Personnel News: Toppo To NEA!* Updated.

Is USATs Greg Toppo source greasing in pursuit of something else or just looking for a way out of journalism and into a job flacking for the NEA?   Today’s story about Teach For America really abuses the research and seems to generalize from a few anecdotes.  Just because the NEA says veteran teachers are being laid off for TFA teachers, is there really any evidence it’s happening systemically?  Toppo’s two examples and secondhand heresay from teachers’ union leaders fail to convince*…NEA officials can’t be trusted to relay the research accurately so probably worth verifying this, too, no?  Obviously, I happen to think TFA matters and find the backlash against it unsurprising…still c’mon…

*For instance the issue in Charlotte, NC is that they’re going to only use seniority as a tie-breaker in layoffs using quality as the primary driver…that’s what has the teachers’ unions all in a bundle…

Update:  This is easy!  The blogosphere does Toppo’s work for him.  Within ten minutes of posting, key Boston anecdote and assertion from the story debunked: According to a source close to HR in BPS, there are more than 100 posted openings, no veterans let go for TFA’ers despite Toppo’s relaying claims to the contrary…oops!  Maybe USAT can save money by just covering education via Twitter?   Improved accuracy a nice byproduct!

Update II:   This is ugly!  Here’s more information (than you wanted to know!) on the errors in the story, people can whine, Greg’s a nice guy, but this one is still a lemon and would, it seems, rise to the level of needing a correction and/or clarification.   Bottom line, there are not two sides to everything, sometimes there are facts.

In Boston no teachers have been fired to make room for TFA.  Period.  Teach For America will bring in 20 teachers, into a system that has more than 4,000 teachers. Earlier this year, BPS removed a number of provisionally certified (the non-tenured) teachers – which they do every year; and they announced plans to fire some fully licensed teachers from non high-needs subject areas and schools.  The Boston teachers’ union leader, Stutman, is fixating on Teach For America because it is an easy way to draw attention to the firings.  But BPS is hiring new teachers the way they do every year. They have already hired dozens of new teachers. As of Wednesday, there were more than 100 openings in the system. The Boston Teacher Residency has about 75 people in its cohort annually. The district hires from all the local universities. And Teach For America is bringing in 20 people and they have to interview for jobs just like all the other graduates of universities or teachers coming from other cities. Principals and schools will decide who they want to hire. Again, no teachers have been fired so they can be replaced with Teach For America Corps members.   Toppo obviously took this assertion at face value.  Did he check its veracity with either BPS HR officials or with Teach for America?  I don’t know, but I sure doubt it since it made it into the paper and so far no counter-evidence forthcoming…

Second, contra the article’s assertion there are not 18 districts (that’s even 18 districts, leave aside this alleged national trend) that are firing teachers to “make room” for Teach For America corps members.  The article in fact quotes an authority figure asserting that, “I don’t think you’ll find a city that isn’t laying off people to accommodate Teach For America.”  That is simply untrue.   (More generally, to be blunt, based on what we know from the research, one can wish this were so…)  In any event, if there were examples the NEA would be bringing evidence rather than making wild claims that only the gullible would take at face value.  Charlotte, NC, is the most interesting quasi-exception.  There, the superintendent, Dr. Gorman, decided to lay teachers of based partially on performance rather than just seniority, and he still wanted to bring in new corps members as part of an overall strategy for reform.  That move, which based on the research makes sense anyway, is sadly unusual.   But there and elsewhere they are still hiring new teachers from a variety of routes.    To make the case, as the NEA has and Toppo relays, that all this amounts to making room for Teach For America teachers is akin to saying districts are making room for new graduates of teacher ed programs, transfers from other cities, and so forth.   It’s worth remembering the scale of the personnel systems in many of our larger districts (the kind TFA mostly serves) and the numbers of teachers moving in and out even during a downturn like this.   Toppo failed to check the 18 district assertion, the more general claim, and didn’t put any of this into a larger analytic context for readers.  

And, again, absent a lot more evidence, the whole idea that there is a trend here is flimsy.  In fact, it seems like a caricature of the old joke among reporters, one example is a happening, two is a trend!

In both these cases Toppo’s defense could be, well I didn’t say it, they said it.   Sure.  But when you more or less uncritically relay assertions from people presumably in positions of responsibility, they carry weight.  And I’d like to think that if a lobbyist for the hamburger industry were to tell Toppo that burgers are really good for you at least twice a day, for instance, he’d take a minute to check that out and not just relay it followed by a quote from someone saying, no, no they’re not!  Reporters on other beats check things like this.  This is no different, the union leaders are self-interested here and trying to use the downturn to skewer TFA.  The situation calls for skepticism and some authoritative analysis by the reporter.

Finally, speaking of authoritative analysis, Toppo gives the debate on the research the old “on the one hand, on the other hand” treatment when at this point there are really not two hands but some actual evidence. The NEA can say there is no research supporting Teach for America teachers, but all the serious studies (Mathematica, Calder, NY) show the same thing:  Teach For America teachers are – on average – as good or better relative to other teachers including veterans.   At an absolute minimum they do no harm.  That’s pretty essential for readers to understand in a news story about veterans and TFA teachers especially because people naturally, and understandably, think veterans are always better.  

It’s also essential context if you’re going to let the guy who runs the NEA say that Teach For America is committing “educational malpractice” an assertion that leaving aside its complete irony and shamelessness, is demonstrably false based on the evidence today.   If the American Medical Association abused research the way the National Education Association does it would be a national scandal.  But in our field they are aided and abetted by reporting like this.  [By the way though, when you stop and think about the human capital system in education, these research findings are hardly surprising.  In fact, what I think surprises is that the Teach For America effect is not stronger than it is, that needs more research but has some sobering implications for some contemporary education debates.]    Regardless, Toppo not only doesn’t give readers a sense of the body of research or what it actually says but mixes anecdotal impressions with a discussion of aggregate evidence.   Research like this can be confusing, it can be hard to report, some researchers are less helpful on transparency than others, but none of that is an excuse when it’s your job to parse it.  

Only in education do stories often turn on opinions about the research rather than a discussion of the implications of the research.   Maybe Toppo will write a story soon where we can all offer our opinions on gravity and whether objects float around here on earth?  If there are two sides to everything then there must be two sides to this pesky debate about gravity allegedly holding things down.

So Merrow, not ad hom, those are the facts.  If you have data on this to the contrary, please bring it.  Otherwise…

Update III:  This is avoidable!  Apparently the NEA has been selling this story for a few weeks, since this, and other news outlets passed after looking into the claims and finding them not credible…
*Apparently a few readers thought I was serious about Toppo looking for a job at the NEA, that hed was a joke!  Why would they pay for the cow when they can get the milk…OK, that’s a joke, too.  Anyway, sorry for any confusion.

23 Replies to “Personnel News: Toppo To NEA!* Updated.”

  1. Are you saying the following was a misquote?

    “In March, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools Superintendent Peter Gorman told board members he was laying off hundreds of teachers but sparing 100 TFAers because the district “made a commitment to this program.”

    But the district is nonunion, right?

    And let’s be clear, teachers without unions don’t have the legal protections of unions. . But a legal commitment should be a legal commitment, and you’re trying to have it both ways – saying that you aren’t anti-union but you see nothing wrong with violating union contracts. If you think all teachers should be at will employees, then say so.

    By the way, what exactly were the facts in Boston? Unless you caught Toppo in a factual error, his story seemed balanced.

    Also, I support TFA, and I don’t know about the other four TFA alums who run school systems. I know of one who should be fired, however, because she doesn’t know how to treat human beings, because she doesn’t listen, and because of her ignorance of too many educational realities. But that doesn’t mean all TFAs or former TFAs are destructive.

  2. it’s been a long time but i love it when you publicly melt down like this, andy. it’s so revealing and entertaining.

    — alexander

  3. What’s with the ad hominem attack on a distinguished reporter? What’s that line about arguing the facts when the facts are on your side, et cetera? This reporter is disappointed in Eduwonk, a site I like to think I can rely on.

  4. Does John Thompson have a real job, or do the teachers unions pay him to comment on your blog full time? Does he have a blog? I wonder if I could get a paying gig as a commenter on his blog.

  5. Wondering,

    As I recall, I made $66 in overseas royalities on my first book, and the prizes I have received for writing and teaching have ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, but that’s the only outside money I’ve recieved. With 17 years of experience and a doctorate I get paid $45,000 per year to teach in the school which apparently is the lowest performing school in Oklahoma.

    Having been active in school system politics (I had been a small time legislative lobbyist), I spent a decade studying the national and local evidence before I got into blogging. If you want to know more on that record, check out, Category John Thompson

    I’ve never met any of the AFT leadership, and I would have loved to attend this year’s conference in DC to meet them. But given our finances, I’d never ask the local to pay for such a trip.

    I’ve often been approached about higher paying, more prestigious jobs and after my Fulbright I had agree with my wife and I intended to take a job that would have put me in the middle of some of today’s educational politics. But at the funeral of a former student I decided that I’m not ready to leave the classroom.

    I’ve always said that I’ll stay in the classroom as long as I can run the b-ball court with students. Some things are worth more than money and the relationships formed in a inner city school are among those values. But I know I only have a year or two left in me in the classroom.

    But, these issues aren’t abstract o me. Policies set up high have real effects on the people that I love. For pictures and stories of those people, check out TWIE.

  6. Here’s the reality: This outfit send sthe least prepared folks into a job where they will be working with some of the most challenging children and the most challenging systems. It makes no sense. It’s really depressing that in areas where students population is more than 2/3 SOC, TFA membership is 70% white. This can’t be good for anyone involved, least of all the kids.

    My understanding that thes TFA folks come to their training after reading books on education. That’s it? Oh and havving been in the Ms. Simpson’s 5th grade classroom in white, upper middles class Suburban America. Just because we all went to school doesn’t mean we all know how to teach.

  7. Teach For America corps members come into the classroom the same way as any other teacher that comes through an alternate route program. If you are against TFA’s program model, then you must be against alternate route programs in general.

  8. Lynn,

    Your smug, poorly written comment suggests you have not read (probably aren’t even aware) of the Mathematica study on TFA which suggests that these lily white unprepared kids (who by the way have much less spent on their certification and additional ed degrees) produce the same if not slightly better results as veteran teachers controlling for the types of students taught.

    Here’s a link: Type in Mathematica TFA study, go read some research that is produced by a legit outfit then come back with an informed opinion and maybe I’ll respond.

  9. Did the Chicago Sun Times make this up?

    Chicago Public Schools officials burst into laughter this week after a teacher announced at a School Board meeting that she heard a rumor CPS was holding a “secret job fair” July 31.

    “I can dispel the rumor,” schools CEO Ron Huberman told the giggling crowd. “There are no secret teacher fairs. Any teacher fairs are public. Everyone is invited, and they are advertised.”

    … Hours later, Huberman hit the roof after learning CPS was, indeed, planning what some might call a “secret job fair.”

    Tickets had already been issued to an “invitation-only” CPS job fair …
    As soon as he learned of it, Huberman ordered the job fair be opened to the public and advertised, Bond said.

    … The 2,000 invited to the “invitation-only” fair had included rookie teachers from Teach for America and the Chicago Teaching Fellows, as well as CPS teachers who lost their jobs because of declining enrollment, school consolidations or closings, or budget cuts

  10. Lynn,

    The statistics I’ve seen show TFA has more racial diversity than teachers in general.

  11. I love when Mr. Rotherham posts about TFA- it never fails to generate 10+ lively comments!

    I agree with Denny’s previous comment.

    If you’re a district and you’re hiring for a hard-to-staff school that will ultimately end up hiring an unproven teacher (or possibly even teacher that has already proven to be ineffective), then why wouldn’t you select someone from a top four-year institution with a solid background in their content area who has been pre-screened to have a “can do and will do” attitude?

    Why do people criticize the brevity of an intense TFA boot camp when the alternative is a candidate who didn’t even get that?

  12. The charge that Greg Toppo is slanting his coverage in hopes of getting hired by the NEA is amusing. That’s because here in San Francisco, a former San Francisco Examiner education reporter is now a top executive with the California Charter Schools Association (the state lobbying group for charter schools), and a former Oakland Tribune education reporter also left to work in the charter school world. That’s a pretty high percentage of Bay Area’s education beat reporting positions.

    By contrast, I’ve never heard of a colleague (I’m a daily newspaper veteran) leaving newspapers to work for a teachers’ union (as opposed to becoming classroom teachers).

    With the news business in collapse, it has become obvious that the bounteously funded charter and related “school reform” industries are an escape route for desperate career-changers who are versed in education policy. And anyone who doesn’t think that motivates some journalists to treat school reform kindly and gently in their copy is being a little naive.

    So charging that a journalist who DOES shine a bright light on school reform is selling out for a job with the NEA is a little bassackward.

    Disclosure that my husband and I are both displaced daily-newspaper veterans and he’s now a substitute teacher and member of — but not employee of — the United Educators of San Francisco (yes, a reviled teachers’ union).

  13. By contrast, I’ve never heard of a colleague (I’m a daily newspaper veteran) leaving newspapers to work for a teachers’ union (as opposed to becoming classroom teachers).

    Here’s 1, Angetta McQueen former AP reporter to public relations office at NEA.

  14. I have to say that while I’m generally in support of alternative route certification programs, TFA included (I am in fact a product of one myself, though not TFA) some of these criticisms are valid. That doesn’t mean that Toppo found facts to support his claims, but they’re not baseless.
    I know that in my district this year we have closed about 10 schools and displaced those teachers, and at the end of last year they were discussing furloughs and lay-offs. They do not have enough vacancies to support to the commitment they’ve made to (4+) alternative certification programs, and from what I hear they’re currently struggling to place those teachers, who are considered priority hires since they’re already on a contract with the district.
    I also think there’s something to be said for TFA’s recruiting practices in general, but that’s another story for another day.

  15. In our district in the SF bay area teachers are definitely being let go and being replaced by TFA teachers. It may not be official, but they have done a LOT to get the veteran teachers out for the TFA teachers and stopped hiring credentialed teachers because they “have” to supply many spots for the TFA teachers. Anything to save money (including such cheap toilet paper that it caused numerous plumbing issues)! Go California budget crisis!

  16. While the NEA may state that there is no evidence, one of there staffers could walk into any Teach for America classroom and get as much evidence as they want. TFA corps members are required to gather meaninful data on each student for each standard that they teach. Instructed through a Master’s in Teaching degree, and supported by professional development at TFA, corps members spend significant amounts of time learning how to compose assessments aligned to their state standards. Corps members are also trained to keep notes when testing students reading levels and making observations in math. This combination of qualitative and quantitative data is Teach for America’s mode of operations when considering how to move forward with lesson planning, reteaching, and small group instruction.

    Thank you, Eduwonk, for checking your facts, and basing your response in research. NEA and Mr. Toppo might consider the skill of a TFA teacher, and as a result the progress of her students and the data that backs it up next time they attempt to make unsubstantiated claims.

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