In 1989, when she was a senior at Princeton University, Wendy Kopp wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduation. She did know, however, that she wasn’t happy with the inequities in American education. So she focused on developing an idea she’d proposed in her senior thesis: a national corps of teachers. That summer, Teach for America was born, and over the past 12 years, it has recruited more than 5,000 of the most accomplished graduating seniors—many from Ivy League colleges—to teach for two years in public schools serving the most disadvantaged students.
Kopp’s new book, One Day, All Children . . . The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way (Public Affairs), details the tough challenges her organization faced in trying to model itself after the Peace Corps. Financial instability, organizational chaos, and scathing criticism of the group as merely a bunch of inexperienced do-gooders threatened the survival of Teach for America. Eventually, however, it succeeded, largely due to support from local school communities. In a recent independent survey, for instance, 90 percent of the participating principals rated corps members as good or excellent teachers.
Contributing writer David Ruenzel recently spoke to Kopp, who defended her organization’s record and explained how vital a role Teach for America has played.
Q: Since 1994, Linda Darling-Hammond [a Stanford professor and an expert in the field of teacher recruitment and retention] has attacked Teach for America for, among other things, placing unprepared teachers in the classroom. Why has she been so antagonistic toward you and your organization?
A: Initially, I thought it had to do with the fact that here’s this person, namely me, right out of college with this idea—I would have been somewhat annoyed myself. I wrote it off because of that. But it’s gone on for so long I’m sure that can’t be it. I think she would say that she fundamentally believes in a different approach, that all teachers should go through campus-based teacher education programs.
Q: She thinks it’s hubris that you can just put bright people into the classroom.
A: But that’s not a fair characterization of what we believe. We don’t believe that everyone can teach, which is why we have an extensive selection process. Yes, being bright is part of it; we want the most talented minds in our classrooms. But it takes a lot more than that. We look for leadership ability in terms of achievement orientation, sensitivity to others, and communication ability. And even after we select our corps teachers, we provide them with a pre-service training program and an ongoing support program because there is absolutely a knowledge base to effective teaching.
Our core belief is that we, as a nation, should be recruiting the nation’s top graduates to teach—by top, I mean the real leaders on campus—rather than letting them go off to investment banking, law, or other pursuits. But we have to make sure that they gain the teaching skills they need to be successful in urban schools.
Q: How do the veteran staff and faculty at the schools regard your corps teachers?
A: Well, a lot of principals are thrilled because they’re accustomed to interviewing people for jobs who don’t really want to be there. Ours want to teach there. And to the extent there is skepticism from the faculty, it’s because they are new teachers. They wonder how long that new teacher is going to last because we’re operating in a realm where turnover is extremely high. But almost 90 percent of our teachers fulfill their two-year commitment, and 60 percent teach beyond two years in the same schools. We also try to cluster our teachers in the same schools, so there’s a lot of familiarity with Teach for America. Plus, our teachers are coming in with great humility, thinking, “This is incredibly challenging, and I need help from those already here.”
Q: After spending two or three years in the classroom, your teachers often move on to other, more lucrative, careers. Is
this a problem?
A: No, because they take what they’ve learned into their other pursuits. The people in the schools our corps members teach at understand this; they know we need senators, doctors, and corporate CEOs who understand what it’s like to be a teacher and the reality of facing kids in low-income areas. Plus, a lot of our alumni do stay in education. They see that huge needs make for huge opportunities. Our people realize, at 23 or 24, that they have an opportunity to start a school, to run a school. This is a time of great leadership opportunities in education.
Q: How much did your Ivy League connections help you with starting up Teach for America?
A: I honestly believe that the greatest factor in the success of this organization was simply the power of the idea. A lot of people, as soon as they would hear of our commitment to teaching kids in lower-income communities, would think that this is exactly what we need in this country. Still, I am very thankful for my Princeton degree and how it looks to people. It gives you, for better or worse, a certain credibility. At the same time, I’m not sure it was a huge factor.
Q: Aren’t many school districts now using your idea of actively recruiting teachers out of college, and couldn’t this one day render Teach for America obsolete?
A: I hope they’re taking our idea! When I think outside my Teach for America hat, I see that this is exactly what we need—school districts recruiting aggressively. Still, as long as there is educational inequity in this country, there will be a role for Teach for America to recruit America’s most promising leaders. Our pitch to graduates is that you can help kids gain the education they deserve, while at the same time, you can gain the insight you need to effect institutional change. There are people out there on college campuses who respond to that pitch who might not respond to the school district’s pitch, as indicated by the fact that [the number of] our applicants [has] only risen every year.
Q: What’s in the future for Teach for America?
A: We’re very focused on taking our effort to a higher level. Right now, we have 1,500 teachers in the midst of a two-year commitment; we want to get to the point where we have at least 4,000 people in 25 communities. We’re also trying to improve training and support programs so that we can get to the point where a substantial number of our people are operating at the level of the very best teachers.
Q: But no matter how many teachers you recruit, it will only be a fraction of those needed in America’s schools.
A: We don’t see our mission in the context of the teacher shortage. We would never say that we are the answer to that shortage. We see our mission in terms of the achievement gap that exists in this country. We’re providing kids with excellent teachers and creating leaders who can make lasting, real changes. So it’s hard to say that what we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket.