Education Funding Opinion

The Genius Behind Teach For America

By Alexander Russo — October 12, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s big awards news is Al Gore getting the Nobel Prize for his efforts on global warming, but last month it was the announcement of this year’s MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants. As you may recall, one of the genius grants went to an educator. Just not the one you would have thought would get it. Click below to get a sneak peek at what should soon be up on the Huffington Post. The Genius Behind Teach For America
Why Wendy Kopp hasn’t won a MacArthur “genius” award – yet.

By Alexander Russo

When this year’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “genius” grants were announced last month, the group of 24 included one person focused on improving public education.

At an early age, this woman had created a powerful new way to help urban students and over the past 15 years or so turned it into a national success.

But it wasn’t Wendy Kopp.

Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, is among the best-known faces in school reform. Recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine, her organization, which brings top college graduates into urban classrooms, is one of the largest nonprofit reform efforts in the nation.

But the MacArthur award went intead to Deborah Bial, the founder of a much smaller and less well-known effort called the Posse Foundation, which helps bring talented urban teens through the process of getting a four-year education.

Why not Kopp? No one knows for sure. The nomination and selection process for the MacArthur award is notoriously secretive. But it may be that, for all its success, Kopp’s model still under-delivers on the core issue of improving classroom instruction in poor schools, and over-promises when it comes to broad-based school reform efforts.

There’s no doubt about the successes of TFA. Founded in 1990, Kopp’s brainchild had 18,000 applicants last year – many from the top universities in the nation – each vying for one of just 3,750 spots. The organization boasts a national network of recruiters that competes against top consulting firms for college talent.

As a result, Kopp is one of the few names or faces that anyone outside of education circles would have any chance of recognizing. Photogenic, articulate, and sincere, she makes it hard to be against what she’s doing.

But criticism of Kopp’s program has never quite gone away, and lately seems to be growing. Despite its growth and relative longevity, TFA still seems to be struggling to prove itself as the powerful force in school reform it wants to be.

During the 1990s, much of the debate over TFA centered on whether its untrained members did any better in the classroom than fully-certified teachers they ostensibly replaced. Though not herself a researcher, Kopp fought back against established scholars to argue that her teachers did as well, if not better than traditional ones.

More recently, the underlying question of whether TFA members stay around long enough to make a real difference has re-emerged. TFA members are only asked to stay in the classroom for two years, far too brief a time to make much of a difference to anyone besides the individual students they teach. A substantial number don’t make much past that. In 2005, The Onion parodied the situation: “TFA Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major.”

To counter these criticisms, TFA has lately recast itself as a broad-based reform movement whose effects go far beyond the classroom.

Indeed, TFA alums are prominent throughout the school reform world – from founding the well-known KIPP network of charter schools to, most recently, heading the District of Columbia school system.

The organization already claims 100 elected officials among its alumni, and, given the ambition and intensity so many posses, one or more of them will no doubt soon be a household name.

But, as noted recently in the Times Magazine article, Why Teach For America, the questions and criticisms persist. And the chorus may be growing louder.

A recent article in The Economist pointed out that, despite its growth, TFA remained vastly too small to make a difference in an education system that includes 3 million classroom teachers.

The liberal-leaning American Prospect blog, TAPPED, recently noted that while “It feels heartless to criticize a program that’s, well, so good-hearted...it’s unlikely TFA is impacting student achievement in any broadly-defined way.”

An as-yet unpublished feature article illustrates the organization’s struggle to become a “movement” by plumbing the depths of TFA’s ill-fated efforts in Detroit.

There’s a moment in the movie “Blood Diamond” where Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a white diamond smuggler in Africa, describes how “Peace Corps types only stay around long enough to realize they’re not helping anyone.”

So far, say critics, much the same can be said of Teach For America (TFA).

Only by strengthening its ability to provide direct services to poor schools and districts, as well as broader school reform efforts, will Kopp get the “genius” grant she probably deserves.

If she can do both those things, few will argue with it.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding Reported Essay Are We Asking Schools to Do Too Much?
Schools are increasingly being saddled with new responsibilities. At what point do we decide they are being overwhelmed?
5 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Education Funding Interactive Look Up How Much COVID Relief Aid Your School District is Getting
The federal government gave schools more than $190 billion to help them recover from the pandemic. But the money was not distributed evenly.
2 min read
Education Funding Explainer Everything You Need to Know About Schools and COVID Relief Funds
How much did your district get in pandemic emergency aid? When must the money be spent? Is there more on the way? EdWeek has the answers.
11 min read
090221 Stimulus Masks AP BS
Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while holding a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter Garden Place Elementary School in Denver for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic.
David Zalubowski/AP
Education Funding Why Dems' $82 Billion Proposal for School Buildings Still Isn't Enough
Two new reports highlight the severe disrepair the nation's school infrastructure is in and the crushing district debt the lack of federal and state investment has caused.
4 min read
Founded 55 years ago, Foust Elementary received its latest update 12-25 years ago for their HVAC units. If the school receives funds from the Guilford County Schools bond allocation, they will expand classrooms from the back of the building.
Community members in Guilford, N.C. last week protested the lack of new funding to improve the district's crumbling school facilities.
Abby Gibbs/News & Record via AP