GOOD Q&A: Wendy Kopp GOOD Q&A: Wendy Kopp
Issue 012

GOOD Q&A: Wendy Kopp

by Patrick James

October 10, 2008
Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach for America, is facing the challenge of educational inequity head-on. After 18 years of work, Teach for America has an alumni of 14,000 corps members (and about 6,200 currently assigned teachers) whose impact on the lives of students in low-income areas is immeasurable. Here, Kopp reflects on what it's like to create a massive organization in response to an even more massive problem. Interview after the jump.What does a $20 donation do Teach for America?Contributions for Teach for America help us channel the energy of talented, dedicated, recent college graduates against the problem of educational inequity through teaching in the most under-resourced communities. Ultimately, we know that teaching experience is so transformative for the corps members themselves that it influences a lifelong commitment to address educational inequity.How do you explain your organization to someone who's unfamiliar with it? It's hard to make our mission simple. What we do is build a corps of talented, recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in low income communities and become life-long leaders in pursuit of educational opportunity.The Teach for America blueprint was laid out in your senior thesis at Princeton? Did you expect that project to grow into an organization when you wrote it?I would say, sort of, but not really. I wasn't sure. I had become really obsessed with this idea, and I needed a thesis topic-which was convenient because it enabled me the chance to spend a lot of time researching the environment in which the idea might operate and how it might work. So as I researched this, I was thinking, could this work? Could I actually start it? So yeah, I sort of approached the thesis as an exploration of whether this thing could actually happen.Princeton seems like an unlikely environment to inspire someone to combat educational inequity, no?Of course you cannot begin to see the depths of educational inequity at Princeton or at any of our nation's top campuses. But you actually can see evidence on virtually any campus of the fact that where you're born in our country does much to determine your educational prospects. I certainly was not researching within the Princeton community. I was a public policy major looking at the broader policy context in which this would operate, and looking at various models like the Peace Corps, the Federal Teachers Corps, and other service corps that could inform the development of Teach for America.What's the toughest obstacle you face as an organization?As we've progressed in the last 18 years, we have seen everyday first hand the extent of educational disparities in our country. It is a massive and deeply entrenched problem. I think what gives us a greater sense of urgency today than we've ever had is a sense that we can solve this problem. When kids facing the problems of poverty are given the chances they deserve, they excel on an absolute scale. It's seen everyday: the juxtaposition of the disparities that persist and the possibilities in terms of student potential that fuel our sense of responsibility to try to do more.How do you measure successes or failures?We measure the impact of Teach for America based on two things. One is the impact our teachers have on their students' achievement during their two-year commitment. The other is the extent to which our teachers exert leadership in effecting fundamental change that ultimately addresses educational inequity in a long term way. It's certainly hard to measure. But over 60 percent of our alumni are working full-time in education, many of them in real leadership roles: running some of the most successful schools in low-income communities, getting appointed as superintendents and elected to school boards, advising governors and senators on education policy. We look at the degree to which people remain engaged and exert real influence.What are your thoughts on how charter schools and private schools will shape the educational landscape?Given the magnitude of the problem, we need to think creatively about how to address it. Ultimately, it's going to take leadership and innovation from within the system as well as innovation from outside of the system.Is the state of education one of crisis?We believe that the educational disparities that persist in our country are our nation's greatest social injustice. I'm sure you have all these statistics, but the fact that we have 13 million kids today growing up in poverty who, by the time they're 9 years old are already three grade levels behind kids in high income communities, half of whom won't graduate from high school and the half who do will be on an 8th grade skill level. We just believe that this is an unconscionable problem in a country that aspires to be a land of opportunity. We believe that our only hope for addressing that problem is to channel the energy of our nation's future leaders against it. That's the core idea of Teach for America. It will lead us to address the problem in a systemic and sustained way. I guess I would say that I was very aware when I was a college senior that I felt like the whole world was open to me-and that that was because I'd had the chance to obtain an excellent education. Really, that's by nature of where I was born. That, as much as anything, gave me the inspiration for Teach for America-knowing that in our country today, where you're born does do so much to determine your educational outcome. I went to a public school but in a very a privileged community and feel very lucky to have attained the education that I did.Is there something you never learned as a kid that you wish you had?There's so much I didn't learn. I'm having trouble thinking of an answer that would make sense. So many things.What's your definition of good?This is hard to do in a non-trite way.  It's the bold, relentless pursuit of a better world.
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GOOD Q&A: Wendy Kopp