**See update at bottom.
In case you happened to miss it, The Nation came out with a big 5,000-word story about TFA this week -- it's second piece about the alternative certification program now in its 25th year.
This one, written by a Columbia University undergraduate who's obviously done a lot of work researching his story, focuses on TFA's efforts to deal with critical reporting about its work (This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach for America), describing the research and responses from TFA as "obsessive" and part of a cover up fueled with $3.5 million a year in advertising and promotion -- and tip-offs from the USDE when its work is being FOIAd.
There are a few facts and figures that you may not have seen before, but most of the article is a laborious rehash of familiar complaints about the weakness of the TFA model, the money and talent it's attracted, and the uncertainties of the efforts it and its alumni have undertaken in places like DC, New Orlans, and Newark. Yep, thanks, we've got it.
My first complaint about the piece was that it noted on-campus resistance to TFA recruiting without disclosing that one of the groups organizing students is a pro-union AFT-funded organization, ASUS. Just a few weeks ago, In These Times corrected its story about the Harvard controversy noting that ASUS received AFT funding. Writer George Joseph dismissed the AFT funding as obvious and unnecessary, since ASUS's views are already so widely known:
Seriously? Funding sources and connections are such a big issue in education when it comes to reform funders and advocates, but somehow journalists think that reporting who's behind the effort isn't an issue when its parents, teachers, or the unions.
My second complaint about the piece was that it's framed as an attempt to scare readers about TFA's communications acumen -- they'll slash your tires, or something like that -- when the reality is that they like many other reform groups have struggled to respond effectively (much less prevent) critical-minded stories in The Nation/Hechinger*, In These Times, NPR, Vox, etc.
It's not that TFA is so amazing at PR, but the opposite. The memo that is the focus of the latest article -- so much for TFA's ability to keep a secret! -- indicates a remarkably wonky, slow, and conflict-aversive approach to dealing with critics, advocates, and the teachers unions.
My real criticism, however, is that both TFA and its reform-minded allies continue to allow this kind of thing happen again and again without any really vigorous or coordinated response.
Publish a story raising concerns about teacher tenure, as TIME recently did, and the response is strong, immediate, and action-oriented -- 100,000 signatures on a petition, a press event, and a Twitterstorm of criticism against the cover, the story, and the reporter who wrote it.
Slam a reform organization or its leaders -- repeatedly, and somewhat unfairly -- and the response is slow, timid, defensive -- and likely to be limited to the individual or organization most directly affected, and in the case of TFA limited to blog posts and letters to the editor.
If reformers had a real media response strategy -- no, Education Post doesn't count (yet) -- they'd critique The Nation's story for its flawed reporting. They'd stand up for each other, not just defending their efforts but raising questions about those who are criticizing them. They'd overcome their student government president egos, truly minor policy differences, and deep underestimation of social media and its effect on media coverage.
Sure, most folks don't care for the bickering and it's only a small group of folks who are paying attention. But that small group includes include journalists and thought leaders, funders, and staff, and I just don't think it's working very well for reformers to let their leaders/lead organizations get slammed repeatedly and let claims against them go unanswered. Coordinated action is why the political parties hang together despite policy differences, and unions and union members hang together despite differences.
Related posts: Think Tanker Tells Reporters To Stop Scapegoating TFA; Funding Disclosure Should Apply To Reform Critics, Too; 12 Problems With Politico's TFA Story (+1 With TFA); Reporters Should Identify Union Employees.
*That's right. The usually play-it-straight Hechinger Report ran the first Nation story about TFA and executive editor Sarah Garland wrote about the second story (The two sides of TFA), claiming that it revealed just how much TFA didn't like the story, defending the piece that was published as factually correct, and noting that Hechinger Report regularly publishes pieces focuses on problems as well as successes in education. [NB there are at least a couple of journalistic questions about the Nation/Hechinger piece]
**UPDATED: New America's Conor Williams notes some of the same ridiculousness in The Nation's storyline, and adds that USDE notifying a grantee of a FOIA request is standard protocol rather than part of TFA's inside influence -- both an example of flaws in The Nation's journalism and useful points of criticism against the piece that reform advocates might highlight in a loosely coordinated but not lockstep (ie, morning memo) kind of way.