Who Covered TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit – & Was It Any Good?

One of the Saturday night testimonials came from Julio Garcia’s (Rio Grande Valley ’13).

In case you missed it, last week in DC roughly 15,000 current and former TFA alumni took over the Convention Center to celebrate 25 years since Wendy Kopp launched the group. Education leaders, journalists, and advocates were in attendance.

For me, at least, the coverage the event did (and didn’t) get from the mainstream media seemed confusing. One outlet — the Washington Post — posted three different pieces on the event. But at least two of the three were problematic, and even the most straightforward one had some issues. Most others outlets– including education and mainstream sites that one might think would pay some attention — ignored the event entirely.

[I’ve written about the organization several times, both critically and admiringly. Here’s a piece about why Wendy Kopp hasn’t won a “genius” grant from Macarthur. Here’s some unsolicited advice to TFA from the 20th anniversary.Some of the funders of this site were involved with the conference. I was invited to participate in a handful of panels, and TFA offered to cover my travel and lodging costs.] 

The Washington Post was all over the event, though it’s not clear that quality necessarily meant quality. 

The first piece to appear on Friday was a Lyndsey Layton profile of TFA gadfly Gary Rubinstein (He’s the stinkweed at the Teach for America garden party), previewing Rubinstein’s planned attempt to rally attendees to his views.

Second to appear was Emma Brown’s piece (Teach for America celebrates 25th anniversary at Washington event), focusing on a panel featuring former Newark head Cami Anderson and acting EdSec John King.

Last but not least was Valerie Strauss’s take on the event (An astonishing admission from a controversial school reformer) picked out something that Strauss seemed to think was deeply self-incriminating of the school reform movement.

The piece focusing on Rubinstein was hard to understand, given that TFA has made several changes in recent years to address some criticisms of the organization (and there are several other critics and alumni who were meeting Sunday morning to talk about what was happening). It was like something from 2010 or 2012. TFA was given an opportunity to defend itself — a journalistic fig leaf — but otherwise the piece focused on criticism and concerns and didn’t appear to have been reported from the event itself.

Of the three, Brown’s was the most straightforward, though to some eyes (including mine) it took an unwarranted whack at acting EdSec John King in the closing paragraphs.

As for the Strauss column, Anderson was making the point that the education system as a whole, including the reform movement, was part of the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline. Her quote: “Here is the inconvenient truth: Education, including education reform, is part of the problem. We have not made a dent in the problem, and in some cases we’ve made it worse.” (To me, that’s an indictment of education as a whole, not of one particular type of approach.)

Asked about how the paper assigned and coordinated its coverage of the event, the Washington Post declined to respond. Did the reporters pitch their own pieces, or were they pitched (by whom) or assigned by education editor Josh White? Does White edit and coordinate coverage or is this done by multiple editors? We don’t know how the paper decided on the coverage it provided. 

Other than that, there was remarkably little coverage from education news outlets, given all the activity. NPR did an interview with the current CEO of the group. Politico’s Morning Education featured a few paragraphs in its morning roundup.

Nobody else — not NPR Education, PBS, the WSJ, the NYT, AP, USA Today, BuzzFeed, Vox, Hechinger Report, Slate, US News, The Atlantic — seems to have sent anyone to cover what was going on or even write about it from afar. Not even EdWeek (though to be fair EdWeek ran a deep dive piece on the organization before the event took place).

That’s all the more mystifying because there was no shortage of journalists in attendance as moderators of panels. And there was so much more that could have been covered:

Friday morning, nearly 300 TFA alumni went to the White House to talk about the Obama education agenda with fellow alumni who work for the current administration.

That same day, alumnus Deray McKesson announced that he was running for mayor of his hometown, Baltimore — the first TFA alumni to run for mayor of a big city.

An alumni group for persons of color called The Collective attracted 3,000 to its Friday night reception. (The conference was among the most diverse national education events I’ve ever attended.)

Founder Kopp returned to speak at the Saturday night Verizon Center event, talking about “the long game.”

Critics including Randi Weingarten were there, along with a fascinating Sunday brunch focusing on concerns about TFA, and notable alumni like LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer were in attendance, too.

The panels weren’t bad, either.

In and of itself, coverage of a single event doesn’t mean all that much. It’s winter. It’s a conference. It’s the weekend of the Super Bowl. Everybody’s got a cold. There’s a lot going on in other areas.

But it seems indicative — of the Washington Post, perhaps, or of education coverage in general.

About the Washington Post’s education coverage, I’m not sure what to make but I worry that the coverage isn’t coordinated or balanced, and that — understandably, perhaps — the focus is on conflict and perhaps on pageviews rather than an accurate national picture of what’s going on in education. There doesn’t seem like much coordination between the news team and the bloggers. 

About education coverage in general, it occurs to me that live events aren’t something that education media does particularly well these days, at least not in the traditional form.

There are fewer reporters, perhaps, or they’re less inclined to go to events without knowing there’s a for-sure story, or editors don’t send them to hang out like they used to. 

Event coverage might be less of a priority in the current era given that attendees and participants are going to “cover” the event themselves on social media (see #TFA25).

But this is too bad, from my perspective, since live on-the-ground reporting can — if done well — capture nuance and details that Internet reporting doesn’t provide. That’s why all the political reporters get sent to trudge to Iowa and New Hampshire (and now South Carolina) rather than sitting at their desks.

Social media and self-promotion by event organizers and advocates can’t make up for having independent eyes watching what’s going on, talking to people about what they’re experiencing, and reporting it back to the rest of the world.   

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.