Over the last twenty years, Teach For America has led 21,000 of the nation’s brightest young people into public education in low-income communities, where roughly 60% of them have stayed. Less than half of traditionally-trained teachers stay more than two years in the profession when they start in low-income schools, and study after study has shown Teach For America teachers (called “corps members”) produce better academic outcomes (called “learning”) than other new teachers.
Despite these facts, imagine that Teach For America is a bad idea. Suppose that it will not help the problem of education inequity, a problem McKinsey estimates costs our country $500 billion a year. Suppose the program hurts us in the long run.
Even if Teach For America is the wrong way to help more American students read, write, and think better, it warrants interest, careful scrutiny, and something like stupefied awe. How did this start-up recruit 500 teachers, place them in six sites across the country, and raise $2.5 million dollars in one year?
In her first book, One Day, All Children…Wendy Kopp describes how. She started by proposing the idea in her senior thesis, written in her final semester at Princeton. Upon reading her proposal, Kopp’s faculty advisor invited her to his office and asked if she had any idea how hard it was to raise even $2,500. Three months after this conversation, Kopp’s program was featured on the front page of the New York Times.
The story is remarkable, and the means of this success match the message every new teacher hears throughout the intense TFA training: outrageously hard work paired with an ambitious vision yields fruit. Kopp followed her first year of fund-raising by meeting with the CEOs of Apple, Time, American Airlines, IBM, Bank of America, Xerox, AT&T, and countless foundations. When donors repeatedly asked who was really in charge, Kopp presented herself and politely explained that it didn’t matter anyway, as “this is the civil rights issue of our generation.” Then she would ask for more money. Once she cornered a former junk-bond trader until he offered to fly her back to the East Coast with him on his private jet. On the plane Kopp pleaded for a million dollars, but to no avail. Ross Perot, on the other hand, met her halfway—$500,000—but only if the grant was matched three to one. It was, but not without a great deal of hustle. During a five month span, when Kopp went on twenty-five development trips to keep ahead of the $200,000 needed every two weeks to keep things running, her staff nearly staged a coup. Monday night planning meetings, which had previously gone from 9 pm to 2 am, were scheduled for a more reasonable hour and with fewer people invited.
After the organization began to stabilize, Kopp faced the temptation to cash out and take a well-deserved break. She was offered a $100,000 salary, a leased car, first-class travel and partial ownership of a different education venture. Instead she decided Teach For America needed to reinvigorate itself. Were its teachers actually helping students catch up? How effectively did the organization use its human and financial resources? How could it attract more applicants that reflected the background of the neediest students?
In the last third of the book Kopp begins to describe the movement toward the hallmarks of the program today: ambitious goal-setting, tight performance management, careful data analysis, and constant reflection, improvement, and innovation. The recruiting arm of Teach For America became even more aggressive in combing the country for proven leaders who could level the playing field for disadvantaged students. Those responsible for training new teachers worked to distill the essential features of excellent teaching and shorten the time it took new teachers to adopt those features. In short, Teach For America realized its clout with the upper and middle classes, while useful, was not fulfillment of its vision. It didn’t exist to give successful college students another contest to win. The mission of the organization was to give every kid the chance to receive an excellent education. Ten years in, when Kopp wrote One Day, this wasn’t happening. Is it happening twenty years later? Even at all? We’ll see in my next post, when I’ll review Kopp’s recent second book, A Chance to Make History.