Wendy S. Kopp

Ashoka Fellow
,
Fellow Since 2008
Teach for America

Citation

This profile was prepared when Wendy S. Kopp was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
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 Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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