By Stephanie Simon
Aug 16 When Wendy Kopp, just out of Princeton,
founded Teach for America in 1989, she dreamed of recruiting 500
elite college graduates to teach the nation's neediest children.
"My dear Miss Kopp," a college advisor told her, "you are quite
Kopp pressed on, and this fall Teach for America will send a
record 10,000 teachers into classrooms from New York to
California. The nonprofit boasts $300 million in assets and
collects tens of millions a year in public funds, even at a time
of steep cuts to education budgets. Secretary of Education Arne
Duncan praises it for having "made teaching cool again." And TFA
veterans have emerged as the most influential leaders of a
bipartisan education reform movement.
But critics, including a handful of disillusioned alumni,
contend that policies promoted by TFA-trained reformers threaten
to damage the very schools they once set out to save. They
argue, too, that TFA's relentless push to expand has betrayed
its founding ideals.
The organization that was launched to serve public schools
so poor or dysfunctional they couldn't attract qualified
teachers now sends fully a third of its recruits to privately
run charter schools, many with stellar academic reputations,
flush budgets and wealthy donors. TFA also sends its rookies,
who typically have just 15 to 20 hours of teaching experience,
to districts that have recently laid off scores of more seasoned
Meanwhile, TFA has backed away from a claim that nearly half
its teachers achieve outstanding academic gains with students,
leaving the pivotal question of its effectiveness unresolved.
Camika Royal, who taught for TFA and has worked for them in
various capacities for 13 years, says she once believed the
organization's goal was to strengthen troubled schools. Now she
fears it is feeding a perception that public education is in
ruins, and only an elite cavalry can rescue America's children.
"I can't stand the self-importance," Royal said.
RECRUITING AND FUNDING
In the early years, TFA nearly collapsed several times from
insolvency. Then it began to land grants from corporations and
foundations. Among its biggest funders: the Walton family, heirs
to the Walmart fortune.
A tax exempt nonprofit, TFA reported annual operating
surpluses of $35 million, $114 million and $37 million in its
last three federal filings.
Kopp, who earns $375,000 a year, supervises 1,800 employees
-- including a small army of recruiters. Eager to bring in more
low-income and minority candidates, TFA no longer sticks to
elite colleges; recruiters also urge veterans and mid-career
professionals to apply. TFA retains its competitive prestige by
rejecting 90 percent of applicants.
The recruits are paid a standard starting salary by their
school district during their two-year teaching stint.
To offset costs, TFA requires each district that hires its
teachers to pay it a negotiated fee, typically $2,000 to $5,000
per teacher per year. Before agreeing to send recruits to a
region, TFA often lines up additional subsidies from local
businesses, philanthropies or state government.
In Mississippi, for instance, TFA laid out a plan to send
700 recruits to the impoverished Delta -- but said it would need
$12 million from the state, plus $3,000 per teacher from local
school districts, to subsidize that growth. The legislature came
up with just $6 million this year, enough to bring in 370
teachers. Still, local TFA director Ron Nurnberg said he
considered that a victory, given that the state was "cutting
everyone else's budget."
A few states have recently reduced grants to TFA because of
fiscal pressures, but taxpayer funding still brought in $64
million in fiscal year 2009-10, about a third of TFA's revenue,
tax records show.
The teachers' unions and some community leaders argue that
public money could be better spent at a time when schools are
laying off teachers and cutting academic programs.
TFA supporters disagree. "It's an incredibly good
investment," said John White, a TFA alumnus who now runs the
education department in Louisiana.
Within three years, TFA aims to have 15,000 recruits in the
field, teaching 930,000 kids. In support of that goal, the Obama
administration awarded TFA a five-year, $50 million federal
grant in 2010.
To get the grant, TFA presented internal data showing that 41
percent of its first-year teachers and 53 percent of its
second-year teachers advanced their students' performance by an
impressive 1.5 to 2 years in a single school year.
But TFA's former research director, Heather Harding, told
Reuters these statistics were unreliable. Only 15 percent of TFA
recruits teach subjects and grades that are assessed by state
standardized tests. So to measure growth, many teachers rely on
assessments they design themselves.
That means the teacher efficacy claim "is not a particularly
rigorous statistic," said Harding, now a senior vice president
at TFA. "I don't think it stands up to external research
External research has been decidedly mixed.
TFA touts a 2004 study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc in
which nearly 2,000 students in 17 low-performing elementary
schools were randomly assigned a TFA recruit or another teacher.
Many teachers in the control group at these troubled schools
were not well-trained, the study noted.
Students in TFA classes did better in math than their peers,
gaining the equivalent of an extra month of instruction, though
they still ranked in the bottom fifth of students nationally.
TFA teachers had no impact on reading.
Other studies have shown that TFA teachers depress young
students' reading scores. Harding said TFA has improved training
for recruits who will be teaching reading because it has been a
A study last year in Tennessee shows how hard it is to draw
a bead on TFA effectiveness. TFA recruits assigned to teach kids
ages 9 through 13 in Memphis outshone even veteran teachers in
raising test scores in all subjects. Those teaching older kids
didn't. In Nashville, TFA teachers boosted high-school algebra
scores but had no impact on middle-school math or reading.
TFA says the best indication of its success is its annual
survey of principals. A bout 90 percent report that TFA rookies
on their staff are at least as good as veteran teachers. Nearly
half say they're better.
The enthusiasm of TFA recruits was on display last month at
a training camp in Los Angeles where 22-year-old Kelli Schultz
bounded around a summer-school classroom coaxing 12-year-olds to
discuss narrative tone. Schultz can't wait for her full-time job
so she can try out TFA tips like promising students a pizza
party if they outperform a rival school on standardized tests.
"I don't know my students yet," she said, "but I love them
Conventional teacher training programs require hundreds of
hours of student teaching. TFA recruits teach one summer-school
class a day for four weeks, not necessarily in the subject area
or age group they will be handling in the fall. Veteran teachers
observe from the back but do not intervene (though some can't
resist holding up notes urging the rookies to explain a point
more clearly or discipline a wayward student).
Recruits also spend hours in workshops and coaching sessions
to learn skills like lesson planning and classroom management.
Midway through the five-week training, Mia Shaw, a
22-year-old Stanford graduate, projected calm authority as her
students breezed through an algebra worksheet. A TFA coach
praised her rapport with the kids but fretted that she hadn't
prepared them for the tougher questions on state tests.
Down the hall, Juan Salinas, a graduate of the University of
California at Berkeley, was struggling to engage his class in a
discussion on punchy writing. No one would speak up. "For a
dollar?" he finally pleaded, drawing a few hands.
TFA recruits teach everything from phonics to physics to
special education for the learning disabled.
About 90 percent complete their two-year commitment, TFA
reports. TFA does not have firm statistics on how many stay in
teaching beyond that.
Concerns about minimal training and rapid turnover have led
some parents and politicians to try, usually without success, to
block TFA from their districts. "They get their badge of honor
teaching for two years and they leave," said Jitu Brown, a
community activist in Chicago.
'SHOCK TROOPS' FOR CHARTERS
TFA's rapid growth has left it "scrambling for every
placement," Kopp said. Increasingly, that's meant sending
recruits to charter schools, which are publicly funded but
TFA placed 33 percent of recruits in charters last year, up
from 13 percent in 2007-8. This year's figures are not yet
At Rocketship Education's charter elementary schools in
California, 85 of 108 teachers are either TFA recruits or recent
alumni. So are a third of teachers at the much larger KIPP
network. KIPP was founded by two TFA alumni and is run by Kopp's
husband, Richard Barth.
Critics, led by unionized teachers, find TFA's embrace of
They point out that the charters with the strongest academic
results often have vastly more resources than neighborhood
schools, thanks to deep-pocketed donors. They serve
predominantly low-income kids, but as a whole their populations
ten d to be less disadvantaged and more motivated. When these
charter students ring up good test scores, nearby public schools
look increasingly bad by comparison, which can feed momentum to
shut them down, fire their teachers, or turn them over to
That cycle leads Michael Fiorillo, a teacher and union
activist in New York, to charge that TFA recruits "are being
used as shock troops to privatize public education."
TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein sees the shift to charters as a
betrayal of the mission.
"When I entered TFA, we wanted to be on the front lines. We
wouldn't have accepted a job teaching in a school that was doing
well," said Rubinstein, who now teaches math in a top-performing
New York school.
Kopp says there was an intense debate at TFA about placing
recruits in charters. She ultimately concluded it was wise.
One reason: TFA aims to turn recruits into leaders who will
drive "transformational change" in education. Charter placements
let them see what is possible in a high-performing urban school,
TFA has been astoundingly successful in its mission to
Alumni, many still in their mid-20s, serve as principals at
scores of charter schools. They run nearly 100 public school
systems, including districts in Washington D.C. and Newark, New
Jersey, and state education departments in Tennessee and
They also drive some of the most influential education
advocacy groups, such as StudentsFirst, founded by TFA alumna
Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C. public
Rhee and other TFA alumni promote a common set of policies:
expand the number of charter schools; abolish or weaken tenure;
tie teachers' jobs and pay to their effectiveness at raising
student test scores.
Union leaders reject the reform agenda, saying it won't work
and simply serves to scapegoat teachers. They push instead for a
renewed focus on what they see as the biggest obstacle to
academic success: poverty.
But TFA refuses to accept poverty as an excuse, arguing that
any kid can succeed if teachers demand and relentlessly pursue
"I'm here to tell these kids that they have potential. They
haven't been told that before," said Hsuanwei Fan, 22, who will
be teaching science in Los Angeles.
TFA reformers often refer to their own accomplishments as
they work to shut schools and oust teachers who don't measure
"When you experience success with a group of students who
typically are assumed to not be able to achieve at high levels
... it becomes impossible to accept when other people make
excuses," said Kevin Huffman, who taught 5- and 6-year-olds in
Houston for TFA in the early 1990s.
Huffman, now the education commissioner in Tennessee,
recalls that he worked ferociously, 60 and more hours a week, to
boost his students' test scores. That was possible for a driven
22-year-old who knew he would only be teaching a few years. It
would be much harder, he acknowledged, for a mid-career teacher
with a family.
Still, Huffman remains convinced the lessons he learned at
TFA can transform public education, if he can just figure out
how to scale them. It is, he said, "a heck of a challenge."