Wendy Kopp: Teach for America founder and author of "A Chance to Make History"
On the 20th anniversary of Teach For America, founder Wendy Kopp pauses to consider the success of TFA and her new book "A Chance to Make History"
In 1989, Wendy Kopp was a college student honing a good idea in her senior thesis. Today, she is the head of Teach For America, a program that funnels thousands of America's top college students into some of toughest public teaching slots in this country. Not only are more than 8,000 TFA teachers working in 39 US cities and regions this year, but 20,000 TFA alumni are now in the working world, more than half continuing in the field of education and many of the others making a mark in fields like law and policy.Skip to next paragraph
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As TFA celebrates its 20th anniversary, Wendy Kopp took a few moments to talk with me about TFA, her book A Chance to Make History, and why she believes that America's best students can work together to solve its toughest challenge.
Q. As you look back over the past 20 years, what do you think Teach For America's biggest accomplishment has been?
Teach For America’s fundamental mission is to enlist many of our country’s future leaders in the effort to end educational inequity. Our greatest accomplishment is the degree to which we’re doing that, in the short run through our teachers’ ability to throw themselves into their work and do everything they can to expand the opportunities for their students and also through our alumni who keep fighting the fight. Some of them are within classrooms as teachers – 65% of them are still working full time in education – others are coming from other important sectors like policy and law and journalism and what not.
Q. One of the most exciting things I learned from reading your book is that Teach For America is now going global with Teach For All. Will cultural barriers make it tough to export the success of TFA?
It’s important to understand that we didn’t wake up and think, oh, let’s see – how can we expand internationally? It came about because we kept hearing about all these very inspiring social entrepreneurs around the world who were just determined to launch this model in their countries and who were looking for help and the support and benefit of a network. We built into TFA the fact that this model will need to be adapted to account for different cultures and policies.
But on a whole other level I would say that, to quote one of the leaders of TFA, there is a universal power in chaneling the energy of a country’s future leaders against its most fundamental challenge: the challenge of ensuring educational excellence. I’ve come to believe that there are so many universals to this model and that there are more universals than differences when it comes to excellence in education.
Q. What makes a great teacher?
In our context – in communities of economic disadvantage – I think the teachers who put their kids on a different academic trajectory are teachers who operate like incredible leaders operate. They develop a vision of where their students have the potential to be and then enlist their kids – their students and their students’ parents – in working with them to reach that vision. They’re very goal oriented and very relentless. They get their kids on a mission and then provide them with the kind of support they need to actually realize very ambitious goals. I’m not sure we can say that is what accounts for successful teaching in any context, but wherever I’ve seen classrooms of kids in our rural and urban communities who are excelling at a level that people might not predict that they would excel, there is a teacher who is operating that way.