Published Jul. 18, 2010|Updated Jul. 19, 2010

In the spring of 1989 Wendy Kopp was a senior at Princeton University who had her sights set on being a New York City schoolteacher. But without a graduate degree in education or a traditional teacher certification, it was nearly impossible to break into the system. So she applied for a job at Morgan Stanley instead. - Thinking back to the bureaucratic hurdles of getting a job in a public school, Kopp tells me it "seemed more intimidating than starting Teach for America." Which is exactly what she did as soon as she graduated.

What began as a senior thesis paper has since grown into a $180 million organization that this fall will send 4,500 of the best college graduates in the country to 100 of the lowest-performing urban and rural school districts. A few months ago, Teach for America (TFA) received an applicant pool that Morgan Stanley recruiters would drool over. Their 46,000 applicants included 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors, 7 percent of the graduating class of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and 6 percent from UC Berkeley. A quarter of all black seniors at Ivy League schools and a fifth of Latinos applied to be teachers in the 2010 corps. It is, I'm told by some recent grads, one of the coolest things you can do after college.

Today, Kopp has a much better understanding of why investment banks and consulting firms were knocking on the doors of her Princeton classmates but public schools didn't bother. "The interesting thing," she tells me in her organization's Manhattan headquarters, "is that 20 years ago most of our school systems were thinking that recruiting teachers was not their responsibility. They were thinking that was the responsibility of schools of education. So you had one set of institutions that was responsible for training teachers and another set responsible for actually affecting student achievement results."

That setup is still in place for most school systems, but TFA works differently. Like the top consulting firms, TFA recruits talented people and is responsible for their performance in the classroom. The young men and women who join TFA go through an intensive summer institute of training before they step foot in their schools. During their two-year stints, TFA gives them support and more training. And they are free of the typical teacher certification rules. District superintendents contact the organization directly and individual principals hire TFA teachers.

The results are clear. A 2008 Urban Institute study found that "On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers' effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience." A new study from the University of North Carolina found that middle school math students taught by TFA teachers received the equivalent of an extra half-year of learning.

Kopp said she first became aware of the educational inequities in America during college. She watched her roommate - a "brilliant first-generation college student from the Bronx" - struggle with her schoolwork. Meanwhile, students who had attended "East Coast prep schools ... thought Princeton was a cakewalk," she recalls. "In a country that aspires to be a place of equal opportunity it is critical that all of our kids have the opportunity to receive an excellent education and we're not doing that right now."

TFA's fundamental premise is that a child's home life and socioeconomic status need not doom him or her to educational failure. "There is a perception in our communities that we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities because kids aren't motivated or families don't care. We've discovered that is not the case," says Kopp.

Earlier this year, TFA released Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, which shares the practices of teachers who have made significant gains with students. One chart explains why teachers should choose an objective like "The student will be able to order fractions with different denominators," rather than "The teacher will present a lesson on ordering fractions with different denominations."

Objectives, says the guide, should be "student-achievement based, measurable and rigorous." Seem obvious? Well, as Kopp says, successful teaching is "nothing magic. It's nothing elusive. It's about talent and leadership and accountability."

Like so many other elements of education reform, many wonder whether Teach for America can be brought to scale. Teachers union leaders refer to TFA as a "band-aid." How many talented young people can realistically be placed in America's failing schools?

"We think it's a very aggressive goal to double from where we are now," says Kopp, "We'd have 15,000 corps members in the midst of their two years by 2015." In order to do that, she says, TFA would need to more than double its current budget to about $400 million and field some 100,000 applicants.

"That's a challenge," she says, "because it's a rare person who is ready for this particular thing, for teaching in the lowest performing schools in the country . . . right out of college." For the past couple of years, though, recruitment has not been a problem. "We have had to turn away people whom we would have accepted any other year."

The constraints now are funding and placement. Kopp says that her funding has grown about 30 percent per year for the past decade "because of the commitment of the private sector." While many philanthropists have cut back giving in recent years, TFA has not suffered. (Their biggest funders include Eli Broad, Doris and Don Fisher, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.) Public funding makes up about 30 percent of her budget. TFA received a federal appropriation of $21 million last year, and it has asked for $50 million in fiscal year 2011 to take advantage of what Kopp calls the "incredible" recruiting environment.

Given that the Peace Corps gets $350 million, Kopp suggests "this seems like a no-brainer ... particularly given that TFA has proven results and is so heavily aligned with the federal agenda around education." But so far, TFA has a big zero next to it in President Barack Obama's budget. Almost no Republicans have signed on to support it because of budget deficit concerns.

Oddly, the other obstacle is finding districts that will take the teachers. Why wouldn't any superintendent trip over himself to hire young people with these qualifications?

The answer lies in the opposition to TFA by teachers unions and education schools. Though Kopp attributes any hard feelings to "some misunderstanding about the way Teach for America works," it is clear what the union interests are. If TFA corps members can do a better job in two years than many longtime veterans, what do public school systems need with job protections like tenure? And if they can do it without education school courses, why do we need those institutions?

Some reform-minded districts are waking up to this reality. New Orleans will have 435 TFA instructors this fall. Detroit's new superintendent has invited 100 of them this year. The number in the Mississippi Delta region went from 280 first-year teachers in 2009 to nearly 500 first- and second-year teachers this fall. In some schools there, TFA members make up the majority of the faculty.

Kopp has been very pleased with "the unprecedented momentum in the larger education reform movement." She says that 20 years ago "it's safe to say there was no movement," which is not exactly fair to Milton Friedman, who floated the idea of school choice more than half a century ago, or even to Albert Shanker, the former United Federation of Teachers chief, who announced his support for the idea of charter schools in 1988.

"There are better historians than me," Kopp demurs. But even if she does not give her (mostly conservative) predecessors much credit and even if she is reluctant to criticize the left for its lack of support for reform, the history she tells is compelling.

"I remember so clearly the movie Stand and Deliver." The 1988 film, she says, "made a national hero of a teacher in South Central Los Angeles who had coached a group of kids to pass the AP calculus exam." She recalls the reaction from audiences: "This was a one-of-a-kind superhero who accomplished these results with his charisma. There was no notion that we could in some kind of system-wide way replicate that level of success."

That's changed. "Today we have hundreds of examples not only of teachers replicating that example but whole schools moving whole classrooms full of kids and putting them on a path to graduating from college at much the same pace as schools in higher-income communities," Kopp says.

But how can we create more successful teachers and more of these successful schools? Kopp says that her program is "not meant to solve the teacher shortage or the teacher quality problem." Rather, she says, "it's a leadership initiative to fuel the larger movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our country's future leaders in the effort."

Of course, she believes that TFA teachers "have a really important immediate impact on kids in our country's most disadvantaged communities. For them we're a critical source of talented committed teachers." But she adds that the "experience of teaching successfully is the foundation for a lifetime of educational leadership and advocacy."

Two-thirds of TFA alumni are working full time in education, including 450 principals and school superintendents. Another 500 work in government and policy. Then there are the alumni who are now business leaders supporting TFA.

One Day, TFA's alumni magazine, is a collection of articles about education reform, stories about individual teachers, and advertisements from charter schools and think tanks looking to hire. The overwhelming sense it projects is that there is an entire movement of young people who are passionate about education reform.

It's all part of the plan, says Kopp. "We need leaders at every level of the educational system, every level of policy and across our professional sectors who know what you know after you've taught in this context. Which is basically that we can solve this problem. And we have a very grounded understanding of how to solve it."

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor, is the author of a book on tenure in higher education forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield.

Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal © 2010 Dow Jones & Company.