The Genius Behind Teach For America

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.

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer whose blog, This Week In Education, can be found at www.thisweekineducation.com.