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Teach for America Founder Wants Educational Equity

Wendy Kopp to deliver BU’s 140th Commencement address

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When Wendy Kopp proposed the creation of a national teacher corps called Teach for America in her senior thesis at Princeton University in 1989, her advisor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs liked the concept, but doubted that she could pull it off. “‘My dear Ms. Kopp,” she remembers him saying, “you are quite evidently deranged.’”

Kopp wasn’t deranged, and she was persistent. Then 22 years old, the Texas native raised $2.5 million in private donations and launched Teach for America’s charter corps in 1990 with 500 recent college graduates. After five weeks of training, those 500 volunteers fulfilled two-year teaching commitments in high-need, mostly urban schools. Over the ensuing 23 years, the nonprofit has trained some 38,000 young men and women, who have reached 3 million students in nearly 50 sites nationwide. Last year alone, it recruited 10,000 teachers. Fortune magazine named Teach for America one of the top 100 best companies to work for in 2011, and Kopp has been named to Forbes magazine’s Impact 30 list as a leading social entrepreneur.

On Sunday, May 19, Kopp will be the Commencement speaker at the University’s 140th Commencement ceremony, and will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

“I wanted to have someone as Commencement speaker who’s made a huge, huge impact on the world,” Brown told the Class of 2013 at this year’s Senior Breakfast. “She did it coming out as an undergraduate.”

Teach for America blossomed from Kopp’s desire to address educational inequality in America. She grew up on the outskirts of Dallas in a community that called itself “the Bubble” for its lack of diversity, attended a top 10 public school, and arrived at Princeton “really very unaware of the disparities that exist in our country.” Her roommate was a freshman who graduated from a public school in the Bronx, and while brilliant, initially struggled academically.

“That was a little window into what is obviously a much, much bigger problem than you could ever realize the depths of at Princeton,” Kopp says. Her studies revealed the public policy side of the economic inequities, and her conscience compelled her to imagine a solution.

Looking back, Kopp sees how parallel events led to the success of Teach for America. She needed a thesis topic and a postgraduation plan, knew of her generation’s discontent with traditional career options, and read regular headlines about teacher shortages at school districts nationwide. “There was just a lot that made the timing perfect,” she says.

As Kopp has often said, just 8 percent of the 16 million children in America who grow up below the poverty line will get through college by the time they’re 24. That means 14.7 million of them do not get the education that could give them a better life. She hopes corps teachers inspire their students and that their experience encourages the teachers themselves to continue to strive for educational equity long after they leave the corps.

Teach for America has attracted students from colleges across the country. At more than 130 colleges and universities, over 5 percent of seniors applied to the organization, according to the Teach for America website. About 27 percent of Spelman College’s most recent graduating class applied, 18 percent of Harvard’s, and 16 percent of Duke’s. Yet the nonprofit’s acceptance rate hangs around 17 percent, which means that for some students, it’s harder to get into Teach for America than it was to get accepted at their alma maters.

“From the start, it was very selective,” says Kopp, who sought college graduates with the kind of leadership skills that allow them to survive, succeed with their kids, and learn the right lessons to effect fundamental change in the future. “We’re looking for a rare person,” she says.

While independent research has shown that Teach for America recruits are making a difference, some educational professionals have criticized the nonprofit for sending what they believe to be inadequately trained young people into some of the nation’s toughest public schools.

Kopp says the problem of educational inequity is so pervasive that the solution requires the efforts of trained teachers and people who will enter other professions that influence the quality of education. “We believe the best way to go about gaining traction against this problem,” she says, “is to channel the energy of our future leaders who will work not only inside of education, but at every level of policy and across other sectors.”

Teach for America’s success has attracted the attention of social entrepreneurs worldwide, and many have approached Kopp for advice on how to start similar programs. In 2007, she collaborated with Brett Wigdortz, founder of the United Kingdom’s Teach First, to create Teach for All, a network of independent social enterprises that replicates Teach for America’s model in high-need areas around the world. The network now includes organizations from 27 countries in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East, and 20 more countries are expected to join in the coming years.

This year, Kopp stepped down as Teach for America’s CEO and became the organization’s board chair, allowing her to focus more attention on Teach for All. She has written two books about her experience, One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way, in 2003, and A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All, in 2011.

Kopp holds a dozen honorary degrees from institutions that include Harvard, Princeton, and Marquette, and among other accolades, has been awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the JFK New Frontier Award, and the Clinton Center Award for Leadership and National Service. And perhaps equally impressive, she held her own in a February 2007 interview about Teach for America with Stephen Colbert.

Equitable education is a family affair for Kopp, who is 45, lives in New York City, and is married to Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, which operates the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of free college-preparatory public schools around the United States. They recently searched for public schools and were pleased by the “incredible options” they found for their children and were reminded that many American parents don’t have any choice, much less a good one, for their children.

“On a human level,” Kopp says, “it’s made me feel all the greater urgency.”

More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.

13 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

13 Comments on Teach for America Founder Wants Educational Equity

  • Andrew on 05.13.2013 at 5:11 am

    What are the SED student’s thoughts on this?

    • Phil Tate on 05.13.2013 at 12:41 pm

      Although I am a School of Education faculty member who normally attends graduation, I will not be attending this year. Although I appreciate the free flow of ideas, I would not want my attendance to be construed as support for TFA.
      For many years, I have tried to counter TFA’s harmful effects, which are: 1) The selling of a TFA position as a resume-builder results in few corps members staying in teaching longer than 2 years (although the retention numbers are improving). 2) Most of the TFAers are teaching out of field. They are filling science, mathematics, special education, ESL, and elementary education positions without sufficient education in the subjects they teach. 3) TFA ignores educational research and makes up their own. For example, peer-reviewed studies show that, on average, teachers are much more likely to be successful if they have more than four years of teaching and are teaching subjects in which they majored in college (see #1 and #2). 4) Ms. Kopp promotes a dangerously flawed image of teaching as merely a form of leadership. This sells well on Wall Street, but is very far from what we know about good teaching. 5) Educators tolerated TFA as long as the corps members were filling jobs no one else wanted. Now, they are taking the places of much better qualified teachers, including those prepared at SED. 6) The TFA model fits in well with reforms that emphasize free enterprise solutions to our problems of poor schooling. Research in this country and comparisons to systems in other societies suggest that this is exactly the wrong approach. Instead of trying Peace Corps-like experiments where children in our own country are treated like foreigners, we should be working to provide good health care and family supports for all children and to professionalize teaching.

      • Jim in NOLA on 05.13.2013 at 8:26 pm

        I applaud your post, Phil. As I stated below, Wendy Kopp herself has said that TFA is directed towards developing corporate leaders, not classroom teachers. It is not right to utilize children of all ages as pawns to further corporate career ambitions.

        I will say this, however- those TFA teachers I have worked with here in New Orleans who decided to stay in the profession are awesome. They are dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of their students and are very accomplished in their craft. Unfortunately, most of the TFAs book it to the corporate world after two years.

  • NGOs are the way to go on 05.13.2013 at 7:51 am

    This story demonstrates how a single naive person with a nobel vision can accomplish more than the Department of Education. We need more NGOs like this run by determine young people like Kopp and less big government group think micromanaging our schools and inner cities. The solution to many of our nation’s educational and social problem lie in the “deranged” dreams of optimistic young people willing to stop waiting for the big government nanny state to fix everything for them and who instead chose to take the bull by the horns and get up do something to make the world a better place for themselves and others. Go for it!

  • Jim in NOLA on 05.13.2013 at 8:56 am

    She was quoted in the educational administrative journal “Educational Leadership” that TFA was never meant to develop teachers; it was meant to develop leaders in the corporate world. The classroom was simply an opportunity to give them practice to do that. The set-up of TFA supports that- teach in a school of desperate need for two years then say “adios”. Strange to me, then, that she should be so worked up about educational inequity.

  • George on 05.13.2013 at 10:12 am

    One does not simply announce that Morgan Freeman is going to have a supporting role in a graduation ceremony, without expecting the analogous reactions from the graduating class.

    Just saying

    • seriously on 05.13.2013 at 1:51 pm

      dude no. did you even read about her? morgan freeman probably doesn’t even have a speech ready, you can’t just make him speak like that. think before you write. respect.

  • senior on 05.13.2013 at 11:23 am

    WE WANT MORGAN FREEMAN!

  • Frustrated on 05.13.2013 at 11:32 am

    While the goal of TFA is very noble and admirable, it is too idealistic and hurts teaching as a profession. Teacher-training candidates spend four years training to do what the organization thinks they can train people to do in 3-5 weeks. Especially in such low-performing schools that need and deserve the best teachers, it is an injustice to the students to provide them with teachers with little to no educational experience. Just like with any other career, teachers only get better with experience. A two-year requirement is not enough time for beginning teachers to perform at their best. Rather than recruiting people who are using TFA as a stepping stone towards their own career vision, TFA should focus on recruiting the best-performing teachers into schools that need their help.

    Think about it this way. Would you want to go to a clinic with “Doctors for America” or have your house designed by “Architects for America?”

  • WWMFD? on 05.13.2013 at 1:55 pm

    ’tis times like these i ponder. . . what would morgan freeman do?
    i hear lots of controversy over TFA. it is warranted. i do not know how i yet feel.
    perhaps morgan freeman knows. there should be a Q and A with Mrs. Kopp after.

  • Tony on 05.14.2013 at 9:36 am

    See a problem, come up with a solution. There’ll be a problem with your solution of course, than we’ll have a solution to that problem, and that solution will have a problem that will need a solution and on and on and on. It works for those who needs it and receives it. Do the best with what you got going on and find a way to add it to what TFA is doing. Keep building, add your intellectual brick to it. God Bless America 1

  • Appalled Parent on 05.14.2013 at 12:29 pm

    I encourage you to read this article http://www.theonion.com/articles/my-year-volunteering-as-a-teacher-helped-educate-a,28803/. While it is satirical, it nonetheless has much truth to it. Students deserve educators who are in it to TEACH, not to add to their resume for the corporate world. My son and daughter have a calling and passion to teach and have pursued that passion exclusively during their college years. They are in it for the long haul, not for a two year resume bump. BU does a disservice to ALL the exemplary educators on their campus by this choice of commencement speaker. And they certainly devalue their own School of Education students, who came to BU because of its reputation for having an intensive four year program that turns out prepared and dedicated educators. We should be looking for long term solutions, and we should be looking for a different commencement speaker!

    • SigmaChi on 05.15.2013 at 1:33 pm

      Amen!! morgan freeman ’13

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