Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

June 6 , 2001:
Education reformer
Wendy Kopp '89 on her life and work

By Maria LoBiondo

Since 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 invaluable.

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 ways.

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 over time?

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 to achieve.

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 instruction.

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.