Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Leadership in Education

Education inequity in America presented a tremendous problem in policy, communities and state and federal government. By the time students in low income communities enter fourth grade, they are already three to four grade levels behind their counterparts in higher income schools and with only 1 in 10 students growing up in poverty stricken schools graduating from college, is it clear the education system in America is failing the students who need it most (

The state and federal governments were unable to solve this problem, yet a 22-year-old educational pioneer from Princeton University, had a passion and drive to inspire now more than 46.000 of the top college graduates to end educational inequity in America. What began as a senior thesis paper for Wendy Kopp, grew into a $180 million organization recruiting from leaders from the top universities in the nation to join a movement called Teach For America.

Wendy Kopp’s example of leadership is the epitome of Zalenik’s position that “leaders adopt a personal and active attitude towards goals” (1977). Kopp’s mission is clear and concise: to end educational inequity. She is able to promote her goal through education, and in turn has inspired more than 46,000 recent college graduates to support her mission. She is one of the “4 million women entrepreneurs who have started her own corporation” in America (Bass and Avolio, 1994).

The rigorous recruitment process Teach For America employs to recruit high performing college graduates to join the mission is in opposition to the idea presented by McGregor in “An Analysis of Leadership” that high academic achievement does not represent a necessary characteristic for high performance (1966). Teachers recruited by Teach For America must achieve a 3.0 GPA as well as proven leadership skills. Combinations of these accomplishments result in teachers who are able to show significant academic gains.

According to John Gardner, Kopp’s vision for education proves her to be a true leader as she took the initiative to “work with and through extremely complex organizations and institutions” within the government and education sector to develop an organization that would enable her to achieve her goal (1990).

Corps members are introduced to a culture where the only result acceptable is excellence. Kopp created what Gereen describes as “a climate of growth and opportunity… in which each fellow would want to carry his own share, and would be driven to excel not only because I pushed him, but because of peer pressure and pride” (1998).

The structure of Teach For America is designed to involve many people in the organization, rather than a select few. In her organization, Kopp’s leadership style motivates followers to be “more motivated, productive, and satisfied… (they) go beyond their self- interests to concerns for their group or organization” (Bass and Avolio, 1994). In each of the 39 regions, executive directors, program directors, and corps members work together towards the common goal. Leaders in each region are able to run their region effectively because they are given ownership of the needs and abilities of their respective regions.

Teach For America has grown into a national force affecting education. I believe this is due largely to the fact that Wendy Kopp saw a need for changing the infrastructure of education and used her leadership abilities to create a movement that will one day fulfill its’ mission that “every student will have the opportunity to achieve an excellent education” (


- Do you think Wendy Kopp is a leader based on trait theory or is it the educational situation at the time that caused her to emerge as a leader?

-Is Kopp successful because of her female perspective on leadership? Are the qualities Bass and Avolio listed as a woman leader in their article what makes Teach For America such a powerful organization?

-Besides charisma, goal setting and motivation, what qualities would a leader need to move a senior thesis to a national education movement in America?

Teach For America website.

I was a 2008 Teach For America Corps member and had the opportunity to teach Kindergarten in Charlotte, NC. Permission for photo was received August 2008.


  1. Holly, I think you provided a great example of leadership and the idea that leaders must create a vision. Hackman and Johnson define leadership as "human (symbolic) communication which modifies the attitudes and behaviors of others in order to meet group goals and needs." I don't know enough about Kopp to whether or not she is an effective communicator, but the way that Teach for America has grown, I think points to some evidence of her ability to link "humans to other humans and to the physical environment." Teach for America has motivated 46,000 college graduates to dedicate two years to closing the achievement gap. The schools they are placed in are extremely challenging, yet they are motived to connect with their students in this environment in hopes of fulfilling Teach for America's goal - this to me seems like visionary leadership, according to Hackman and Johnson.

  2. Holly, I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I think TFA is a fantastic organization molding the future leaders in our communities. Do you know if there is any research on what the TFA teachers go on to do after their TFA experience?

  3. Stephanie,
    Thank you for your comment. I have had several opportunities to hear Wendy Kopp speak about her motivation, commitment, and organizational structure of Teach For America and she is always aligned in the common goal of the organization. I agree with your quotes from Hackman and Johnson, including "creating new agendas or visions out of previously existing elements... creating positive expectations and managing change." Kopp's mission through Teach For America is to create change in education and she effectively communicates her message and goals.

  4. Jessica,
    I am so glad you asked- There are currently more than 20,000 Teach For America alum. Of those, 63 percent are still in education, others go on to attend graduate school, law school and medical school. 93 percent of alumni say they still support the mission through work, graduate studies or donations. Teach For America is still a relatively new organization, so the alumni are just approaching the age where they can hold leadership positions that will truly make an impact on education. More than 500 alumni currently work on Capitol Hill.

  5. Holly,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, especially since I had previously considered applying for the Teach for America program. I believe that Wendy Kopp's leadership is a combination of trait theory and the education situation. Her personal passion for the educational progression of inner city youth led her to create the Teach for America program. If the United States education system were stellar, the need for a program of this caliber would not be a necessity. However, if the situation did not exist, I believe that her character would have led her to another area of need where she would have still used her entrepreneurial traits and leadership characteristics to meet a need.

  6. Hi Melanie,
    I completely agree with you. Kopp's leadership qualities are exemplified in Teach For America, due to the situation she chose to focus her attention. I believe her style of leadership which encompasses five characteristics: setting a big goal, tracking progress, involving others, locus of control and effective planning and execution could be applied to any leadership or management setting- a combination of her leadership traits and the dire educational climate in America led Kopp to become a great leader.


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