Great Expectations

Why big donors back Teach for America.

“The Mother Theresa of U.S. Preppie Do-Gooders,” a blogger recently styled Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America. It’s Teresa, actually, and Kopp went to public school in Dallas, not to Groton, but the 40-year-old is definitely an icon of the Gen Y quest for meaning. In the nonprofit world, and increasingly outside it, the story of Kopp and TFA twinkles like a fable. It’s about “one naive college kid with a big idea,” as Kopp said in her 2001 book, One Day, All Children ….

No one has done a takedown of Kopp like Christopher Hitchens’ harangue about Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position. When Kopp appeared on The Colbert Report this year, Stephen Colbert barely roughed her up. “Were you yourself one of these teachers? Did you yourself do it? No, you didn’t? You weren’t? So, ‘Do as I say and not as I do’? There’s your lesson right there!”

At the same time, TFA, which is 17 this year, has attracted a list of accomplished critics in its adolescence. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford’s school of education, is the lead author of the best-known study, which concluded that students of uncertified teachers of TFA lagged significantly behind students of certified non-TFA teachers. Deborah Appleman, the chairwoman of education studies at Carleton College, shadowed a former student of hers through the summer training of TFA’s first class in 1990. She came away disappointed and has been been a persistent critic ever since. She discourages her students from applying and refuses to write letters of recommendation for them. TFA also contends with the fear that the public will lose patience, since progress in closing the achievement gap has been so modest, given the large sums spent on education, including on Kopp’s brainchild.

If Teach for America were a public, for-profit company, the critiques would be factored into conventional measures of the marketplace (growth or lag in sales, say, or strong or weak return on equity) and reflected in its stock price. In a sector for which there’s no market to value stock, however, or even agreed-on performance measures, the nonprofit TFA is more like Google before it went public—or if you’re a critic, like Enron before its accounting shams were understood. Its value isn’t easy to compute.

As a result, TFA is talked about as if it’s a two-year gap program for twentysomethings before they pick up the threads of their real lives. But TFA is more ambitious than that. Its “theory of change” depends on ensuring that its teachers “attain high levels of success with their students”—and then, as alumni, go on to bring about equity in education for kids of different classes and races, in the role of everything from principal to school superintendent to governor. Because of TFA’s drive and the underlying worry that reinforces it, the organization is managed with GE-like attention to performance. And this is a sharply useful spur. It has put TFA on a path to meeting one of the major challenges for any nonprofit in education today: how to become a self-sustaining institution.

The rest of Kopp’s One Day, All Children … slogan goes, “in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” That’s Kopp’s big idea. She has raised about $465 million to famously place recent college graduates as teachers in schools that poor kids go to. (Here’s more background.) Critics like Appleman, however, say that TFA’s premise—that corps members can succeed without substantial training in the classroom—is “insulting” to professionally trained teachers. Without such training, she’s convinced, TFA teachers often disserve their students, and themselves, because their struggles discourage them from staying in teaching. Too high a share (30 percent that first year, 12 percent on average overall) leave before completing their two-year commitment, Appleman argues.  

In its defense, TFA cites a study from Mathematica Policy Research that looked at how students of corps members fared compared with students of the teachers hired instead (rookies and old hands, some certified and some not) in hardest-to-staff schools. Reading scores were the same, math scores notably higher. TFA also highlights a positive survey of principals it has done for the last dozen years in schools where corps members taught. And TFA points out that the dropout rate for its teachers is slightly lower than for all other starting teachers, and notably lower than the estimated average for new teachers in low-income schools. 

The details and thinking behind Teach for America’s planning spell out what the organization means by “performance” and how it intends to improve it. Take the goal of placing 4,000 new corps members by 2010. That requires spending more on recruitment, because it will be harder to attract more prospects on some “top-producing campuses” like the Ivies, where the numbers of recruits have been flattening out, and because costs increase as TFA expands to less-selective colleges that yield fewer recruits.

That kind of thinking has paid off. This year’s 2,900 new teachers were picked from 18,172 applicants—an acceptance rate of only 17 percent. Ninety-eight percent of those accepted chose to join the program, a remarkably high “yield,” and the corps members are steadily more impressive than they were before. But the goal isn’t to attract the teachers who were the best college students, it’s to pick the ones who will be most effective in the classroom. Comparing its reasons for selecting corps members to their performance as teachers, TFA refines its selection methods based on what it learns by cross-referencing. The organization’s goal is really to improve performance and the likelihood that its corps will stay committed.   

Which gets to a number that regularly raises eyebrows, though no academic study has challenged it frontally: the scale of the would-be movement. While TFA is careful to say the number is based on an extrapolation from the three-fifths of former corps members who responded to a questionnaire, it reports that 67 percent of its alums, or more than 8,000 people spanning 15 years, remain in education—half as teachers, the others in various roles. At last count, 285 were running schools as principals. In three networks of charter schools that are especially effective in serving low-income students—Achievement First; Uncommon Schools; and the Knowledge is Power Program, founded by two TFA alums—60 percent of the principals are TFA alumni. TFA alums are also spread through the administration of the Washington, D.C., school district.

What makes TFA so influential, Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie R. Crutchfieldexplain in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is this kind of leverage. As the impact of TFA spreads through the reach of its alumni, it’s tempting to write off the critics as defenders of the status quo—of the teachers’ colleges, unions, and other institutions that have long controlled public education and, as a result, bear much of the responsibility for its parlous state. But the critics matter because, in effect, they say publicly what TFA stresses privately: It’s imperative (urgent is the TFA word) that corps members teach their students as well as possible.

The organization has recently put in place a new system for judging teachers’ performance—and since then, seen a reduction in the percentage of teachers whose classes experienced “significant gains,” for example, class-average gains in a single school year of one and a half grade levels in math and literacy. TFA’s position is that, rather than showing a decline in the performance of its corps members, the organization’s internal standards have set a higher bar.

TFA plans not to release publicly data about the results under the new system, but it will present them to funders. Among them are some of the country’s most respected philanthropists involved with education and many others who share their commitment, including Charles Harris, the executive partner of the nonprofit I work for. (Before the firm was started, he helped TFA raise part of a $60 million growth fund.) Private funders back TFA with confidence that it’s building a broad funding base. TFA now receives 30 percent of its funding from governments at all levels in exchange for the teachers it provides. For the same reason, two-thirds (including some public money) comes from places around the country where it has programs.

This funding isn’t trivial. Among nonprofits involved in K-through-12 education reform, TFA has mushroomed into the country’s largest. In 2000, its annual revenues were $10.5 million. Between then and TFA’s current fiscal year, when revenues are expected to be almost $120 million, the compound annual growth rate is 35.6 percent.

The performance that matters most to exacting backers amounts to this: For generations, the people who went into teaching compared unflatteringly with those who went into business, law, and medicine. TFA is helping correct that disparity. The woes of public education were considered, basically, unsolvable. TFA is helping show why we should raise our expectations.