Why big donors back Teach for America.
That kind of thinking has paid off. This year's 2,900 new teachers were picked from 18,172 applicants—an acceptance rate of only 17 percent. Ninety-eight percent of those accepted chose to join the program, a remarkably high "yield," and the corps members are steadily more impressive than they were before. But the goal isn't to attract the teachers who were the best college students, it's to pick the ones who will be most effective in the classroom. Comparing its reasons for selecting corps members to their performance as teachers, TFA refines its selection methods based on what it learns by cross-referencing. The organization's goal is really to improve performance and the likelihood that its corps will stay committed.
Which gets to a number that regularly raises eyebrows, though no academic study has challenged it frontally: the scale of the would-be movement. While TFA is careful to say the number is based on an extrapolation from the three-fifths of former corps members who responded to a questionnaire, it reports that 67 percent of its alums, or more than 8,000 people spanning 15 years, remain in education—half as teachers, the others in various roles. At last count, 285 were running schools as principals. In three networks of charter schools that are especially effective in serving low-income students—Achievement First; Uncommon Schools; and the Knowledge is Power Program, founded by two TFA alums—60 percent of the principals are TFA alumni. TFA alums are also spread through the administration of the Washington, D.C., school district.
What makes TFA so influential, Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie R. Crutchfieldexplain in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is this kind of leverage. As the impact of TFA spreads through the reach of its alumni, it's tempting to write off the critics as defenders of the status quo—of the teachers' colleges, unions, and other institutions that have long controlled public education and, as a result, bear much of the responsibility for its parlous state. But the critics matter because, in effect, they say publicly what TFA stresses privately: It's imperative (urgent is the TFA word) that corps members teach their students as well as possible.
The organization has recently put in place a new system for judging teachers' performance—and since then, seen a reduction in the percentage of teachers whose classes experienced "significant gains," for example, class-average gains in a single school year of one and a half grade levels in math and literacy. TFA's position is that, rather than showing a decline in the performance of its corps members, the organization's internal standards have set a higher bar.
TFA plans not to release publicly data about the results under the new system, but it will present them to funders. Among them are some of the country's most respected philanthropists involved with education and many others who share their commitment, including Charles Harris, the executive partner of the nonprofit I work for. (Before the firm was started, he helped TFA raise part of a $60 million growth fund.) Private funders back TFA with confidence that it's building a broad funding base. TFA now receives 30 percent of its funding from governments at all levels in exchange for the teachers it provides. For the same reason, two-thirds (including some public money) comes from places around the country where it has programs.
This funding isn't trivial. Among nonprofits involved in K-through-12 education reform, TFA has mushroomed into the country's largest. In 2000, its annual revenues were $10.5 million. Between then and TFA's current fiscal year, when revenues are expected to be almost $120 million, the compound annual growth rate is 35.6 percent.
The performance that matters most to exacting backers amounts to this: For generations, the people who went into teaching compared unflatteringly with those who went into business, law, and medicine. TFA is helping correct that disparity. The woes of public education were considered, basically, unsolvable. TFA is helping show why we should raise our expectations.
Lincoln Caplan writes about the Supreme Court for the New York Times editorial board and is the author of The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.