a PAW web exclusive column
6 , 2001:
Wendy Kopp '89 on her life and work
By Maria LoBiondo
1990, a select corps of college graduates has made a two-year commitment
to teach in low-income communities from New York City to Los Angeles.
From her senior thesis, Wendy Kopp '89 developed Teach For America,
the nonprofit organization that recruits, trains, and places these
teachers. Last year, more than 4,000 graduates from over 400 undergraduate
institutions and 49 states applied to TFA; 900 were accepted and
went on to teach in nearly 500 elementary and secondary schools
nationwide. Kopp, the youngest alumna and first woman to receive
the Woodrow Wilson Award, recently talked with PAW prior to a talk
at the Wilson School and a book signing for her newly published
One Day, All Children (PublicAffairs).
PAW: At Princeton, the
Foundation for Student Communications seems to be the seminal place
where you put together a lot of your ideas.
Kopp: It's the place
where I gained a lot of the management skills and organization I
brought to this. You probably know it as the magazine Business Today,
or online as Business Tomorrow. I actually came to Princeton interested
in pursuing journalism, and they had a desperate need for writers
because at that point there weren't a lot of college students looking
to write about business. I was just looking for the best journalistic
opportunity I could have, and in the third month of my freshman
year became an associate editor of the magazine, and I sort of got
pulled into the organization that way. It was a tremendous experience
for me, working with a tremendous group of Princeton students, to
revitalize that organization and help it to fulfill its mission
of being a link between students and business, talking about the
social issues of the day. I had become really interested in this
issue of education reform and in addressing the educational inequities
in our country and one of the conferences we organized (through
the Foundation) was about educational reform.
PAW: Didn't your relationship
with your Princeton roommate, who was from the South Bronx, also
influence your interest in educational reform?
Kopp: I think it was
certainly my relationship with her and with other peers at Princeton,
and reflecting on how differently prepared we all were for the experience
of Princeton. And seeing some people just breeze through, and others
struggle, just because we all hadn't been afforded the same opportunities
leading up to Princeton. It seems like such a crazy place to realize
that there's educational inequality in the world, and it's even
more apparent at places other than Princeton, but that's what turned
me on to this issue.
PAW: To begin TFA, you
also used your Princeton connections to good advantage.
Kopp: There's certainly
such a strong alumni network out there. And that was just invaluable.
I think there were so many Princeton alums who saw me doing this
as a college graduate and wanted to be helpful. Just tremendously
PAW: You mention in
your book that you gathered an incredible team of people to work
with. Talk about that.
Kopp: I actually think
that this idea is one that magnetizes incredible people. I think
that served us well in terms of the staff people we were able to
attract, and still to this day when you ask people why they applied
to TFA or why they joined, they say, "I saw this vision statement,"
you know, our vision statement that "One day all children in
this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."
It's the vision statement that pulled them in.
PAW: When you wrote
this book where you taking some time off with your new son Benjamin?
Kopp: No. I was doing
this on weekends. Which was great. I really felt I had had such
an incredible opportunity over the last 10 or 11 years now and I
learned so much about so many different things, and I wanted to
share what I had learned both with all the would-be social entrepreneurs
out there, and the people who want to support them in the philanthropic
community, and the people who are committed to public education.
I learned so much about both what it takes to build a successful
organization, but also about what I think it will ultimately take
to reach this point where all kids, regardless of where they are
born, have the chance to attain an excellent education. There's
sort of a bizarre kind of parallelism between what I learned it
takes to build a successful organization and what I learned it's
going to take to build a successful school system. I really wanted
to communicate all of that. When I started, this was all about I
was simply obsessed with this idea. I thought this idea has to happen.
What I realized, was that in order to make this idea happen, it
was going to take a great deal of attention to the details of effective
management and organizational management. At the same time, it put
me directly in touch with education in our lowest income communities,
and so the book is the story of all these different learning curves
that are happening simultaneously.
PAW: Are you trying
to bring an entrepreneurial idea to education?
Kopp: I view TFA as a
catalytic force to close the achievement gap in this country between
low-income and high-income areas. Our theory of change, and what
we see playing out every day, is that we'll on the one hand provide
excellent teachers for children growing up today in our nation's
lowest income communities, who go above and beyond to provide their
students with the opportunities that they deserve. At the same time,
we're seeing the civic commitment and the career direction of the
corps members themselves, who go on and work throughout their lives
to effect changes based on the insight they gained based on their
two-year teaching commitment.
PAW: So it works both
Kopp: Exactly. And both
ways are important because we need to be meeting the needs of kids
growing up today and at the same time we have to realize its going
to take broader changes in order to get us to where we want to be.
TFA is about, on the one hand, having a direct impact today, while
at the same time building the leadership force and the source of
support for the systemic changes that need to occur.
PAW: What's evolved
Kopp: I think that what's
evolved over time for me, is that 10 years ago I had this belief
that this should be the case, that all kids should have the chance
to attain an excellent education. And now I've come to believe,
and many others at TFA have come to believe, that it is absolutely
possible. There's no reason that we can't reach that point. And
that is what is giving us all the greater sense of urgency to take
this effort to a higher level, to become a truly effective movement
in this country to expand educational opportunity.
PAW: You wanted it to
be a movement from the very beginning?
Kopp: Yes. From the very
start the idea was not to create a small nonprofit organization,
the idea was to create a movement of some of our nation's most talented
minds, most promising future leaders, to do something about the
inequities that exist in education.
PAW: Where did the ideas
about selectivity for corps members come from?
Kopp: I think the idea
about ensuring that there was an aura of selectivity and status
came from my thinking about the Peace Corps, and about what was
it about the Peace Corps that led so many talented people with other
career opportunities to choose to do two years of service.
PAW: Talk about wedding
business ideas with education.
Kopp: I was always driven
to have a social impact. I got sucked into this organization at
Princeton that was struggling at the time, with a group of other
people, we found ourselves with the responsibility for keeping the
Foundation for Student Communication afloat. I wouldn't say I was
driven toward business. Even when I was there I was saying, let's
have our conferences focus on educational reform. And the mission
of the Foundation for Student Communication is to take deep social
issues and get student leaders and business leaders to talk about
them. That experience taught me - my summer job for three years
was to out and sell advertisements and conference sponsorships to
business people. So through that I gained a fearlessness about walking
into executives' offices and asking for money. And I also realized
how the world works. People give away money. Corporations give away
money all the time. That definitely led to my sense of possibility
that I would be able to raise the funds for this. At the same time,
as we grew the Foundation for Student Communication, I was managing
a staff of 60 volunteers, and that experience built my sense of
confidence - a little too optimistically as you see in my book -
that I could manage an organization.
PAW: You talk in your
book about how some corps members are able to push their students
remarkably to achieve. Can you talk about this?
Kopp: What I've seen
is that some of our corps members, while going through their individual
learning curves, have raised the bar for us about what it's possible
to achieve in a single year. Whether it's a kindergarten teacher
whose students aren't prepared for kindergarten who has them all
reading by the end of the year, or a high school biology teacher
who creates an AP biology class and gets 20 of his 26 kids to score
at three or better on the exam, as I've gotten to know multiple
teachers who've had that level of impact I've learned from them
what the strategies are to attain that level of success. What I've
come to see is that these teachers are doing what successful leaders
do in any context. They're establishing an ambitious vision of where
they want their kids to be, they're investing the students, the
students' parents and others in working with them to reach that
vision, and they're being strategic and proactive in doing everything
it takes to reach that goal. They're maximizing every second of
the day, and when the day's not long enough, they're figuring out
how to get the kids there early and how to get them to stay late.
What is teaching in our lowest income communities? I think it relates
so much to effective leadership. That's what is leading us at TFA
to say, we need, as a country, to recruit leaders into teaching
positions. And then provide them with the training and support they
need to attain that level of success, because it absolutely is possible
PAW: Could a human being
carry that out for more than two years?
Kopp: I think that's
a fair question to ask. As I write in the book, the corps members
I know who are attaining that level of success are working super-human
hours and putting in super-human effort. I think it's a good question
to ask: Is it realistic to expect that hundreds of thousands of
teachers in low-income communities are going to put in that level
of commitment at the current pay structure? And that's why I say,
you know what? We need to effect broader systemic change. What those
teachers have shown us is what is possible and what it takes to
achieve success. Now I think we need to effect the broader changes,
so that we're building a system that's fostering and facilitating
the kind of leadership that these teachers had to go way outside
of our current conception of what teaching is to accomplish. Some
of our most successful teachers have gone on to create schools because
they were worried about where their kids were going after the TFA
teachers' years with them, and it's fascinating to see what types
of schools they have created. They've created schools where the
fundamental mission is to put their students on a level playing
field with students in other areas, so they establish a vision based
on high academic expectations. They build a strong school-wide culture
based on very strong values. They recruit and train and develop
effective teachers. They lengthen the school day. They access social
services and connect them to the schools. They're making it easier
for people like them to attain the kind of results that they attained
in our current system by changing the way school looks. The theory
of TFA is that we're going to place a leadership force of people
who are going to do what it takes to attain extraordinary results
with their students and will learn through that experience both
what is possible and what it tak es so that they'll go on throughout
their lives to effect these broader changes that are essential.
PAW: When do you expect
that this is going to happen?
Kopp: I think we're seeing
it happen every day. I look at several of our alumni who are running
nationally acclaimed charter schools that are proving that at a
school-wide level students in low-income communities can achieve
at the same level as students in high-income communities. And an
alum of TFA was just elected to the school board in Washington,
DC; a White House fellow right now is an adviser to the Secretary
of Education, who's a TFA alumnus; all over the place wherever you
look in education reform there are TFA alumni leading the charge.
That is already happening and we're only 10 years into this. So
in 10 more years, I fully expect that these people will be infiltrating
every part - not only the education community, but in other sectors,
informed advocates, working in other sectors as well.
PAW: How do you feel
about standardized tests and teachers teaching to standardized tests?
Kopp: I think it's very
important that we hold ourselves to clear standards. The absence
of clear standards for what students should be able to do, and of
clear accountability measures, has contributed to the problem we
have today, whereby the time they're nine years old, kids in low-income
communities are already three to four grade levels behind kids in
high-income communities, which is unconscionable. I think it's important
that we commit ourselves to standards, that we institute systems
of accountability. There are certainly cases where people aren't
utilizing those tests as the tool they should be, and this concept
of pulling kids out of classes and putting them in a cafeteria for
cram sessions for a month for tests, I mean clearly this is not
what anyone wants to see happen. But at the same time we've seen
that the accountability measures that have been put in place in
states like Texas have absolutely had an impact on the quality of
PAW: How are you using
the Internet at TFA?
Kopp: We recruit college
students through the Internet all the time. People can apply online.
We do extensive emailing. Most people who learn about TFA learn
about it online.
Maria LoBiondo is a
frequent contributor to PAW.