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"
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What is so striking in classrooms and schools that are succeeding is that probably the most salient difference in those classrooms and schools is that the teacher or the school leader, the faculty, have actually embraced a different mission than would characterize most schools.They have decided that we are going to change the trajectory of our kids, the trajectory that would be predicted by their socio-economic backgrounds. As a result they’ve set a different goal and they take nothing as given other than that goal. They think way outside any kind of restraints. If they don’t have enough time with their kids then they figure out how to get them there early and keep them late. And so I think I actually believe that step one of ensuring educational equity is defining the mission of urban and rural public schools differently.Skip to next paragraph
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This isn’t about putting educational opportunities in front of kids but about actually setting about to change kids and students academic and ultimately life trajectory.
Q. Have you ever taught? Would you ever teach?
I have never taught. Now that I know what it takes to teach successfully, it would need to be a very serious and long-time commitment to climb the learning curve and do what it takes to truly change kids’ trajectories. So it seems very daunting to me at this point, at least at this stage of my life. It’s not not wanting to teach. Believe me, I spent many months and years pining to join some of our folks who are making such a difference to kids and communities.
Q. If you could change any one thing about the US education system what would it be?
We need to make an all-out effort to build the capacity of the education system. The only way to achieve a goal as ambitious as transforming kids’ academic trajectories is to approach the work with the same kind of level of energy and discipline as accounts for success in any endeavor. There’s nothing illusive about what it takes to build transformational schools. It’s about all of the things that create high-performing organizations anywhere. It’s about extraordinary leadership, talented and committed teams, strong cultures, continuous improvement, and doing whatever it takes.
When I think about where our public discussion is right now, what we talk about and the policies we debate, versus what I know accounts for true success when we really look at what’s happening in the schools that are working or in the systems that are changing, I think it’s different things. It’s not maybe so sexy but the only way to build a first-class education system is through the long hard work of building strong people development systems and leadership pipelines and ultimately building the kind of systems that enable continuous improvement and performance over time.
Q. What's your goal for TFA over the course of the next 20 years?
It’s hard to articulate just one. We are continually working to get much bigger and much better. We have three major priorities around increasing the scale and diversity of TFA, increasing the degree to which our teachers are very successful with their kids and are themselves transformational teachers, and accelerating the leadership of our alumni as a force for change. We’re ultimately working to fuel an unstoppable movement to realize educational excellence and equity and I believe that that’s a function of attaining greater scale and ensuring the increasing effectiveness of our teachers and alumni.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.