Teach For America

While the TFA concept is not without its criticisms, the focus here is on Kopp’s Vision for community change and improvement.


Teach For America began in 1989 as student Wendy Kopp’s senior thesis at Princeton University. While many of her college classmates were embarking on lucrative careers in law, medicine, or finance, she followed her passion and instincts along a different path.

At the time, academic outcomes for low-income children had not changed in a century. School districts were facing a national teacher shortage, and the U.S. was navigating the first wave of a competitive global economy that required a workforce with evolving skills and knowledge.

Public schools, decades after desegregation, remained a realm of inequity, unable to make up for the long-term effects of poverty, racism, and other deeply rooted injustices. Many people were unaware of this inequity; those who knew held little hope that it could ever be fixed.

Wendy Kopp wanted to make a difference in struggling schools, and she wanted to get her generation more involved with education and poverty. If our country was going to address this problem, more leaders had to make it their life’s work, and they would need to be grounded in the issues at the classroom level. Kopp had a big idea: a national teaching corps. Her plan to recruit high-performing college grads to teach in high-need urban and rural schools was truly innovative.

Ms. Kopp’s odds for success looked slim. Indeed, she recalls how even her own academic adviser called the idea “quite evidently deranged.” Why would the nation’s top college graduates give up a couple years of their lives to teach in the nation’s worst schools, when they could be traveling or climbing the career ladder in big, exciting cities?

Kopp recognized the challenges. But she had formed a lasting Vision and wouldn’t let go so easily. She raised $2.5 million in start-up funds, assembled a staff, and launched a grassroots campaign to recruit teachers. By December 1989, Kopp gathered 100 part-time student recruiters from 100 universities to begin Teach For America’s first recruiting season.

Her journey since then has not always been smooth. Still, she’s kept her eyes on her ultimate goal: creating a better future for Americans through better education. The record shows she’s getting results, and it all started with a clear, invigorating Vision.