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"

Jean-Christian Bourcart
"It’s not maybe so sexy," says Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp, "but the only way to build a first-class education system is through the long hard work."

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.

Meanwhile, TFA has now spawned Teach For All – a global group bringing TFA principles to countries like India and Peru.

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.

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.

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.

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