Teach For America, Public Relations, and the Haunting Specter of Education Conspiracies

It’s Halloween, that cursed day when spooks and apparitions lurk around darkened corners and the line between real and fantasy blurs for a moment. To a degree, every day is Halloween in education policy. Conspiracies and evil spirits haunt coverage of the Common Core State Standards, state assessment contracts, and most any reform efforts.

But a story published this week in The Nation traces out a particularly fantastical yarn about Teach For America (TFA). Most of the article is well-worn territory delivered on the authority of well-known TFA critics: many TFA teachers leave the classroom after two years, some TFA alumni have gone on to be controversial administrators and policymakers, etc. All of that is pretty scorched, contested, and familiar ground.

The article’s novelty is in the framing, which is captured reasonably well by the headline: “This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach For America.” The author, George Joseph, traces out a skulduggerous chain of events that supposedly shows how TFA’s influence at the U.S. Department of Education helped it blunt a critical Nation article published earlier this year. But is it true?

Joseph builds much of his story from an internal TFA memo describing TFA’s communications strategy. The chain of events gets a bit dense in Joseph’s telling, so here it is in a simple list:

  1. As part of a story she was developing, Nation writer Alexandra Hootnick submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Education early in 2013.
  2. The Department of Education notified Teach For America that the FOIA request had been filed in relation to an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant TFA had received to do work in Seattle.
  3. TFA developed a public relations strategy to respond to Hootnick’s article.
Joseph advances two relatively new claims about TFA based on this account: First, he charges that TFA’s internal memo shows that TFA has an “intricate methodology for combating negative media attention,” which involves “attacking journalists.” This is the sort of argument that’s very much in the eye of the beholder. The approach outlined in the memo seems pretty banal to me. That is, what Joseph calls “attacking journalists” is what the TFA memo calls a “side-by-side comparison of the assertions in the article and the actual facts.” (You be the judge.)

[pullquote]It would be convenient for Joseph to find the haunting specter of TFA lurking in every cranny of the education policy world, but that’s not enough to make it true—even on Halloween.[/pullquote]

I don’t think that it’s particularly likely that I—or anyone—can convince Joseph or TFA critics that TFA’s approach to public relations is actually perfectly normal. When it comes to deeming TFA’s response to Hootnick “appropriate” or “nefarious,” your mileage will probably vary with your preconceptions about TFA.

I would add, however, that Joseph seems to be suggesting that there’s something wrong with TFA having any sort of communications response at all. He quotes former TFA staffer Wendy Heller Chovnick:

During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media.
Joseph also writes,
An internal media strategy memo...detail[s] TFA’s intricate methodology for combating negative media attention, or what it calls “misinformation.” Given that TFA takes tens of millions of government dollars every year, such strategies are troubling. According to its last three years of available tax filings, Teach For America has spent nearly $3.5 million in advertising and promotion.
I’m not sure why we should find it surprising that a large, public-facing organization with devoted critics has a communications team. Honestly, I'm more surprised that it took as long as it did for TFA to get one. Nor is it obvious to me why organizations who receive public money should eschew public relations. The American Federation of Teachers’ Educational Fund also received an i3 grant in 2010 and the organization maintains a communications team. I don’t see why that’s a scandal.

Joseph’s second claim, however, is a much more interesting one, and it’s a much easier question to settle conclusively. The memo notes that TFA “learned from the U.S. Department of Education [Hootnick] had made a large FOIA request.” Joseph uses this interaction to suggest that TFA “enjoys disproportionate sway in the political realm, from local school districts to federal agencies...While TFA recruits may not be able to stomach teaching, they do feel up to the task of other education-sector activities, like policy reform and foundation management.” This line of argument quickly showed up on Twitter (and in a post today by Valerie Strauss).

In other words, according to Joseph, when you criticize Teach For America, its well-placed alumni at places like the Department spring into action to protect the organization’s image. As he puts it, “Thanks to this notice from the Department of Education, TFA’s communications team was aware of Hootnick’s piece a full year before she informed TFA that she was going to publish a piece in The Nation.” Joseph says that this was because of TFA's "source" at the Department. Diane Ravitch, in a post summarizing Joseph's, claims that a TFA "operative inside the DOE immediately informed TFA."

In response, TFA’s Head of National Communications Takirra Winfield told Joseph that TFA was advised of the FOIA request as a grantee of the Department. Joseph offers no comment as to whether that’s true or not—perhaps because it would be devastating to his article’s angle if Winfield is telling the truth.

Disclosure: I’m a TFA alum myself. And I’m about to spring into action to disagree with Joseph. But—unlike Joseph’s argument about the propriety of having public relations people on staff—this is a simple matter of fact.

Here’s the question: Did the Department of Education reach out to TFA to give them an insider tip them about the coming criticism?

Here’s the answer: No. Pursuant to page 16 (§ 5.11) of 34 CFR Subtitle A, when the Department of Education receives a FOIA request about a grantee (in this case, TFA), it is standard protocol to notify the grantee.

This is pretty far from my areas of expertise, so I reached out to the so I reached out to the Department of Education to check. In an email today, Press Secretary Dorie Nolt confirmed that it is standard protocol to notify grantees when a FOIA has been filed about their work.

So what does this mean for Joseph’s argument?

First: TFA didn’t have “a source” at the Department. It had an i3 grant that was the subject of a FOIA request. And the Department notifies grantees when that happens. This isn’t insider influence. It’s the standard protocol governing a very basic federal process.

Second: Note that this protocol is not secret information. It’s public and readily available.

Third: Obviously, this simple question of fact doesn’t address many other criticisms Joseph levels. However, it does serious damage to the core angle of his piece about TFA’s supposed clout in the world of education. If “what happens when you criticize Teach For America” is that the organization complies with a FOIA request, that’s not a very edgy story. Other than the implication that TFA gets unfair media treatment, the only “smoking gun” in Joseph’s piece is that the organization is strategic about its public image.

Finally: I’m not a reporter. I’m a guy who writes stemwinder policy papers about arcane corners of education policy and semi-regular commentary on education news. But even I know that checking your work is one of the basic hurdles separating real journalism from thinly-costumed ideological attacks. It would be convenient for Joseph to find the haunting specter of TFA lurking in every cranny of the education policy world, but that’s not enough to make it true—even on Halloween."

Author:

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.