Rescind your offer to Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp as Commencement Speaker
As a public school advocate, and a product of California public schools (father and grandmother both attended UC Berkeley), I was outraged and saddened to find that UC Berkeley had extended an invitation to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, to be featured as the commencement speaker at UC Berkeley this year.
Oakland and other urban school districts have, for years, suffered under the constant threat of privatization. Teach for America is just one of many cogs in the privatization machine; there are many others, but TFA’s influence is not just felt at the school site level, but has also infiltrated higher levels of administration (such as the Oakland mayor’s office), as well as TFA acting as lobbyists for legislation favoring privately managed charter schools and ed reform groups.
TFA has a potent mixture of idealism and practicality; the concept of having the opportunity to “teach” in a high needs district such as Oakland is tantalizing for many young people eager to give something back to the community. According to TFA recruiting manager Jessica Rossoni, whose credentials included a stint at the Daily Californian, “UC Berkeley is one of the largest contributors to the organization in its number of students who join TFA, according to Rossoni.
She said UC Berkeley students apply in high rates because of UC Berkeley’s values of equity and students’ desires to tie those values to a career.” Notice that she doesn’t mention the type of career. Could be anything but teaching, and usually is. But, here’s what TFA is really about:
1) Installing low-paid, unqualified, uncertified, non-union teaching labor into the most challenging schools. Leafy suburban schools would never accept a core group of teachers that enter their schools in significant numbers with only 5 weeks of experience. Charter schools actively employ non-union TFA teaching labor; charters’ teacher retention record is abysmal, typically 2 years. Not surprising, since this corresponds with the 2-year TFA teaching commitment.
2) Creating a “teacher pipeline” to fill teaching positions is secondary to TFA’s true mission mentioned above. Despite TFA’s assertions, there isn’t a teacher shortage; that narrative is trotted out by TFA and is accepted as gospel by the ed reform echo chamber; teachers as a whole are woefully underpaid and unsupported, particularly in high needs districts (was everyone at UC Berkeley asleep during the Oakland strike?).
TFA solves none of this; its existence exacerbates the problem by undermining the professionalism, credentials, and experience of authentic teachers committed to the job as a profession, and not just a career stepping stone or resume padding on the part of corps members.
3) TFA charges school districts a fee for hiring TFA members. This fee causes a significant burden for cash-strapped districts already grappling with expenses associated with supporting high needs students. There is no guarantee that these teachers will remain with the district, and in fact, collectively, TFA has a poor track record of teacher retention within the host district in which they serve.
This disruptive model of teacher churn caused in part by hiring TFA is damaging to our students, who deserve highly-trained, certified teachers with a long-term commitment to the profession.
4) TFA is a privatization group that is actively supported by the Walton Family Foundation. Why UC Berkeley would ever align itself with the worst of corporate school privatization supporters completely escapes rational thought.
UC Berkeley is one of the most important assets and symbols of public education in California. Support for groups like TFA flies in the face of the core values that UC Berkeley represents. Its mission to serve public students and to serve in the public interest will forever be tainted by this ill-advised invitation to a group that undermines all we value as democratically represented public institutions.
Read here for the unflinching reality of what TFA truly represents, and ask yourself if this narrative aligns with the values of UC Berkeley. I was disheartened to note that UC Berkeley has been a part of what has become the education misery in Oakland and elsewhere by supplying a large pool of students as corps members.
Again, while the Berkeley students may find this kind of service admirable, this model is actively undermining the teaching profession. Not surprising that it is our mostly black and brown students that are suffering the consequences because of it. There is nothing admirable or equitable about that.
While I understand that this decision was based in part by student input, it is sometimes advisable for other adults in the room to step up and explain the symbolism behind this TFA invitation.
This generation of college students hasn’t been around long enough to understand what has happened regarding school privatization in this country, but someone (besides TFAer Ms. Rossoni) needs to explain it to them.
The students’ wish to give back to their community has been hijacked by the very people like the Waltons that want publicly supported institutions like UC Berkeley to go away. The irony is not lost on those of us who have witnessed this calamity for far too long.
Please do the right thing and rescind your decision to Ms. Kopp, offer her your sincerest apologies, and find someone like Diane Ravitch or Jitu Brown, both true champions of authentic public education in this country. Thank you for your consideration.
UC Berkeley’s response to the open letter:
From: Chancellor Departmental <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 3:35 PM
Subject: Re: UC Berkeley should not support and condone school privatization: Rescind your offer to TFA Wendy Kopp as commencement speaker
To: Jane Nylund <email@example.com>
Dear Ms. Nylund,
Thank you for taking the time to alert us to your concerns about Wendy Kopp being selected as the 2019 commencement speaker. The University of California, Berkeley has a commencement speaker selection process in place which includes the involvement of the student group, the Californians, the Associated Students of the University of California, and the Chancellor’s office. Please see the attached flow chart for more detail on the selection process.
We are highly committed to this process and we do not disinvite speakers when groups or individuals come forward who do not support the speaker’s beliefs or body of work. While we understand the concerns put forth by those who have written, we must adhere to both our process as well as to the tenets of free speech.
Jane Nylund is an Oakland Public Schools parent.