Wendy Kopp is improving education and creating lifelong opportunities for children who attend the poorest schools in the United States. She does so by ushering a new generation of teachers and reformers into all levels of America’s education sector. After eighteen years, Kopp has begun supporting social entrepreneurs who are adapting this model to their countries.
The New Idea
In 1990, as a 21-year-old, Kopp founded Teach For America with the mission of enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders in addressing educational inequity. Kopp believes it is possible to ensure that all children, irrespective of their circumstances, attain an excellent education. Teach For America has had unprecedented success across the U.S. since its founding, and has come to be recognized as one of the premier organizations that provides the education field with new ideas and exceptional talent each year.
Kopp aims to fundamentally restructure America’s educational system by working at multiple levels, including in classrooms, in school and district administration departments, and finally at the level of local, state, and national planning and policymaking. She instigates this broad-based change by recruiting top college graduates of all academic majors and career interests to commit at least two years to teach in urban and rural public schools. In the short run, these individuals provide a critical source of talent and go above and beyond traditional expectations to help their students achieve academic success. As alumni, they bring strong leadership to every level of the school system and across all fields, working to minimize the challenges facing children growing up in low-income communities, build the capacity of schools and school systems, and change the prevailing ideology through their examples and advocacy. Kopp’s ultimate vision is that one day, all children in the U.S. have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Kopp’s most immediate challenge in the initial stages was to recruit non-traditional teachers that would bring new ideas and fresh energy into America’s struggling classrooms. She knew the talent and motivation were there because she watched so many of her bright friends take high-paying, high-profile jobs upon graduation despite their desires to find meaningful work. But Kopp witnessed first hand how few public service opportunities were available for new college graduates seeking work that was ambitious, challenging, and that offered the possibility of achieving nationwide change on a critical social issue. From this recognition, Kopp’s high-profile recruiting program was born. Teach For America has subsequently succeeded in attracting top-notch and non-traditional talent—with college graduates signing on from all over the country and with all varieties of degrees and experience. In the first year alone, over 2,500 graduates from the country’s top colleges and universities applied to fill nearly 500 two-year teaching positions. In 2009, over 35,000 applicants competed for about 4,000 new Teach For America positions.
Albeit a notable accomplishment, recruiting a large and expanding pool of unconventional teaching talent each year is only part of the challenge Kopp perceives. The necessary second step is to ensure that these teachers lead their students to significant academic achievement. The program thus invests in the training and professional development necessary to ensure their teacher’s success, and a growing number of independent studies show that Kopp’s teachers have a greater impact on their student’s achievement than even veteran and traditionally certified teachers in their schools. In succeeding with their students, these teachers gain added conviction that educational inequity is a solvable problem and a grounded understanding of how to solve it. The more than 14,000 alumni of the program have proven to be an unparalleled force of leaders who are driving change in public education—as principals of the nation’s top-performing urban and rural schools, state and national teachers of the year, reform-oriented superintendents, policymakers, and social entrepreneurs.
The education inequity in the U.S. is blatant, with drastically lower life opportunities for students from low-income schools. A nine-year-old, for example, is on average already three grade levels behind his higher-income peers in reading ability, and one to two grade levels behind in math. Half of the students entering America’s struggling low-income public high schools as ninth graders will not graduate. Those who do graduate, on average, will compare in reading and math to eighth graders in higher-income communities. Additionally, since African American and Latino children are three times more likely to live in low-income areas, these educational disparities also affect minorities disproportionately. For the 13 million children growing up in poverty today, these educational disparities translate into bleak life prospects.
Three factors come together in a cycle to create this massive problem. First, while children in low-income communities have the same potential as their high-income peers, they face many extra challenges. For example, because they grow up in poverty, they may not have adequate health care or nutrition, access to high-quality pre-school programs, and adequate housing. Moreover, because children in low-income communities are disproportionately children of color, they are more likely to encounter the effects of societal low expectations and discrimination.
Second, schools and districts do not have sufficient capacity to help students in low-income communities overcome the extra challenges they face. For example, there is insufficient talent and leadership that deeply believes that low-income children, and children of color, can achieve at high levels; there are insufficient hours in the school day to catch up students who start out behind; and, there are not enough high-quality enrichment opportunities like those that exist in higher-income areas.
Finally, the prevailing ideology in the U.S. has not led to the necessary policies and investments to eliminate educational inequality. Among other things, they are hampered by societal beliefs that schools cannot make a significant difference in the face of socioeconomic disparities, that children of color cannot meet high expectations, and that it is not worthwhile to invest in mitigating the challenges of poverty that make it hard for students to focus on school.
Kopp is channeling a stream of passionate, diverse, skilled people to become teachers, thus providing a critical source of excellent teachers for today’s most disadvantaged students and ultimately building a leadership force of individuals who will work for reform from inside and outside of education. Teach For America teachers go through a rigorous recruiting process, and if selected, participate in a summer-long training program after which they are placed in some of America’s poorest schools and perform two years of teaching service. Approximately 65 percent of Teach For America’s participants decide to remain teachers or move on to become principals, school board members, or education sector planners and public policymakers. This new breed of educators represents a strong and growing force for new thinking in education. At the same time, other alumni take their conviction and perspective into policy and leadership roles across professional sectors, where they too work as critical agents for systemic change.
For Kopp, achieving sufficient program growth and ultimately deep changes within the U.S. educational system requires four primary lines of action:
• First, that the organization grow in scale and increase the number of outstanding recent college graduates that it recruits to teach in America’s neediest schools, while also increasing the diversity of that group so that it is inclusive of the communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by educational inequity. The organization plans to have over 8,000 teachers in 2010.
• Second, to maximize the impact that their teachers have on student achievement and ensure that teachers have high levels of success with their students, who are often multiple grade levels behind their more affluent peers.
• Third, to foster the leadership of the program’s alumni as a long-term force for change, thereby maximizing the engagement and leadership of the program’s growing alumni network in education and social reform.
• Fourth, to build a sustainable, effective, and efficient institution that can thrive as long as the problem of educational inequity persists.
All four appear to be working. Teach For America is the largest provider of new teachers for low-income schools and has made teaching in inner-city schools an appealing option for tens of thousands of bright college graduates. More than 6,000 individuals are currently in the midst of their teaching commitments. And importantly, the majority of alumni, such as Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, are staying in education, many of them taking dramatic steps to transform the education system. At the same time, Teach For America has built a sizeable organization to accomplish these priorities; Teach For America reached $10M in revenue in 2000, will likely operate around $143M in 2009, and Kopp forecasts an operating budget of $400M (supporting 12,000 new annual recruits) by 2015.
Kopp describes herself as “an unlikely person” to start Teach For America. Born in a wealthy part of Dallas, Texas in 1968, she attended an affluent local high school and went on to study public policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. According to Kopp, she arrived without any real understanding of the inequality in the American educational system. The moment that opened her eyes, she says, was when she witnessed her undergraduate roommate from the Bronx struggling with the academic pace of the college despite being “brilliant,” while their next door neighbors who had attended prep schools were calling Princeton a “cakewalk.”
The idea to create a national teaching corps crystallized in Kopp’s senior year, amidst the swirl of her senior thesis work and job search. She developed the concept as her thesis, and despite little reaction from others, felt that the idea was so important that she kept pursuing it. Kopp was convinced that getting the country’s best minds to commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools would positively affect the lives of tens of thousands of the nation’s most under-served students while influencing the consciousness and priorities of these future leaders and thus the country.
Just out of college, Kopp persuaded major corporations to donate $2.5M towards the idea, recruited students, and talked school administrators into hiring them. From the beginning Kopp’s goal was to achieve impact on the scale of the civil rights movement. Despite criticism from potential donors, she refused to start with fewer than 500 recruits and dismissed suggestions of a smaller pilot program. Relentlessly pursuing funders through letter writing and cold calling, shuttling between cities and states, Kopp remembers working 12 to 15 hour days, seven days a week in her first year.
Kopp’s persistence paid off. She has been successful in attracting not only a large and fast-growing number of applicants, but also some of the brightest minds in the nation. Among the 2009 applicants, for example, 16 percent of the senior class at Yale submitted applications, as did 15 percent of Princeton’s senior class and 25 percent of Spelman College seniors. In total, over 35,000 individuals applied, up more than 40 percent over the previous year. Kopp clearly values the fresh perspective and idealism these young graduates bring, citing how it allows them to ask fresh questions, take the unbeaten path, throw themselves into their work, and persevere against obstacles. Moreover, Teach For America has proven itself to be one of the largest and most effective interventions in today’s public schools as well as an unparalleled source of leadership for education reform.
Kopp now strives not only to grow Teach For America’s impact, but also to begin transferring the lessons of Teach For America’s success to other countries as well. In 2007, she worked with the founder of the first adaptation of Teach For America, called Teach First in the U.K, to create Teach For All. This organization works to support the development of Teach For America’s model around the world by increasing and accelerating the impact of independent social enterprises that enlist their nation’s most promising future leaders in addressing educational need.