In 1989, a Princeton undergraduate named Wendy Kopp wrote a thesis proposing a new elite corps that would give teaching an urgency, prestige, and national mission similar to military or other service work. She suggested that with the right combination of challenges and stiff demands, thousands of recent graduates from America’s very best colleges could be lured into teaching instead of jumping to law school or Wall Street or one of the high-paying professions where many of her peers traditionally headed. With $2.5 million of initial philanthropic backing (Ross Perot provided a crucial early gift of $500,000), Kopp managed to launch a working version of her idea the very next year, when 500 bright and earnest college graduates joined the first corps of Teach For America. By 2014, nearly 33,000 of the nation’s best and brightest had signed on for a two-year TFA stint, instructing a total of more than 3 million children in some of our neediest schools.
TFA gets results. Its instructors “have a positive effect on high-school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers,” concluded an Urban Institute study in 2008, with this effect being “particularly strong in math and science.” Mathematica Policy Research compared TFA teachers and other teachers in the same school, and found that randomly assigned students made about an extra month’s worth of progress on math when they had a TFA instructor. In 2011, 90 percent of principals who work with TFA teachers expressed high levels of satisfaction with their work, with a majority saying their training made them more effective than graduates of conventional teacher colleges.
The ultimate compliment is that TFA instructors are prized. When the KIPP network was pioneering its highly successful school formula, about two thirds of the people they hired as school leaders were TFA alumni; even today a full third of KIPP teachers come out of TFA. In difficult inner-city neighborhoods that are hard to staff, conventional public schools also rely heavily on TFA teachers, particularly in areas like math and science, special ed, and bilingual instruction. More generally, much of the education reform movement today is being built by alumni of TFA.
Schools across the country would hire even more TFA corps members except that demand outstrips supply. This despite a doubling in the size of the program over the last five years—to a budget of over $250 million and more than 6,000 new incoming corps members annually. TFA has managed to grow rapidly without lowering its standards: in 2013 the program accepted only 11 percent of 57,000 applicants. Its cachet among talented young people is such that as much as 10-15 percent of the senior classes at colleges like Harvard, Spelman, Berkeley, and Yale have sought to enter the corps in some recent years. Looking at TFA’s alumni from its inception, about 30 percent are still teaching, and two thirds are working in education full-time or pursuing further studies in the field. The 50,000 corps members and alumni have become a key constituency for elevating standards across many corners of the U.S. schooling system.
The philanthropic support that has powered TFA from the beginning has soared along with its enrollments. Don Fisher recognized in the early 1990s that a shortage of qualified reform-minded teachers could become a serious constraint on growth of the highly effective new charter schools that he and other donors were then sprouting across the country. So the Fisher Fund donated a total of $100 million to TFA during its first two decades. At TFA’s twentieth anniversary, the Broad, Arnold, and Robertson Foundations, plus Steve and Sue Mandel, each provided $25 million to a create a long-term endowment for the organization. Steady attacks from teacher unions and apologists for the educational status quo in inner cities have reduced student enrollments in recent years. But support from philanthropists remains robust—including $50 million from the Walton Foundation in 2015.
- Teach for America, teachforamerica.org/our-organization
- Philanthropy magazine 2005 interview with Don Fisher, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/mass-producing_excellence