Scaling Up Teach For America

An Interview with Wendy Kopp
Founder, Teach For America

Teach For America (TFA) is a New York-based organization that trains highly motivated individuals (many recent graduates of top-notch universities) and places them as teachers in underperforming school districts throughout the country. Several studies have documented the successes of TFA teachers in Louisiana, North Carolina, and New York City—raising student achievement, often outperforming other new teachers.

TFA was founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, who graduated from Princeton University the previous year. As TFA's leader, Kopp is widely recognized as one of the nation's leading voices on improving American education. In the following interview, she discusses TFA's growth, what she's learned over the past twenty years, and how entrepreneurship fits with teaching.

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced that TFA received a five-year, $50 million "Investing in Innovation" grant. What impact will this have on TFA?

We're honored that TFA was selected as one of four "scale-up winners" of this competition, which is a great validation of our impact. These funds will support our effort to become a bigger and more effective force for short-term and long-term change. We currently have 8,200 corps members teaching in thirty-nine regions. By 2015, TFA will field 15,000 corps members and provide 20 percent to 25 percent of the new teachers across sixty of the highest-need urban and rural communities. Our corps members will help to change the life trajectories of more than 900,000 students annually, and our alumni force will grow exponentially. In five years, we'll have 45,000 alumni (up from today's 20,000), and ten years from now we'll have 80,000—creating a formidable critical mass in communities across the country.

How is TFA's growth affecting you, your leadership, and the overall organization?

Our growth has enabled us to deepen our impact and fuel the larger movement to eliminate educational inequity. We're able to have a much greater impact now, and we're able to attract more seasoned talent as well as the financial resources to make investments that improve our results. The most fundamental challenge for us has been in developing the people and organizational capacity quickly enough to lead the growth. For me, I've had to evolve my role to spend less time on operational matters and more time on strategic questions.

What does it take to bring TFA into a community?

The first thing we consider is the size and depth of the educational disparity there—by looking at things like high school graduation rates and the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch. Entering a new community requires close partnership with the local school system and officials because they have to be willing to hire a crucial mass of corps members to teach a broad range of subjects and grades. We also consider the financial support of the business and philanthropic communities because we need to raise three years of funding before launching a site.

What have you learned from your TFA teachers over the years?

The most salient lesson of our work is simply this: Where children are born does not need to determine their educational outcomes. Many consider educational inequity to be an intractable problem, but our most successful teachers have shown us that it is possible to solve the problem if we redefine the nature of teaching and of school. TFA teachers put their students on a different educational trajectory when they establish a vision of academic success, invest students and their families in working hard to reach it, and pursue the vision with purpose and relentlessness, reaching beyond traditional expectations to access additional resources in order to meet children's extra needs.

How does entrepreneurship fit with teaching?

Children in urban and rural areas face many extra challenges—they aren't surrounded by lots of evidence of the possibility of success in school and in life, and they face all the extra challenges of poverty. If you really think about it, the only way to be a successful teacher in this context is to be entrepreneurial—to envision a reality many think is impossible, to pursue it with passion and relentlessness, to be extraordinarily resourceful.

Entrepreneurship in education also is important if we are going to realize educational excellence and equity, given the magnitude of the problems we are addressing. Our alumni have proven to be important entrepreneurs over the last two decades—as the founders of the KIPP network of high-performing charter schools as well as other school networks, and as leaders of The New Teacher Project. We are working to inspire and support our alumni to pioneer the innovations that will speed up the pace of educational change.

A recent study by researchers at Harvard University found that 61 percent of Teach For America corps members stay in teaching beyond their two-year commitment. Of our overall alumni pool, now 20,000 strong, more than 60 percent are working in education or education reform. Of those who have left the field, more than half have jobs that relate in some way to schools or low-income communities; perhaps they are lawyers working in legal services or doctors working in public health.

Is there a macro lesson you've learned about improving American education?

I have learned that we don't need to wait to fix poverty to solve the problem of educational inequity. We can provide children with an education that is transformational—that changes the path predicted by their socioeconomic background—if we enlist them and their families in working to attain academic success, and provide the academic rigor and extra supports necessary to help them overcome the challenges they face as a function of poverty. What I have seen is hard evidence that we can ensure all of these children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education if we decide it's a priority. This will require investing the same level of energy and discipline—and pursuing the comprehensive set of strategies—that are required to accomplish ambitious ends in any organization. There is nothing magical or elusive about this solution, but there is nothing easy about it, either—and efforts that oversimplify the issue will fail to advance the cause and, worse, serve as fatal distractions of time and energy.

Studies by Mathematica and the Urban Institute have attested to the strong performance of students in classes taught by Teach For America teachers. How important are these evaluations?

To be a force for change, we need to ensure that our corps members are transformational teachers. This can be life-changing for the students we reach. The experience of teaching successfully is the foundational experience of great leadership and advocacy because great teachers gain personal conviction about what is possible to achieve through education, learn about what accounts for success, and gain the moral authority and credibility to lead others to success. We are very focused on learning what our most successful teachers are doing differently and feeding those lessons into our program for selecting, training, and developing our teachers. Third-party, rigorous studies are crucial for telling us how we're doing in this effort.

A Teach For America Case Study: Kansas City, Missouri