By Anthony Cody.

Public education seems to be caught in a high velocity public relations spin cycle, and one of the cornerstones of democracy is subjected to daily assaults by professionals at the game. But while organizations like TFA have the money to buy PR experts, they are losing ground in the public arena to unorganized, unsponsored supporters of public education.

The way this machinery operates was uncovered this week in a report posted at The Nation, authored by George Joseph. Joseph uncovered an internal Teach For America memo that detailed the organization’s response to public criticism. This report provides as “case studies” the TFA response to two incidents. The first was an article in The Nation by Alexandra Hootnick, and the other when TFA bought access to Mother Jones email list, which sparked some criticism.

The memo — available here — is a fascinating read.

Here are the key points. Regarding Hootnick’s article in The Nation, someone at the Department of Education notified TFA that a critical piece was in the works, which they had been made aware of due to the author’s FOIA requests. TFA got advice from Peter Cunningham, who had left his post as press secretary for Arne Duncan in Nov. 2012. The memo states:

To get in front of her article, with Peter Cunningham’s counsel, we worked with Kwame Griffith to publish a Pass the Chalk piece on our commitment to improving how we tailor growth in which he proactively addressed many of the criticisms we anticipated would be (and were) included in the article.

Then, “At the advice of crisis communications consultant Jim Lukaszewski, our team created a side-by-side comparison of the assertions in the article and the actual facts.”

If you are a corporation with a “communications crisis” on your hands – whistleblowers, pesky activists of any sort, safety issues, toxic spills, Lukaszewski is the man to see.

The document prepared by TFA at Lukaszewski’s suggestion is a prime example of public relations spin at work. Take a look at a few of the assertions from Hootnick’s article, and the “actual facts” presented by TFA:

Hootnick wrote:

One of TFA’s controversial moves has been to seek placements for recruits in wealthier school districts like Seattle’s, where teaching jobs—not teachers—are scarce.

TFA’s response:

Washington state has one of the largest gaps in educational opportunity in the nation. The Washington Student Achievement Council issued a report last year revealing that while the state has one of the highest demands for an educated workforce, it continues to rank in the bottom five in terms of the percentage of recent high-school graduates who go to college. The report cites several prominent studies that suggest that college graduation rates are at a crisis level, especially among students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

How does this address the issue raised by Hootnick?

Another quote from Hootnick’s article:

Both supporters and critics of TFA are calling for more transparency before the organization expands further. ‘I’m really troubled by public dollars going to TFA at the same moment teachers are being let go,’ says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of education and race theory at the University of Wisconsin.

And TFA’s response:

Our ability to sustain our regional sites depends on maintaining strong, diversified, local funding bases through both public and private sources. Eighty percent of our organization’s funding is raised locally in our 48 regions across the country.

Again, nothing to address the substance of the criticism from Ladson-Billings — just PR spin.

The Mother Jones incident is explained in the TFA memo:

In late April of this year, our Marketing team purchased access to Mother Jones’ email list to share news about our Early Childhood Education (ECE) efforts via an email from our Managing Director of ECE, Laura McSorley. This tactic has lots of positive implications for us and, in this case, we got several thousands of people to sign on to our petition and provide us with their email addresses. It also resulted in some social media backlash against both TFA and Mother Jones.

When the email from Laura McSorley went out to Mother Jones’ email list on April 30th we saw a small group of detractors use this as opportunity to rehash negative and factually inaccurate things about TFA on Twitter. These detractors generated 214 posts from 78 unique individuals within a couple of hours. This had a Twitter reach of 108,658 and Twitter exposure of 316,520.

As soon as we saw this conversation beginning to build our communications team drafted a short response (see appendix) which shared the overwhelming positive reception we’d received from the magazine’s readers and our disappointment that a small group would use this as an opportunity to rehash negative and factually inaccurate things about TFA on Twitter.

We posted this response on our On The Record page within a few hours of the detractors making noise and tweeted it out from our national handle twice because the conversation wasn’t immediately dying (Tweet 1 (April 30) and Tweet 2 (May 1)). These tweets generated 5 posts from 5 unique supporters and a Twitter reach of 107,519 (the “@teachforamerica” Twitter handle represented 106,131 of the 107,519 supporters) and a Twitter exposure of 213,621. There were 269 clicks on the link to the On The Record page. At this point the conversation died.

I was probably one of the “small group” of 78 individuals who tweeted in response to Mother Jones carrying water for Teach For America. I have been critical of the organization, based on what I saw in Oakland. TFA came to Oakland supposedly to help with the shortage of teachers, and then recreated the problem they were supposed to address, as a result of the high turnover of their corps members.

It strikes me as rather remarkable that with more than 25,000 alumni, and thousands of active corps members, not to mention hundreds of employees, only FIVE unique supporters spoke up to defend the organization. And those five apparently have a collective following of only about 1,500. And yet this memo calls the 78 who posted criticisms of the organization a “small group,” even though that group is 15 times bigger than the number that rose to defend them.

TFA is aware of the unwillingness of their “base” to rise to the organization’s defense, and has a strategy for that as well:

…our base doesn’t love to engage in negative conversation. Despite strong click thru rates we don’t see our base tweeting or posting these responses (with the exception of The Nation article where we did see a lot of engagement). We’re building the Advocates program to address this.

So we may see some newly trained “Advocates” in the mix, primed to respond to this sort of challenge. But one has to wonder why their supporters are so unwilling to speak up.

Money buys media, and control of the media message has been central to the corporate reform campaign from the start. As I describe in “The Educator and the Oligarch,” there is a strategy at work that has several elements. First, “non-partisan” think tanks produce pseudo-academic “reports,” and then run around to testify at state legislatures to promote their conclusions. The media is provided with funding to subsidize news favorable to reform, as we saw with NBC’s Education Nation, and the more recent Gates-funded Education Lab project. Public media outlets such as NPR and PBS are likewise beholden to corporate philanthropies and have their education coverage underwritten by Gates. And then money can buy public relations outright, such as the $12 million that recently flowed into Peter Cunningham’s “non-profit” Education Post.

Chicago teacher Katie Osgood, singled out by the report as a “known detractor,” wrote this to Diane Ravitch’s blog:

I have no media team or PR strategy, I’m just writing the truth of TFA and its devastating impact on my city. I am pretty upset how TFA has singled me out and targeted me. I feel violated and even unsafe given the vast power and resources TFA has at its disposal.

Katie Osgood should be proud of being a thorn in the side of this operation, even if it is a bit scary to see oneself singled out this way. We in the 78 are a small but mighty group. Our tweets and posts are directly impacting the national discourse around education reform, and that cannot be spun away. Progressive publications like The Nation and writers like Bob Herbert are becoming more aware and vigilant in response to the threat corporate reform poses to public education. Perhaps Mother Jones will even reconsider the merits of renting their email list to TFA as well. The millions being spent to spin away the harsh realities of reform can confuse the issues for a while, but eventually the unvarnished, unsponsored truth will be revealed.

Image based on one by Robert Nunnally, used with Creative Commons license.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

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