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.