Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Graduation Speakers Don't Matter...Unless They Do -- OU Makes a Mistake.

Graduations are not about the speakers. They’re about the graduates. No one remembers the guests who come in and say, essentially the same things to graduates in uncomfortable caps and gowns, graduates who just want that piece of paper, to walk across the stage, and to celebrate their accomplishments.

Some ceremonies can be moving. I attended the OU Native American ceremony several years ago and saw a true celebration – of heritage, of family, and of accomplishment. Each graduate stood before us all as his or her family was named, degree mentioned, and future plans shared. Each graduate had his or her moment in the spotlight, some in traditional dress, some in those uncomfortable caps and gowns. It was a true celebration. I was honored to be invited.

My cousin recently spoke at the graduation of housing co-op students at Berkeley. He is active on the Board, and knows the benefits of lower-cost housing for students – he was a co-op resident himself. He and his audience shared so many experiences and struggles. I know his speech resonated.

Graduations are not about the speakers – unless they are. Unless the political choice of a speaker seems to support a mission diametrically opposed to the mission of the university. Such is the case at University of Oklahoma this year.

The Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education will proudly confer 335 undergraduate and graduate degrees this year…students who have chosen the traditional path to education, who are living examples of the mission of the Rainbolt College: “… to promote inquiry and practices that foster democratic life and that are fundamental to the interrelated activities of teaching, research, and practice in the multi-disciplinary field of education.”

Undergraduates have spent two years in general education classes, and then two more intensive years taking education courses, participating in field experiences at different public schools in the area. They have, or will soon, participated in a full semester of a teaching internship with a master teacher, learning the craft and day-to-day realities of their chosen profession. They will still stumble in their first years in the classroom. Teaching is complex and demanding; but they will have a firm foundation of knowledge and experiences from which to draw as they continue to learn and grown. I have worked with several of these young people as a former adjunct to the College of Education. I know the level of their commitment to teaching as a career; I know how carefully they have reflected on their choices. I know they are ready for that challenge. I am beyond proud of their accomplishments, and I am grateful for their decision to enter the profession I love.

This year, OU has chosen to invite Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, as their keynote speaker. 

Her story is well known – why not use the good reputation of the Peace-Corps  and send a teacher corps into the classrooms in poor schools and teach for a few years, with the intent of earning $10,000 of student loan forgiveness, learning about education policy, and use the experience as a stepping stone to a more prestigious, lucrative career. I believe TFA recruits bright, generous young people who want to contribute. I believe the leadership of TFA is cynically using them, and using their students as well. There is nothing Peace-Corps about TFA now.

Teach for America’s mission:  “TFA is growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.” And they define ‘excellent education’ as passing tests.

TFA students are some of the best and brightest from our universities. They receive, not the intensive two-year work load of traditionally-prepared teachers, but instead have a five-week summer program, where they may be in front of a ‘class’ of students a few hours a week. Their job is to raise test scores at the schools they’re assigned, however they can.

The agreement between school districts and TFA include a ‘finders fee’ per teacher -- $2000-$5000 per teacher, paid by strapped school districts back to TFA. Teachers are expected to teach 2 years. They are not building a resume as an educator. They’re using education to build their resume. Gary Rubenstein, one of the few TFA grads who stayed in the classroom after his commitment wrote an open letter to Kopp, highlighting his concerns with the organization. He explains that many TFA alumni are at the forefront of the teacher-bashing reform movement, including Michelle Rhee, who laughed about putting tape on her students’ mouths, and lied about her results (test scores) in the classroom.

TFA teachers now have moved into the suburban schools and charter schools…with the same mission: raise test scores. There were allegations that some of Chicago’s career teachers who were laid off would be replaced by new TFA hires. This author differs. That there is even a conversation about career teachers being replace by TFA part-time teachers makes the issue problematic.

I engaged OU in a conversation about their choice, knowing the choice was final. 

Your own school trains and inspires career educators, ones who make measured, reflective decisions to become teachers. Kopp's Teach for Awhile slaps five weeks of haphazard training on young people who, with a few exceptions, never intend to become educators...they want to pad their resumes, or get student loans forgiven, or play school on other people's children. They are told in their placements NOT to listen to the career educators in their building, and only listen to TFA trainers. They seldom stay through their short placement, and then they go off to do 'bigger and better' things. All this time, YOUR graduates are continuing to learn, to build relationships in the classroom and in their departments. YOUR graduates are asking questions, and deepening their craft.
Kopp and her attitudes about education, teacher training and teacher retention conflict with the mission of the University and the College of Education.

Thank you for listening. This woman, and Edelman, stand for everything I've fought my entire career. They demean and belittle career educators. 

OU’s response was to tell me the process of selection:

We did want to provide you information on how OU's Commencement speakers are selected. At the end of each academic year, the OU Commencement Committee, comprised of students, faculty and staff, suggests a list of names of possible Commencement speakers for the following year that the committee deems acceptable. Those names are forwarded to the President for his consideration and determination. Consideration is given to the speaker's ability to talk to our graduates about the world in which we live as well as the availability of the speaker. 

We hope this information helps to provide some clarity on the process for selecting OU's Commencement speaker. Please feel free to contact us if we can ever help you in the future as well.

My response…asking WHO recommended her:

So, who vets possible speakers? To see if they support the mission of the school? Wendy Kopp's mission is completely opposed to traditional teacher preparation schools. She thinks she knows best.

I understand the PROCESS, but not the justification of her choice. Why buy into the reform agenda that is trying to destroy the profession you have prepared your school of ed graduates for?

Her appearance tarnishes you. Not the Rainbolt grads...they will sit there with their heads high, knowing they are doing the right thing. They spent years and thousands of dollars to enter the teaching profession with the best background they can have. She believes 5 weeks is all it takes to 'make' a temporary teacher.

Your choice is wrong. Your process is flawed if she is the best available speaker.

They responded:

We understand and respect your opinion. There are currently 49 OU students with 2 year teaching agreements and 86 OU graduates who have taught through Teach For America. 

We understand that not everyone may agree with the choice of speaker every year. However, our commencement committee always has the goal of finding a commencement speaker who will inspire our graduates to go out into the world and achieve something of which they will be proud. 

We will be sure pass your concerns along to the commencement committee for their future consideration. 

Thank you again for your email. We are always here and happy to help if we can. 

I am nothing if not persistent:

I have heard in OKC schools where TFA "teachers" have been hired (with a kickback charge per head to TFA), veteran teachers have had to give up their classrooms, to become traveling teachers, working from a rolling cart, because TFA requires each of their '"teachers" to have his or her own room. 

I do not need a have told me nothing that justifies this choice. You've told me that just over 100 graduates, in the history of OU, have gone to TFA. That's not anything to be proud of. You have NOT told me how many Rainbolt School of Education graduates will receive degrees at graduation. I'm thinking that number overwhelms the TFA number pretty thoroughly.

I will continue to share links, providing the vetting of this woman that someone should have done.

So, it comes down to this: the 49 current OU-TFAers and the 86 former OU-TFAers trump the 335 graduates THIS YEAR. OU has thrown its support to a woman who would gut schools of education, has denigrated career teachers, works with reformers to undercut unions and life-long educators.

I’ve watched, listened, read, and learned about TFA – a group some of us call, ‘Teach for Awhile.’ Many alums are not  staying with the party line…An important book about TFA is entitled, Teaching Other People’s Children. The title is a deliberate choice. A very non-diverse group of privileged young people spend a couple of years ‘playing school’ with other people’s kids. Kids of poor families, kids in struggling schools.

I will officially offer the apology my friends graduating with degrees from the OU Rainbolt College of Education will never hear from the University’s leadership, so eager to cozy up to a ‘real reformer.’

Friends, I’m so sorry. Know I’m proud of each and every one of you. I celebrate your commitment to education, your passion for your students, and your living example of the mission of the College of Education. Thank you for choosing a life of service to our children. I am proud of you! Your students and families are proud. They are the people who matter, not a graduation speaker. Never forget that.

I’m so sorry.


  1. I agree with (almost) everything in your very thoughtful post. It's when Teach for conflated with the Peace Corps that I cringe. As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) myself, trust me - they aren't the same. That V is the most obvious difference. We do not get paid other than a modest living allowance - mine is $350/month - and a small "adjustment allowance" when we complete our service.

    More important, however, is that we do not replace local teachers nor undermine the public education systems where we are placed, as TFA does. Where I serve in West Africa there are not even close to the number of trained teachers necessary to staff all the schools. My specific position is as a teacher-trainer (Don't be alarmed! I am an experienced teacher and principal, not a recent college grad.) helping to increase the number and quality of local educators.

    1. Sally, thanks for the clarification. I've heard OTHERS equate TFA with Peace Corps...I'll make that clearer.

      I revere the mission of the Peace Corps, had friends who served, and held them in awe. Thank you for your service. It sounds like an exciting job!

    2. So let me get this right. In Oklahoma we are paying TFA a full time recruitment fee for summer school part time jobs? TFA will provide amateurs who will directly take away money from professional teachers in the lowest paid tier of American teachers? It is nice to see that the press release says that summer school is "sponsored by Oklahoma City Public Schools and Teach for America, a nonprofit group that places teachers in high-need and urban schools nationwide." TFA is just as neutral as ALEC. OU should be ashamed for providing a grandstand for an operation that will be taking away jobs from professional teachers trained in our own highly regarded education process. .

    3. Not for the summer school...for their work in the districts...Districts pay a kick back for each TFAer they hire. And the TFA's full salary and benefits. It's still cheaper than a career teacher, but I HATE that $$ leaves the districts to pad TFA's bank account.

      "Neutral as ALEC!" Wish I'd've said that!!