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Teach For All: Designing a Global Network

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By their November 2011 annual conference in Mumbai India, Teach For All’s network consisted of 23 national partner organizations. Network members came from all over the globe and represented an eclectic group of countries. From tiny Estonia with a population of 1.3 million and near universal literacy, to India with over 900 times more people and only 75% literacy, from China with single-party authoritarian rule, to England with hundreds of years of multi-party democracy. The one thing uniting the network was a commitment to building an organization similar to Teach For America in their respective countries.

Teach For America was the brainchild of Wendy Kopp. In her 1989 senior thesis at Princeton, she outlined a plan to attack educational inequality in the United States by recruiting top college graduates to teach for two years in poorly performing schools. While only some of the teachers would continue at the end of their two years, Kopp argued that the alumni of the program would become engaged advocates for educational improvement. Kopp’s plan succeeded beyond expectations. Within a decade, a spot in the Teach For America corps had become one of the most sought-after positions for bright college graduates from the nation’s top universities. In its two decades of operation, Teach For America had placed over 30,000 teachers in underperforming schools around the country and built an alumni group that influenced the nation’s educational policy.

The concept also proved to work in contexts outside the United States. In 2002, Brett Wigdortz, a former McKinsey consultant, founded Teach First in the United Kingdom. Teach First had the strong support of the British government and by 2011 was one of England's largest employers of the country's best college graduates, having placed over 2500 teachers in schools across England.

With the success of their respective organizations, Kopp and Wigdortz became magnets for social entrepreneurs from around the globe who wanted to import the model to their own countries. Wanting to be responsive, Kopp and Wigdortz believed a global group could be founded to help others interested in the model. They also imagined that a global organization which enabled everyone to learn from each other could be of value to each participant.

Kopp and Wigdortz were able to secure funding for building a global network and announced the formation of Teach For All at the Clinton Global Summit in 2007. Teach For All was to be a coordinating organization, giving each national organization the autonomy to order its own affairs. As these participating national organizations (other than Teach For America and Teach First) were just beginning, Teach For All was a start-up supporting other start-ups on a global scale. It was a situation for which there were few precedents.

One of the key tasks that the leadership took on early and continued to revisit was delineating a strategic framework that would guide the central organization and its partners. The leadership defined the organization’s “theory of the problem” and "theory of change." And then over many months and with considerable consultation, they refined a set of "unifying principles" and "core values."

Operationally, the leadership also wrestled with creating an identity for the network and an organizational structure to engage its partners. Teach For All committed to providing on-the-ground support to the newly formed national organizations for two years. So, the organization created the Partner Engagement Director (PED) position, hired people, and dispatched them to the nascent partner organizations. For the inexperienced social entrepreneurs at the helm of these organizations, the PEDs provided valuable counsel and allowed them to avoid or solve problems that could have derailed their efforts. After the two years of on-the-ground efforts, Teach For All's support would evolve to other forms.

In the four packed years since its founding, Teach For All had gained valuable experience and built a solid team. But as the partners and the staff gathered in Mumbai, there was much reflection on where the organization was going to go next. The experience in the field had demonstrated how attractive the underlying strategic framework could be. However, the legal, cultural, and economic variation among the countries meant the educational terrain was different for each partner, often resulting in “local adaptations” of the framework. But how much adaption was too much? How should these local idiosyncrasies influence the selection of national partners? How should PEDs deal with the issues of alignment between partners and the strategic framework? And how to measure the difference it would make?

The staff and the partner organizations also had to consider the future. Once national organizations had established themselves, how would their needs change? How would Teach For All adapt to meet the demands of a maturing and growing network? Could Teach For All establish centralized services that it could provide to partner organizations? Should Teach For All charge for these services? Would network partners contribute to the knowledge and experience-sharing required to accelerate partner impact across the network in spite of the pressing demands on their time?

Published Date: 08/11/2011

Suggested Citation: Jeffrey Levick,  Jaan Elias, and William Drenttel, "Teach For All: Designing a Global Network," Yale SOM Case 11-013, November 8, 2011

Keywords: Education, Teach First, Teach for America, Organizational Network, Women in Leadership