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Matt Damon, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Decline Education Award Nomination Over USA Today Op-Ed

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Actor Matt Damon, and his mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige arrive at Universal Pictures' premiere of 'The Bourne Ultimatum' held at the ArcLight Hollywood on July 25, 2007 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Actor Matt Damon, and his mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige arrive at Universal Pictures' premiere of 'The Bourne Ultimatum' held at the ArcLight Hollywood on July 25, 2007 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Matt Damon and his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, have declined a nomination for the Friend of Education award from the National Education Association's Massachusetts arm -- because of the NEA's collaboration with Teach For America on a USA Today op-ed.

In a letter Wednesday to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University, says that she and Damon had originally planned to accept the nomination when they discussed the possibility over the summer.

But in December, Van Roekel and TFA Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp co-authored a piece in USA Today on how to improve America's teachers.

"I have decided that because of your collaboration with TFA, it would not be wise for me or for Matt to be nominated for the Friend of Education Award," Carlsson-Paige writes in her letter. "I regret this turn of events."

The NEA and TFA have had a historically strained relationship as the NEA, the country's largest teachers union, has long opposed TFA and its practices. In July, the group collectively accused TFA of placing its corps members in areas where there are no teacher shortages, robbing educators of jobs in communities where those positions are already hard to come by. They said some TFA contracts could be used to "bust unions," Education Week reported.

The teachers' group has also criticized TFA's general concept: Recent college graduates are trained over the summer to teach two years in some of the country's most challenging classrooms -- in hopes of helping close a still-wide achievement gap. But because TFA corps members are only committed to two years of teaching, many leave teaching after the experience. By contrast, the NEA and American Federation of Teachers believe that seasoned veteran educators and quality training are key to boosting test scores, graduation rates and improving American education overall.

Van Roekel has taken some heat since the op-ed's publication. Education blogger Anthony Cody wrote on Education Week that Roekel is sending mixed messages about teacher preparation, pointing out that the NEA president writes in his USA Today piece that "not all teachers are getting the high-quality preparation they need to excel with students in the classroom."

"Does Mr. Van Roekel believe that Teach For America's five or six week long training is adequate preparation?" Cody asks.

Damon was the keynote speaker in August at the Save Our Schools rally in Washington D.C., held to protest what they call the generally misguided direction of education policy. (While his address targeted issues like standardized testing, teacher evaluations and teacher pay, a separate, behind-the-scenes confrontation between Damon and a reporter and her cameraman, whose work Damon questioned as being possibly "s***ty," perhaps got more attention.)

"This has been a horrible decade for teachers," Damon said in his address. "The next time you feel down or exhausted ... please know there are millions of people behind you."

Van Roekel and Kopp also furrowed brows last September, when the two appeared together, and by the side of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, before the D.C.-based think tank Education Sector in September. To add to the three-way organizational spat, the NEA had also warred with Duncan and his agency, adopting a resolution titled "13 Things We Hate About Arne Duncan."

The September presentation by Duncan, Van Roekel and Kopp introduced a teacher preparation package that seeks to alter the teacher training process by basing the ratings of teachers' colleges on the outcomes of graduates and their students. It would also require student tests as an indicator of student growth and teacher effectiveness from teachers produced by preparation programs.

Carlsson-Paige writes to Van Roekel in her Wednesday letter:

I am a life long teacher educator. I believe that one of the first things we must do to improve our nation’s schools is to extend, strengthen, and support teacher preparation. I am very familiar with TFA and believe that its short-term, minimal training of teachers undermines teacher quality and harms children who too often get an inadequate education with its teachers.

In your letter to Matt in August, you wrote about a first-grade teacher who was retiring because she wouldn’t teach to a script. You said that teaching to the test strips teachers of their professionalism. Yet it is the best-trained, most knowledgeable teachers who can offer the most meaningful, excellent education in this test-driven climate. It’s the under-prepared teachers who are most often teaching to tests and using scripts because they don’t have the knowledge base to do otherwise.

Van Roekel attempted to offer a resolute response Thursday, drawing on a larger, all-encompassing goal for stronger teacher preparation and asserting the NEA's commitment to working toward that objective.

"I respect Matt Damon and thank him for his support of public education," Van Roekel said. "I believe NEA should talk to those who support public education, even if we don't agree on everything, and work together to serve students. Wendy Kopp and I agree that students will benefit from stronger recruiting and teacher preparation."

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