Heeding a Teaching Moment
Wendy Kopp is not one to be deterred by a little word like "No." Not even by the reaction she got from one of her Princeton University professors in 1989 when she proposed starting a sort of Peace Corps for teachers-a program that would recruit fellow Ivy Leaguers to teach for two years in the nation's toughest schools. "My dear Ms. Kopp," responded Marvin Bressler, by his own account, "you are quite evidently deranged."
Maybe so. But Teach for America, as Kopp's program came to be known, is now one of the most respected initiatives in American education. This June, 10 percent of the graduating class of Yale University applied to the program, which accepts only about 1 of every 8 applicants. According to a 2005 survey by an independent research firm, 75 percent of principals who were surveyed consider TFA members more effective than other beginning teachers, and a 2004 study of test scores found that TFA teachers' students showed higher math score gains than their peers.
Those are impressive numbers considering that just 10 years ago, it was far from certain that Teach for America would last another day. Believing that only dramatic efforts could produce acceptable results, Kopp had moved forward with her plans before she found the money to finance them. At first, the strategy worked: Union Carbide, Mobil, and other corporations stepped in with funding. But as TFA's novelty wore off and start-up grants expired, the money flow slowed. And then, with killer timing, came the Article.
Setbacks. Published in a prominent educational journal, then Columbia University Prof. Linda Darling-Hammond declared TFA to be "bad for the children ... [and] bad for teaching"; she cited a lack of training and support. The article didn't take long to reach benefactors' desks. Soon, Kopp was facing a $1.2 million deficit and a dire choice: cut back or cut out. Characteristically, she chose the first. "She doesn't let obstacles that would deter a lot of people get in her way," says Jerry Hauser, a former TFA staffer. "She just keeps fighting."
Kopp answered worried benefactors' phone calls by pointing out the article's inaccuracies and countering with a study of her own. She laid off 60 employees and cut the budget by a quarter. "It was incredibly, incredibly stressful," she says.
Stressful, but instructive: No longer would dreams run ahead of money. Now, the staff designs a careful long-term plan every five years. United Negro College Fund CEO Michael Lomax, a TFA board member, says Teach for America is one of the best-run nonprofits he's seen. "We're learning so much from Wendy," he says.
Kopp has never been a schoolteacher, but she does have much to teach. "She's not charismatic necessarily," says Hauser. "But she leads by getting things done."
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.