs (many of them in non-union charter schools). One can only imagine the intense editorial negotiations between the staffs of these two powerful organizations.

Only two weeks earlier, NEA had released a statement calling for the reform of the teaching profession. NEA proposed that all new teachers should have a full year of residency under the supervision of a master-teacher and should be required to pass a rigorous, classroom-based performance assessment. These recommendations are directly opposed to TFA's policy of placing its recruits into teaching jobs with only five weeks of training.

Prominent teacher-activists responded immediately to the USA Today editorial with outrage. Ken Bernstein, who blogs regularly for The Daily Kos, accused Van Roekel of betraying his members.

Anthony Cody, who blogs for Education Week, wondered why the NEA was partnering with an organization that sends teachers into challenging schools with minimal preparation, knowing that most will leave teaching after two or three years. Fred Klonsky pointed out that NEA delegates had passed a resolution critical of TFA at its annual national convention only six months earlier.

Apparently, they were not the only ones taken aback by NEA's partnership with TFA. The outcry was sufficient to provoke a response from a high-level official of the union, who insisted that the Van Roekel-Kopp article was fully consonant with NEA's "most urgent message about the importance of improving teacher preparation and entry requirements." Indeed, the article repeatedly stresses the importance of high-quality teacher preparation.

And so readers are left to wonder, ponder, deconstruct, and dissect this strange editorial duet in USA Today. Did the NEA sign on to TFA's agenda of minimal fast-track training, or did TFA sign on to NEA's demand for a full year of residency and a rigorous examination before teachers gain their license? Or was there something else going on?

Maybe the critics got it wrong. Maybe Van Roekel persuaded Wendy Kopp to change the TFA model. Maybe future TFA recruits will be required to spend a full year in residency and pass a rigorous performance assessment before becoming full-time teachers.

It's hard to imagine, in light of TFA's phenomenal financial success, that it would change course on a matter so basic to its business plan. TFA apparently receives more than $200 million each year in donations and grants, plus sizable payments by districts that hire its recruits. For years, TFA has maintained that its recruits get superior results with only five weeks of preparation. Why would Wendy Kopp change the TFA approach now? And yet she signed a statement that says without qualification that teachers need "the best preparation possible."

No one can rightly maintain that five weeks of training is "the best preparation possible" for a profession as important and demanding as teaching. NEA insists that it has conceded nothing. I wish Wendy Kopp would explain what she intended by joining with the NEA in a joint statement that on its face appears to repudiate the TFA model.

Diane

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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