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The Puzzle of Teach For America

Helen Baxendale is director of academic affairs and policy for the Arizona board of regents. Prior to this, Helen was an instructor at Oxford, where her Ph.D. dissertation examined  the Teach For America program as a lens for understanding U.S. school reform. Helen will be digging into the rise, struggles, and future of Teach For America on the blog this week. 

— Rick Hess

In the early 1990s, Teach For America (TFA) emerged as an audacious experiment in teacher recruitment based on an idea first floated in Wendy Kopp's senior thesis. Sending graduates from top colleges to teach in struggling schools was an eye-catching response to chronic teacher shortages and widespread anxiety about educational standards. Led by a team of 20-somethings and surviving on a shoestring budget, the organization nearly succumbed to bankruptcy more than once. Denounced by one of America's most prominent educationalists as "brash idealism" destined to "leave a trail of failure," the mere survival of TFA was a close-run thing in the mid -990s.

Flash forward to December 2008, and Wendy Kopp was being touted as a serious candidate for education secretary in the first Obama administration.  In less than two decades, a shoestring startup had become an education sector heavyweight.  Since then, TFA has come to be widely recognised not just as an alternative source of teachers but as a leading source of foot soldiers for the education reform movement.  And with this recognition have come new challenges for an organization that likes to stay above the fray of K-12 politics, even as it underwrites consequential shifts in the American education system.  

Teach For America's rise to prominence is a remarkable story for several reasons. To begin with, how does a quixotic proposal from a senior thesis garner sufficient support to get off the ground? And why, given the animus between TFA and the teachers' unions in recent years, didn't the unions simply nip TFA in the bud in the '90s? How did TFA become such a prolific source of personnel for the reform movement? And what is the future of TFA now that its outsized role has been recognized by powerful interests upset by the changes TFA has helped to catalyze? 

Today's post will endeavor to answer the first two of these questions. Most versions of the TFA origin story boil down to "right idea at the right time." A national teacher corps comprised of idealistic Ivy Leaguers tapped into a pervasive anxiety among business and political elites about educational standards. Additionally, a recession in the early 1990s created a tough job market for graduates, leavening the appeal of Teach For America's elegant fusion of altruism and ambition. Kopp was also the "right person," having led a student group at Princeton that brought her into the orbit of captains of industry and blue chip CEOs. As Whitney Tilson, a founding TFA staffer, relates, "She was probably the only graduating senior in the country who had that sort of Rolodex."

Chronic teacher shortages in urban and rural schools throughout the 1980s saw many states create alternative pathways into teaching that TFA was able to exploit, and the highly decentralized nature of the American education system created a multitude of potential footholds. For TFA to get a start, only a handful of superintendents and principals needed to take a chance on the organization. In a nation of some 14,000 school districts, the odds of finding a few amenable individuals were good.

Most crucially, though—and in stark contrast to today—the dominant player in the K-12 system didn't balk at TFA. Teachers' unions were broadly acquiescent toward the young organization because they recognized the imperative to fill long-run vacancies, TFA corps members would join union ranks, and the organization professed no explicit ambition to advance policy changes that were contrary to union interests. TFA's major adversaries in the early years were education professors at traditional teachers' colleges, but these individuals exercised little influence over the staffing decisions of superintendents and principals desperate to fill their rosters. As Kopp put it, "principals in the South Bronx weren't reading Phi Delta Kappan."

Although Kopp states in her 2001 book that she had always anticipated that TFA could become a "movement" for systemic change, this expectation was not articulated in Kopp's thesis or any of TFA's earliest publications, nor was it anticipated by other actors in the system at the time. Few contemporary observers predicted that the contingent startup would, in the ensuing decades, mature into a disruptive juggernaut. Had the unions foreseen in the early 1990s what they know now about TFA's capacities to affect change, it seems unlikely that they would have been so indifferent. By appearing to be nothing more complicated or threatening than a boutique national service organization, TFA was left alone to find its feet.

In retrospect, however, it is clear that the rudiments of a powerful nexus of reformers were present from the very start. By carefully selecting high achievers from mostly elite backgrounds, exposing them to the shortcomings of the U.S. education system, and connecting them with like-minded individuals ambitious to make their mark beyond the classroom, TFA laid the foundation for one of the more remarkable examples of social entrepreneurship in recent memory. Later this week, I will explain how, in its second decade, TFA's efforts to cultivate a network of reformers became much more deliberate and sophisticated, with significant consequences for the K-12 system.

—Helen Baxendale

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