Paper: Wendy Kopp & Teach For America

This paper is the second case study from my Leadership in Management class. It looks at Wendy Kopp’s history leading Teach For America, which you may be surprised to learn was in danger of dying several years after startup (when this case study is set).

Situation Analysis

Teach For America’s mission is to provide quality education to inner-city students. At present, there are serious concerns by outside observers that Teach For America is harming rather than helping these students. What is the best way to achieve Teach For America’s mission?

At present, Teach For America is approximately $1,200,000 in debt, and projects that it will have an additional $1.3 million deficit for the current fiscal year, with revenues of roughly $7.8 million. The start-up grants have run out and Teach For America is searching for alternative funding, but a negative review in Phi Delta Kappa has made this difficult by bringing the organization’s efficacy into question, and current donors are concerned. Teach For America employs 60 veteran teachers for professional development and has roughly 900 new teachers in the program, plus a variety of support staff. There are also two new subsidiaries: TEACH! and The Learning Project.

Opportunities & Threats

Teach For America has an ongoing opportunity: there continue to be under-served urban school districts, and this will not change. But Linda Darling-Hammond’s critique in Phi Delta Kappa is a serious fund-raising threat and may alienate current and future school district partners. The timing is especially difficult because Teach For America’s start-up grants are ending. TEACH! is currently a drain on resources, but could eventually provide positive income, unlike Teach For America and The Learning Project.

Organizationally, Teach For America is a mixed bag. The veteran teachers and passionate leadership are valuable assets, but managers are inexperienced (despite work with organizational development expert Nick Glover) and seem to have little respect for their day-to-day duties despite working hard at them. As a result, many of TFA’s large donors are encouraging new management under Wendy Kopp’s leadership.

Decisions To Face

Teach For America’s most fundamental decision is simply whether to continue operating — do they fulfill their current mission, or if they don’t is the brand worth saving? If the decision is yes, they face a host of other decisions. Should Kopp cede some of her managerial duties to a CEO and a “full-time director of development”? Is cutting the size of the teacher corps a good cost-cutting measure? Should they scale back (or perhaps expand) TEACH! and The Learning Project? Spin them off and remove them from the current fund-raising apparatus and budgeting? Are the veteran teachers aiding the teaching corps, and if they are can they still do better? If not, should they be dismissed, scaled back, or differently managed? Should the general support staff be cut? Can organizational effectiveness be better-documented?

Alternatives & Analysis

There are essentially 3 different courses of action Teach For America can choose from as it moves forward. First, it can maintain the status quo. Second, it can scale back and become a data-gathering pilot project (a step essentially skipped when it formed as an organization). Third, it can attempt to expand in the face of criticism. Once a course has been chosen, a new leadership structure also needs to be discussed; either maintaining the status quo or adding new managerial positions to provide more experience and reduce the strain. Each of these three options, along with leadership, is discussed below.

There is, of course, one final option: Teach For America could shut down as an organization. Leadership has presented strong resistance to this idea, however, and the author agrees: Teach For America fills a need by providing intelligent, motivated and upwardly-mobile teachers to inner-city students and should continue operating as an organization and a principle.

Maintain the Status Quo

If Teach For America chooses to maintain the status quo, it is making some important claims. First, it asserts its value as an educational organization. Second, it tells school districts and the teacher corps that they will not be willingly abandoned. While both of these are valuable, maintaining the status quo is not recommended: the fund-raising crisis is simply too severe. There is little evidence that fund-raising will resolve itself if the status quo is maintained. Additionally, there is a mass of evidence that Teach For America is not a well-run organization and Darling-Hammond’s critique, though scathing, is seemingly well-founded in some areas.

If Teach For America does choose to maintain the status quo, changing the leadership structure is not a recommended course of action: making no serious changes is a vote of confidence in the organization’s position, while changing management says that the organization does not trust the people who brought it to its current position. A change in management without changing the organization’s methods could assuage some donors worried about inexperience, but is unlikely to seriously impact the mission or efficacy.

Become a Pilot Project

Teach For America, in its current incarnation, went from concept to full-scale project in the space of a single year. This left little time for data-gathering on teacher effectiveness and good implementation strategies, and these are the deficiencies pointed out in Darling-Hammond’s article. Regardless of whether her allegations are justified, shrinking down to a pilot would let Teach For America gather solid data on its organizational effectiveness and try out different methods of mentoring on a small scale. Additionally, the smaller corps would require fewer support personnel and less money budgeted for corps payout. Finally, a smaller Teach For America corps would give leadership more time to focus on the TEACH! project, which could be accelerated into a revenue-positive program supporting any future Teach For America expansion.  This course would significantly ease the fund-raising burden, let Teach For America assure critics and donors that it is taking concerns seriously, and allow more agile refocusing on successful methods before a wide-scale deployment. Even better, once Teach For America’s performance is documented and successful, the organization can relaunch itself to old donors and critics and should be able to resume fund-raising at the same or higher levels as previously with little effort.

If Teach For America were to adopt this course, I recommend a change in leadership structure to give an experienced outsider management responsibilities. A new manager is more likely to regard the program neutrally, thereby producing better end results. More importantly, Kopp and her leadership team have demonstrated their desire to start new organizations rather than run existing ones in starting 3 new operations within a 5 year time span; bringing in outside management will allow them to focus on successfully launching TEACH! and formulating ideas to make the Teach For America corps more competent and innovative.

Expand the Organization

There is some evidence that Teach For America is top-heavy and should be expanding the teacher corps to match the size of management and support. Whereas the previous course of action recommends shrinking the teacher corps and shrinking the organization even further to match, this course of action recommends expanding the teacher corps to match the support staff available. This course of action will make several statements:

  1. Teach For America’s premise is valid, and bringing in new graduates for two-year stints is good for students.
  2. Teach For America has had some administrative difficulties which it is working to correct
  3. Teach For America is confident in its future.

In expanding the size of the corps while maintaining a static oversight and training organization, Teach For America increases its teacher:dollar ratio and lets donors impact more students for their money. Because the support staff is underused at present, expanding the teacher corps should not hurt teacher morale or training; in fact the support staff should be given new goals for interacting more often with teachers in a mentor role and handling individual issues rather than attempting formal professional development exercises during the school year. Shifting the support staff’s focus will also allow them to gather data on effectiveness in the course of their normal duties, providing information invaluable to disproving Darling-Hammond’s claims and establishing Teach For America’s legitimacy. Finally, expanding the program would allow strong contact and investment with more school districts, which should build support for Teach For America at a grassroots level.

This course of action does not directly address the fundraising issue, which is its major weakness. However, expanding the program’s reach to new school districts (perhaps targeted to be near potential major donors) and decreasing overhead costs should tempt new donors to meet the program, and changing organizational tactics to address criticisms should renew confidence of prior donors and encourage them to continue or expand giving.

Under this course of action, new management is a necessity — the program’s growth will only exacerbate the issues with current leadership.


Given the alternatives above, my clear recommendation is that Teach For America return to the pilot phase it never had by cutting the teacher corps roughly in half and dramatically shrinking the support staff. The current teacher corps should be allowed to finish their terms following the same protocol they began with, but their Teach For America liaisons should implement formal efficacy-tracking measures. The next teacher corps should undergo a new school-year regimen of informal but constant mentoring with one of the experienced on-staff teachers (each teacher should be able to handle roughly 15 corps members, which would require only 17 teachers instead of the current 60), along with efficacy measurements.

The Learning Project should be spun off or shut down to allow Teach For America to focus more directly on its core competency (introducing new teachers to school districts), and a new high-level manager should be brought in to allow Kopp and her peers to focus on teacher development and turning TEACH! into a money-making enterprise that can help support Teach For America.

The support staff, when not involved with the teacher corps, must be measuring their effectiveness and introducing different techniques among small groups and testing the successful ones in larger areas until the process is refined. Hopefully Teach For America can relaunch itself in approximately five years as a data-driven organization which can prove it successfully connects inspiring teachers with inner-city students to provide positive impact.

This course of action should reduce or remove the current fund-raising burden from the organization and allow it to refocus in a maintainable fashion on the mission.

Leadership Style & Lessons

Wendy Kopp has admirably demonstrated certain leadership qualities since the 1995 near-disaster. She has emerged as a strong strategic leader who creates highly expert workers and expanding Teach For America while focusing on the mission.

Kopp followed a blend of the “shrink” and “expand” strategies outlined in this study, dramatically reducing support staff but refusing to shrink Teach For America’s teach corps, instead choosing to improve accountability and effectiveness while maintaining the corps at its then-current size. She did not bring in outside management, but did ask for and receive more training and advice in management. Teach For America shut down TEACH! (the only major conflict with my own recommendations) and spun off The Learning Project in order to focus exclusively on the teacher corps. These steps were immensely successful, and Teach For America is highly-regarded today with nary a fund-raising difficulty.


Farkas, Charles & Wetlaufer, Suzy. “The Ways Chief Executive Officers Lead.” Harvard Business Review on Leadership. Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston MA. Copyright 1998.

George, Bill et al. “Wendy Kopp and Teach For America.” Harvard Business School Case 9-406-125. Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston MA. Copyright 2006.