BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Wendy Kopp, you told the Mount Holyoke graduation earlier this year that you were driven originally to form Teach For America by idealism. Explain that.
WENDY KOPP, FOUNDER AND CEO, TEACH FOR AMERICA: Well, I had this idea that things should be different, that – you know, I actually, I think part of the story here is that, when I arrived at Princeton from a community in Dallas, Texas, I really wasn’t aware of the extent to which where you’re born in our country determines your educational prospects.
And, of course, you can’t begin to see the depths of educational inequity play out at Princeton, but it was really there that I saw first-hand that where people had had the chance to go to school K-12, high school and such, did so much to determine how well prepared they were to make the most of Princeton.
And that got me turned on to this issue, that in our country that aspires so admirably to be a place of equal opportunity, still, really, we’re not living up to that ideal, because we’re not providing all kids with the chance to attain an excellent education.
So, the idea of Teach For America was to say, we have to do something about that. We should be marshalling the energy of our country’s most promising future leaders in the direction of doing something about that.
And what I was explaining at Mount Holyoke was that that’s why I got started. But so much of why I’m now still at this is, what I’ve learned over the last, now almost 18 years in this, about not only should the world be a different way, but it actually could be a different way. Because I think I’ve seen first-hand that we actually could solve this problem and ensure that all kids in our country have the chance to attain an excellent education.
LAMB: Could you name – it doesn’t have to be just one – but one or two teachers in your life that you’ll never forget, and why?
KOPP: Absolutely. You know, I think about my teachers in high school, and clearly, there are many who I could talk about. But those who stand out the most – actually, two English teachers – one who I had in seventh grade and one who I believe I had in my sophomore year in high school. And when I think about what it was that made them so memorable, they were absolutely relentless in their level of expectation.
I mean, I got into their class and thought I was doing fine, and they made it perfectly clear that really I wasn’t meeting their expectations – along with the rest of the class. But they were also so individualized about their feedback and were just so – you know, they had such high standards.
And whenever I talk with others about the teachers they remember, that’s the common theme – teachers who have very high expectations and insist on nothing less than meeting those expectations.
LAMB: What were their names?
KOPP: One’s name at the time was Mrs. Fish (ph), and Mr. Day (ph), in high school.
LAMB: Are they still with us?
KOPP: You know, I think – I actually have lost touch, which is terrible. But I remember them clearly, and think that they’ve certainly influenced my trajectory in some way.
LAMB: What was the difference between your Catholic education, and how long did you get that, and public education, and then Princeton?
KOPP: Well, you know, I went to elementary school at a parochial school near us in Dallas. But we lived in a community in Dallas that had an extremely strong public school system. And, in fact, my parents moved into that community so that my brother and I would have the chance to go to the public schools there, which were probably more rigorous in their expectations.
In fact, I really struggled in making – initially, at least – the transition from elementary school to middle school, because the expectations and just the level expected at the middle school was so much more rigorous.
So, I had the chance to attain what was, and I think still is, widely acclaimed as one of the strongest public school systems in the country, and really arrived at Princeton with such a solid background to do well there.
LAMB: Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, Edison Schools and the KIPP Foundation – now, I’ve found some threads there.
One of them is a man named Richard Barth.
KOPP: Yes, my husband.
LAMB: Who is he?
KOPP: Richard was one of the very first people who walked through the door, a recent college grad, the year that I had just graduated. He had heard about this idea of Teach For America, actually from his mom, who saw a clipping about it in the paper. And he walked in and said, ”I want to be a part of this.”
So, he became one of the core team of folks, who the first year got Teach For America off the ground. And many years later, and currently now is my husband.
LAMB: What year did you marry him?
KOPP: I guess that would have been about nine years ago, nine or 10 years ago.
LAMB: And you have three children, three boys.
KOPP: We do, yes.
LAMB: And one boy on the way? Or do you know yet?
KOPP: It’s a girl.
LAMB: It’s a girl.
KOPP: Defied the odds.
LAMB: Where do your children go to school?
KOPP: Well, my two oldest, who are in kindergarten and third grade, go to a public school near us called Manhattan School for Children. It’s a public school, very diverse in many ways. We’re really excited about it.
LAMB: And the other one’s how old?
KOPP: The other one is three, so he’s going to a preschool near us, a Montessori preschool.
LAMB: Bring us up to date on Teach For America.
First of all, why is it non-profit?
KOPP: Well, I guess it never occurred to me to have it be anything other than non-profit, I mean, just given its mission, which is to serve the public good. Not that you can’t be a for-profit with a public good mission, but …
LAMB: How many people work there?
KOPP: We currently have a staff of almost 800, given our growth plan, which, you know, we’ve grown tremendously. So we currently have 5,000 Teach For America core members in the midst of their two-year commitment in 26 communities across the country. We have 12,000 alumni who remain engaged in many ways, and whose ongoing leadership we work to foster.
And we’re in the midst of a very ambitious plan to grow our impact still further, just over the next three years, so that by 2010, we’d have about 8,000 core members, about 20,000 alums, and would be still more successful, as measured by their impact on student achievement in the two years and their leadership as alums.
LAMB: How much money do you have to raise every year to make this happen?
KOPP: This coming year we’ll need to raise about $120 million.
LAMB: How much of that comes from the federal government?
KOPP: From the federal government, about 10 percent. About 30 percent of our funding comes from public sources. School districts from where we place our core members contribute a certain amount. We have some state funding, and then some federal money.
We are part of the AmeriCorps network’s education awards that come along with serving in national service programs.
And we also – we have our own bill that we are working to get authorized and that allows an annual appropriation of up to $20 million each year from the federal government.
LAMB: Of all the ways you get money from private industry, from the federal government states, localities, what’s the hardest money? What comes with the most strings attached?
KOPP: We’ve been able to – we have such a diversified funding base. Seventy percent of our funding is raised in the now 26 communities where we cluster our core members. It comes from individuals who sponsor teachers for $5,000. It comes from corporate and foundation grants.
We have some national corporate partnerships, some national foundation partnerships and, as I mentioned, these various sources of public money.
We’ve been able to maintain our independence, so we’re very clear about Teach For America’s mission and program, and are searching for funders who will invest in that. So at this point, we really have not had to – you know, there really have not been strings, as they say, that would take us away from our core mission.
LAMB: Did the Bush administration cut your funds entirely at one point?
KOPP: Well, within the AmeriCorps process, we compete each year for an annual grant. And there were huge issues at the time within the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is a public-private institution.
So, during the Bush administration, I’m afraid that there were various issues within this entity, which led many organizations to withstand serious cuts. And Teach For America, you know, we were one of those organizations. Although at that point, the amount of funding that we relied on and still rely on from AmeriCorps is really a very small fraction of our overall pool.
I’m not sure I would blame that on one administration versus another, as much as, you know, there were many – it was a very rocky road in getting the corporation to the point where its relationship with Congress and such was what it would need to be to ensure the sufficient availability of funds for these programs.
LAMB: Go back to Richard Barth, your husband, because I mentioned all those groups. How long was he with you at Teach For America?
KOPP: He worked at Teach For America, I think for maybe seven years – six or seven years.
LAMB: So, he worked at the Edison Schools in Philadelphia for three years.
LAMB: Explain what Edison does. I mean, there’s an entrepreneurial spirit among all these different groups. And that’s what I want to get to.
KOPP: Well, I think he left Teach For America for some obvious reasons maybe, given our own relationship, and started looking for how else he could impact the system, and actually, initially worked at Sylvan and ended up at Edison, which was pioneering a new approach to see if the resources of the private sector could improve public services.
So, they would contract with – and in Philadelphia’s case, contracted with the Philadelphia school system to take over the 20 lowest-performing schools. And the contract called for them to make measurable improvement in student outcomes.
They would enter schools where fewer than 10 percent of the kids were on grade level. And we’re working in that environment through massive investments and staff development and curriculum and such, to make progress. And they made a tremendous amount of progress in the time he was there, but he subsequently moved on into a new venture.
LAMB: What’s your sense from what you know from either being around him, or what you know from maybe knowing Chris Whittle, who started Edison, the possibility that that works on a broader scale nationally, where you have private companies running schools?
KOPP: Oh, goodness. Well, I’m probably not the best spokesperson for that endeavor, to say the least.
But I think one of the things that – you know, I think if you look at what Edison was providing in a way, and is no doubt still providing in the way of educational services, many reformers would say that their actual services were incredible.
But the politics that they would have to engage in, given all of the controversy around privatization, it can be almost debilitating. And clearly, Edison still exists and it’s progressing, and it’s grappling with that issue.
But I think, as I look at – you know, do the advantages of all of the – all the advantages that come along with being a for-profit company, will that enable them to surmount all of the many obstacles that come along with simply being a for-profit company, working to run whole schools in this space? And I don’t know. I guess the future will tell us whether that model can work and can really thrive on a significant scale.
LAMB: Why do you say it’s debilitating?
KOPP: Well, it has proven debilitating in some context.
I think – I mean, I am clearly, actually, not an advocate necessarily for for-profit companies engaging in this. But what I think I can speak to is the fact that the situation today in our country with respect to this issue is so dire.
And I don’t even know – I mean, I think we all at times can become immune to just how unbelievable it is that, in our country, you know, we have 13 million kids growing up below the poverty line. And by the time those kids are in fourth grade, they’re already three grade levels behind kids in high-income communities.
It’s shocking when you think about that. They’re only nine, and they’re already three grade levels behind, on average.
Half of them will graduate from high school by the time they’re 18. And of the half who do, who we applaud and we’re excited about – you know, there’s all this discussion about the graduation rate – those who do graduate, of the 13 million kids, are on the eighth grade level compared to where your and our kids, on average, will be operating – on the eighth grade level when they graduate from high school.
So, we have a situation where one in 10 of our kids in low-income communities will graduate from college. This is in our country, which aspires to be the place of equal opportunity in the world.
And I guess I look at that situation and just believe that whatever it takes for the kids and families who are stuck in that system, let’s try it. Let’s absolutely evaluate the results and only invest our public dollars in the interventions that do the right things for kids. But let’s get over whatever politics that hold us back from pouring more resources and energy in the direction of improving outcomes for kids.
So, I think that’s the one common principle that undergirds all of the things that you’ve mentioned.
LAMB: How well do you know Michelle Rhee?
KOPP: I know her well.
KOPP: Well, we worked together to launch the New Teacher Project, which she really built and ran for many years.
The initial idea of the New Teacher Project was to take what we had learned through Teach For America about how best to recruit and select and train and support new teachers, and apply it more broadly in a way that would influence the way whole school systems recruit and select and train and support new teachers.
So, through contracting with school systems, the New Teacher Project, which is a non-profit organization, was working to really have a systemic influence on the way all new teachers are brought into the profession.
So, I worked closely with Michelle, who is both a Teach For America alum and ran that organization.
LAMB: And a couple of weeks ago we talked with her, and she’s now the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools.
Why do you think she would leave that to take on a job that no one’s been able to really solve the problems for the last six superintendents?
KOPP: Well, first of all, I think she felt that – and I think it’s true – that the New Teacher Project was at a point where it would thrive without her. She’s a true institution builder. And as a member of the board of the New Teacher Project, I’ve seen that first hand. It’s just an incredibly strong and deep organization that will continue to do great work.
LAMB: Before you leave that, how big is it? And how many teachers do they recruit every year?
KOPP: Oh, goodness. They have worked with dozens and dozens of districts and bring in, as an example, 40 percent of the new teachers in New York City are now recruited and selected and trained by an organization called the New York City Teaching Fellows, which was created with the assistance of the New Teacher Project.
They’re operating in many major urban areas across the country. I think they’ve brought in more than 20,000 teachers, and I may be understating it, through that. And beyond that, they are doing so much more to advocate for system change and policy change in some really important ways that could facilitate the way all new teachers are brought into the profession.
LAMB: Where do they get their money?
KOPP: It’s all – they have some private philanthropic support, but it’s largely driven by revenue from the district contracts that say, OK, we’re going to bring in the New Teacher Project to help us develop a new system for recruiting teachers or improve our existing systems around recruiting and developing teachers.
LAMB: But she was a Teach For America teacher originally.
LAMB: And your husband, was he a teacher, or just worked for Teach For America?
KOPP: No, he worked within the organization.
LAMB: And you’re on the board of the New Teacher Project.
In addition to that, if you go – we’ll get back to Michelle Rhee – but you go to your husband, who now runs the KIPP Foundation, and the two fellows that founded the KIPP Foundation, didn’t they start …
KOPP: They are alums of Teach For America, as well.
LAMB: And one of them still runs the New York City KIPP, and the other one the Houston KIPP.
LAMB: You say in your book that you wrote about Teach For America, that you’re a part of the ”Me Generation.”
KOPP: Well, I say that our generation had a label, the ”Me Generation.” And it always struck me as a funny label, because it didn’t seem to me to describe the people I know, who I felt were – you know, this was – I graduated from college in the late ’80s. And supposedly, all we wanted to do was go out and work on Wall Street.
And I just thought it was funny, because I was surrounded with dozens and dozens and dozens of people who I felt, like myself, were searching for something that we weren’t finding in terms of a way to assume a significant responsibility, like some of those corporations would offer you, but at the same time make a real difference in the world.
And I started realizing, it wasn’t that we were dying to do that, every one of us, at least, but more that those were the only recruiters literally banging down our doors. And that’s really one of the things that, together with my doing what college students do when they’re concerned about issues, and my just sort of immersing myself in this issue of educational inequity, that led me to this idea.
Why aren’t we recruiting our most talented and determined graduating seniors to commit two years to teach in our lowest-income communities, rather than two years to work on Wall Street? Why aren’t we recruiting them at least as aggressively to do this?
And really, from the minute I thought of this, I was just – I became obsessed by the multiple levels on which I thought it would have an impact, because I thought, on the one hand, we would be channeling all this energy and talent that is good enough for the firms on Wall Street. But into classrooms in our highest poverty communities? And I thought that had the potential to make a huge difference for kids growing up today.
And at the same time I thought, how much of a difference could it make in our society, if the first experience out of college for our future leaders was teaching in our lowest income communities? Would that not influence, ultimately, the consciousness and the priorities of our country?
So, part of the idea was that that experience would be so transformative for the corps members themselves.
And I think, to your examples about Michelle, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, and many others we haven’t discussed, it has proven to be a transformative experience.
So, of 12,000 alums, the vast, vast majority are working in some way – many of them within education, others from other sectors – to impact this issue of educational inequity and of improving the conditions in low-income communities.
LAMB: I’m going to ask you – it sounds like an odd question. Can I apply …
KOPP: Yes, absolutely.
LAMB: … for Teach For America?
KOPP: In fact, we’d love to have you apply.
LAMB: How would I do it?
KOPP: You would go online and submit an online application.
It’s a very rigorous process. This year – last year we had 18,000 people compete to enter Teach For America. It starts with an essay application. And we then screen those applications.
We end up inviting about more than half of those applicants to day-long interview processes. So, we really work to gain a holistic picture of each candidate through sample teaching sessions and problem-solving sessions and personal interviews.
We’re looking for people who demonstrate the characteristics that we’ve found differentiate the most successful teachers in our communities. And at the end of the day, excellent teaching in the context in which we’re working is all about leadership. So, at its core we’re looking for real leadership qualities.
LAMB: How many people my age ever apply?
KOPP: Some do. Our focus, because our mission is to both provide another source of very committed, talented teachers for kids growing up today, and to influence the kind of decisions of all these future leaders, we focus on folks who are at the front end of their career trajectory. So, we focus all of our recruitment on college campuses.
But we actually welcome folks and have some great diversity in our corps – former investment bankers and, you know, et cetera, et cetera – who have joined our corps over time. But it’s got to be just like five or 10 percent of the overall corps.
LAMB: So, if I were selected, how much would I make?
KOPP: You would be hired at the regular beginning teacher’s salary in the communities where we work. So, it can range from, in remote rural areas, in places like rural Louisiana, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Indian reservations in New Mexico and South Dakota, it can be as little as $25,000 a year. But in a place, you know, from New York to Chicago to the Bay area, it can be as much as $40,000.
LAMB: What’s my commitment?
KOPP: You commit two years. Once accepted, you begin the work of preparing for those two years. So, we spend the first few months with people during the summer before they start teaching and after they graduate, providing just very intensive preparation.
We’ve learned so much about what the most successful teachers do in urban and rural areas, and are working to help the incoming corps members jump over those learning curves, so that they can hit the ground running and be highly successful, even in their first years. So, we pull everyone together at national training institutes.
And then you’d go to one of these 26 areas where we cluster corps members within schools and provide two years of ongoing professional development. We have experienced teachers on our staff who work out in the schools with our corps members to do what good managers do, essentially.
LAMB: If your kids told you many years from now that they wanted to get an education degree at a school, what would you say to them?
KOPP: I would – first of all, we love education majors at Teach For America, as well. I mean, we’re really recruiting people from all different majors who want to teach specifically in under-resourced communities to help address the achievement gap. So, I would think that that was terrific, actually.
LAMB: But you often read, though, that people criticize the education degree as not the best way to prepare for teaching. What’s your experience?
KOPP: Well, I guess I think that it may not be – you know, it depends. There are many different schools providing teacher education.
I think what we’ve discovered is that – I mean, we’ve developed a very rigorous two-year professional development program, that is meant to train people to be highly successful in this context.
Our folks then often do go to grad schools of education to become more steeped in some of the theories, you know, people who want to go into education long-term. It can be incredibly valuable to have the time and the space to reflect and conduct further research, and whatnot. So, I think there’s a role for schools of education in this.
I just think that we probably need to be supplementing the training that folks get in schools of education with additional training that’s really geared at ensuring that people are highly successful in the particular context in which they’re teaching.
LAMB: If I were to find the person in the United States that dislikes what you do the most, who would it be? And why?
KOPP: Well, I think that there is an ongoing – generally, in the communities where Teach For America works, there’s tremendous support for what we do.
School principals, other teachers in our schools – actually, schools of education with which we partner in the communities where we work – are extremely supportive, in part because they are fully immersed in the context in which we’re working, and are just welcoming this group of people who want to be teaching in the hardest-to-staff schools, and who are there truly because they want to be there and want to go to whatever lengths to meet the needs of their kids, and help them have the opportunities they deserve.
I think as we get more and more removed from the communities in which we work, we engage more philosophically in a debate about really how, in an ideal world, would teachers be brought into the profession. So, in that context, there can be really heated debates about whether this makes sense, or whether another approach to bringing teachers into the profession might make sense.
LAMB: But do you have somebody that you can guarantee at any public event that you’re involved in will be anti-Teach For America?
KOPP: Actually, at this stage of development, I’m sure that that person exists, but not necessarily. I think some – I think you could – you’d listen to those debates and you would certainly hear thoughtful critics. But I think, at this point, there’s also, even from our thoughtful critics, a good deal of support for the fact that, first of all, we’re channeling all this energy.
You know, just the mere concept that, gosh, last year 18,000 top recent college grads competed to enter Teach For America – between five and 10 percent of the senior classes of 90 colleges and universities, from Harvard, Princeton and Yale, to the University of Michigan, to Howard, Morehouse and Spelman. I mean, some of our – a diverse and dynamic group of our most promising future leaders competed to teach in our hardest-to-staff schools.
And I think …
LAMB: Don’t people from this university where we’re sitting in, Pace University, also heavily participate?
KOPP: They do; well actually, we have about 1,000 core members here in New York teaching in the Bronx, Washington Heights, Harlem and Brooklyn. And actually, they enroll in Pace to receive ongoing professional development, work towards certification and towards master’s degrees.
LAMB: Do the people that join Teach For America and go into the schools for two years join the unions?
KOPP: They generally – yes. I mean, they do whatever makes sense in their context. And in many cases, new teachers just join the unions, and there are many reasons to join a union, if you’re a new teacher, in terms of all the legal protection that comes along with it.
And also, the vast majority of them, where there are unions in our local communities – which is not always the case – join the unions.
LAMB: Go back to husband, Richard Barth. He now runs the KIPP Foundation?
LAMB: Isn’t that based in San Francisco?
KOPP: It is, yes. But …
LAMB: And you live in New York?
KOPP: Yes, we do. Although KIPP, like Teach For America, actually has staff members just based all over the place. So, he doesn’t actually have to be in the Bay area very much.
LAMB: What’s the difference in the motivation for someone to be in Teach For America, say, versus teaching in a KIPP school? And what does KIPP stand for?
KOPP: Well, KIPP stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program. KIPP was started by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who, as were discussed, were two Teach For America alums who joined in 1992 and taught in Houston, and were working with some of the most underserved kids in the City of Houston, and found their way by their second year to an approach that literally changed the trajectory that their kids were on.
And then they saw their kids going off to middle schools that were not going to meet their kids’ needs, and decided to start a program that would serve their kids as they went into middle school.
So, that was the origin of the Knowledge Is Power Program, which now has, I guess, 70-plus, high-performing charter schools across the country.
LAMB: And what’s the funding for that operation?
KOPP: Well, you know – and I am no doubt not the most qualified spokesperson for KIPP, either. But most of their funding comes – you know, they are running public schools, so they exist generally in places where charter laws enable them to access public funding to run schools. They have some private funding, as well, certainly to support their national operations and to supplement their local funding in some respects.
But they’re really meeting – you know, they are producing incredible results for kids. They’re showing us all that it can be done, that not only on a classroom level, but on whole-school levels, we can take kids who are growing up in poverty and literally put them on a level playing field with kids in other communities. And they’re doing that with the public monies that are available through charter school laws, typically.
LAMB: Would you define what a good teacher is?
KOPP: Well, as I said, we’ve learned so much about what differentiates great teachers in this particular context.
So, I can say that, in the urban and rural schools where we work, we have seen that excellent teachers do essentially what excellent leaders do in any other context.
So, they’ll go into, say, a fourth grade class where the kids are, on average, at the first grade level. And a truly – you know, when I think about some of the most extraordinary teachers I’ve met within Teach For America or outside of Teach For America in under-resourced environments, they’ll first step back and set a vision of where their kids will be at the end of the year that a lot of people think is crazy – as good leaders do.
So they’ll say, OK, by the end of the year we’re going to prove to this school that you all can do fourth grade work. You’re going to enter fifth grade on level.
LAMB: Could that not be done in just a normal public school that didn’t come with Teach For America principles?
KOPP: Well, for anyone who has kids out there, I think we probably all search for teachers who are extremely goal-oriented and who are on a mission, who understand where their kids are at the beginning of the year and have a clear vision for where they want them to be at the end of the year.
I don’t think that is commonplace. But I think it’s …
LAMB: Why not? Why wouldn’t an education degree teach you that?
KOPP: Oh, gosh. Well, that is a whole other question.
I don’t know. I think we have seen that merely having a deep understanding of where kids are and where – and a clear vision of where you want them to be at the end of the year is the absolute foundation of successful teaching. It’s only the beginning, but it’s an absolutely critical piece.
I think another thing you’ll see excellent teachers do is spend an enormous amount of energy. As great leaders work to motivate others to work with them, teachers who are really getting great results spend enormous energy convincing the kids – and the kids’ influencers, so families, most often – to work with them to get to this ambitious vision.
So, when I think about the most successful teachers I’ve met in low-income communities, they’re convincing the kids to work harder than they’ve ever worked before. They convince them that working hard, rather than just by nature of who they are when they’re born is what will lead them to get smart, and that it’s important to get smart to reach this vision to their future lives.
So, they convince them that this is the most important thing they can be doing. And there are lots of different things they do to get the kids invested in that. And they build really strong relationships with them, and at every moment are thinking about how to reinforce the messages that are necessary to get kids to work with them.
And then, they’re just completely purposeful. So, in the way that great leaders are very goal-oriented and purposeful, when you walk into classrooms like the ones I’m talking about, you feel – you don’t see teachers sort of going through the motions of a lesson plan. You see teachers on a mission.
There’s a palpable sense of urgency in these rooms that make them just fun even for adults to watch, where the teacher is just constantly thinking, ”Where are my kids now versus where I need them to be at the end of this class period in order to get where we’re trying to go?”
And then these teachers are so relentless. There are so many things that can come in the way of a teacher in this context meeting such an ambitious vision – so many different things, the most basic of which is that there’s not enough time.
The kids get there at eight, they leave at three. And there’s just not enough time to make up for three years of progress in a year’s time. So they figure out, ”How do I get my kids there early and how do I keep them late?” And they do that.
LAMB: But let me ask you this. Do you run into a situation where you have a fully-charged young person coming out of college, Teach For America teacher in a community, in this classroom, charged up, go, go, go all the time, and then in the next classroom over, somebody who has a whole different vision, and then there is a resentment, because these people are all charged up?
KOPP: I mean, go into any school in America in any kind of community and you see huge differences from room to room in terms of the teacher’s approach and what they’re trying to do. So, we’re trying to be one more source.
We think, as long as we have the situation that we have today, we need every additional source of committed teachers, who will do whatever it takes to move their kids ahead.
I think we’re certainly not the only source of those kinds of teachers. And, in fact, in virtually every school there are veteran teachers in our communities who are on just the same kind of mission. There are other new teachers who come in with a similar mindset.
So, we’re hoping to be one more source of folks who consistently effect significant results for kids.
LAMB: Well, let me ask you this, though. You’ve watched this up close for 18 years. What’s wrong with our education system?
KOPP: You know, I guess the way I’d come at that – I mean, the most salient lesson for me in 18 years is not so much what’s wrong, but what is possible. We see evidence every day in diverse communities at different grade levels all across the country, that when kids are given the chances they deserve, they excel academically.
Now, that, in and of itself, goes against, I think, the common perceptions out there that this is in some way an intractable problem, that because of all the challenges of poverty, because maybe students aren’t motivated or maybe parents don’t care, that we can only do so much.
And yet, we see real evidence that, when kids are given the chances they deserve, they are motivated. And, in fact, most parents care in every community. And certainly, we’ve seen that the parents in our communities want the best possible education for their kids.
So, I guess I leave this with a sense of hopefulness. And what I leave most focused on is just the need for greater local capacity of local leadership.
So, I look at a D.C. – you were asking about Michelle Rhee earlier, and I just – and we could talk about D.C., we could talk about New Orleans and Oakland and Chicago, and communities across the country where Teach For America has been placing folks for a decade or more now. We’ve been placing 50 people a year in Washington, D.C. – not terribly many.
But today, our alums run 10 percent of the schools in Washington, D.C., including the highest performing among them. One of the two newly-elected board members overlooking the school system there is a Teach For America alum. One of the right hands for the mayor for education policy is a Teach For America alum.
The only national teacher of the year in the history of Washington, D.C., is a Teach For America alum, who was in his eighth year of teaching two years ago when he won that recognition. And now we have a schools chancellor, a deputy schools chancellor and a team of folks in the district, inside the district, working for real change.
And I look at an example like that and think, gosh. And every alum I just mentioned came through Teach For America when we were bringing in 500 people a year. So, the fact that we brought in 3,000 folks this year and will soon bring in many more than that, the fact that we’ll soon bring in 200 people a year to the D.C. area, I think just gives me tremendous optimism that we can be one significant part of the effort to channel a new level of talent and energy into really making change happen.
LAMB: But, as you know, a lot of politicians will stand up day after day and say, our school system is a mess, our schools are a mess.
What is wrong? And you must have been motivated originally to change something. What’s wrong out there?
KOPP: You know what? You come out of this thinking – I think so many alums of Teach For America who have been working at this problem in many different ways would say the same thing.
You come out of it realizing that there’s nothing elusive about either what the problem is or really what the solutions are. And there’s no magic to it.
It’s about all the hard work that it takes to run successful organizations in any sector. There’s nothing other than that. It’s all about leadership and talent at every level of the system that can build very strong cultures and implement good systems for accountability and continuous improvement. It is all the basics.
But if you look at the capacity that exists in most of our public school systems versus that that exists in, say, our most successful corporations – like compare a GE, a General Electric to all the – you know, look at the tech systems and the people development systems that they have in a GE versus those that exist in our school systems, and the disparity is almost inconceivable. And yet, the work of educating our kids is at least as challenging as the work that General Electric is undertaking.
So, I just think we’ve hugely underinvested – using that word in the broadest sense of it – in building the capacity within our systems that it will take to really ensure that all of our kids are truly fulfilling their true potential.
LAMB: But, you know, we talked about your husband, Richard Barth. We’ve talked about Michelle Rhee. We’ve talked about what you’ve founded here. We talked about Chris Whittle a little bit with Edison Schools.
If the four of you were in a room, and there wasn’t a camera in that room, you’d be criticizing something in that process. I mean, you seem to be very diplomatic. You seem not to want to say anything negative about the schools, but yet you must have been …
KOPP: Well, I’ll say something negative. We …
LAMB: You must have been motivated, though.
KOPP: We hugely underinvested in this issue.
KOPP: I wouldn’t even say money. I mean, we will not solve this problem unless we channel our nation’s most talented and committed minds in the direction of solving this problem. We simply will not.
It is a massive problem. I think it’s the greatest problem our country faces. It’s certainly our greatest injustice. And I think it demands the attention of our most talented and committed folks.
And yet, when you look at just like the basic statistics about who goes into the field of education versus who goes into other sectors, we’re simply not drawing the greatest talent.
And that is most fundamentally, that’s what Teach For America is about. The fact that Teach For America is recruiting as aggressively, maybe more aggressively, than any corporation in America to get the very top talent, to channel their energy in this direction, initially for two years, knowing that during those two years they’ll have a huge impact for their kids, and also knowing that those two years will make education leaders and education advocates for life out of these very promising future leaders.
And we envision the day when not just a few, but many of our nation’s leaders will have this experience in common, and will be working across sectors from inside of education at every level of policy in business, in journalism, in every sector, to effect the fundamental kind of systemic changes that will enable real progress and real reform.
But those changes are not going to be – there is no silver bullet. There’s no – it’s just going to all be about, ultimately, capacity building.
LAMB: You know though, depending on what side of the political fence you’re on, you would say the real problem in our schools are the unions. You would say funding – it’s underfunded. There just aren’t – there’s not enough money there to make things happen. You would say a lot of folks in the minority communities are born to single mothers – or, you know, all of that.
And none of that matters?
KOPP: I would – well, I’ll tell you …
LAMB: Poverty is another. The fourth one would be poverty.
KOPP: But from where we sit, we see, first of all, at the classroom level, people one and two years out of college, who are able to take classes of fourth graders who are on the first grade level, and end up with classes of fourth graders who are on the fourth grade level.
I heard a story the other day of a special ed teacher in Philadelphia who was teaching eighth grade, who started with a non-reader on the pre-K level, and who by the end of the year was reading on the fourth grade level.
That kid made five years of progress in a single year’s time.
When we see evidence like that, we must conclude: You know what? We can overcome the challenges of poverty.
LAMB: It’s the teacher.
KOPP: It’s – but then we see whole schools. And there are many and a growing generation of very high-performing schools in low-income communities.
LAMB: Is that …
KOPP: Schools that I would say didn’t exist 10 years ago. Some of them are KIPP schools, others – you know, there are many.
Let’s say there are 200 – I don’t know that I have the number right – but 200 plus schools that are demonstrating that, not only on a classroom level, but on a whole-school level, we can take kids facing all the challenges of poverty and put them on a level playing field in terms of being able to compete and get into colleges of their choice.
And seeing that has led me to realize that actually, it is completely within our control to solve this problem.
There’s a Gallup poll every year that asks the public why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities. And out of 20 options, the public’s top answers are a lack of student motivation, lack of parental involvement and home life issues.
So, to your point, there is a prevailing ideology out there that we can only – you know, we only have so much. There’s only so much we can do as a society about this problem, because it’s about all these bigger challenges of poverty.
We ask our corps members coming out of their two years the same questions – same 20 options. And their answers are teacher quality, principal quality and expectations of kids.
So, after two years of working with kids and working with their families, their answers couldn’t be more different. And I think that, again, is the most salient lesson.
I look at – we see every day, juxtaposed against each other these enormous disparities and incredible possibilities. And that’s what leads us to know that, if we were making different choices as a society, we could reach the day when all kids have the chance to attain an excellent education.
LAMB: What do you think of tenure?
KOPP: I think we need – you know, I think we need to have in our school systems what we talk about needing to have in the business community, a talent mindset where, at every level of the system, we’re obsessed with bringing in top talent, developing top talent, keeping top talent.
So, I think that’s going to call for entirely new systems around everything from recruiting to selecting teachers, to the amount we invest in their training and development, to how we compensate them over time.
LAMB: So, what do you think of tenure?
KOPP: I think, over time – you know, I think some of the more recent proposals that look at withholding even – actually, evaluating teachers’ performance two and three years into the profession to see who we want to keep, first of all, as a first step, makes lots of sense. Because we want teachers who – we have to prioritize our kids. And we want teachers who can positively impact the development of kids.
So, I think that alone will change the way we approach, and should change the way we approach, tenure.
LAMB: Michelle Rhee alluded in our conversation – didn’t allude – I asked her about whether or not it was the administration and the inability to fire people that was going to make it difficult.
I think one in – I think of every five students there’s an administrator. And she basically – I mean, it’s come out subsequently in the newspapers they’re going to ask for legislation so that they can eliminate.
What do you see about this across the country? Are there too many administrators?
KOPP: This situation is very – I mean, clearly, there are common themes across many districts, but there are also very unique situations. And I wouldn’t pretend to be the expert on how top-heavy our administration is.
I think – I mean, to a question you asked earlier which relates to this one about, you know, what about all the problems? You know what we’ve seen is that, if we start by demonstrating success, then we have a grounding that enables us to argue for change.
So, do some union policies need to be changed? Yes. And you know what? We’ll be able to change union policies.
We’ve seen plenty of evidence, even in the last year or two, that unions and union policies can change when you come with real, demonstrated, hard-core evidence that they need to change, if we’re going to get where we all need to go.
To your point that there are, gosh, there are policy things that need to change, we need more funding. Maybe one day we will prove we cannot do what we need to do without more funding, but there is just so much we can do to make better use of the funding that’s currently available. And at some level, I think, the argument for more funding has to rest on our ability to prove that we can produce results.
So, I just think that there is so much to be accomplished, if we figure out what we can control, and work from there to continually expand the kind of parameters of our control.
LAMB: What percentage of your 3,000 teachers in a given year that come in in Teach For America will drop out before their two-year contract is over?
KOPP: About 88 percent of them will complete their two years.
LAMB: And then after the two years, what percentage go on to teach for a living?
KOPP: Well, of our 12,000 alums, 63 percent are working full-time in education, actually. And these are people who, when they came into Teach For America, 10 percent or fewer of them said they would have taught through another channel. And yet, fast forward and many of them have become hooked. And I think that’s a function of many things.
But in part, at a very young age, they – first of all, they leave outraged at the current state of affairs. They have a huge sense of possibility about the potential of kids and what could be done, and, because the problems are so immense, there are huge opportunities even for young people.
Of the 63 – of the whole, actually, about 35 percent or so are teaching. Certainly, more of those are in their third and fourth and fifth year.
Others are running schools. We have more than 250 school principals who are Teach For America alums. They are running and serving on school boards. They are working in central district administration. They are leading ed reform groups, like the New Teacher Project and KIPP, and other organizations that are working from the outside in similar ways to influence the system.
And then, of the others, most of them have jobs that in some way – or volunteer – in ways that in some way impact this problem.
About 40 percent of their jobs – you know, those who have left – actually relate to low-income communities. So, maybe they’re doctors, but they’re practicing in public health. They went into law, but they’re practicing in legal services. Or maybe they’re working in corporate America or in law firms or in policy roles, and are working to channel more resources in this direction.
LAMB: Why do you tell people over the years that you’re shy?
KOPP: Well, I think it may be the reality, but I’m not – I mean, I don’t tell so many people that. But I think I had to overcome my fundamental nature to engage in the public responsibilities that come along with this role.
LAMB: What did you learn from your parents as you were growing up about what you’re doing now?
KOPP: Oh, gosh. My parents clearly had such an impact on this and on me. I think the most important thing they did was – you know, I said earlier that we moved into a community that had an exceptional public school system. And I just can’t tell you how conscious I was my senior year in college that I had had a gift that very few people in our country have.
And I could tell. I knew that the whole world was open to me. I knew I could do anything I wanted. I mean, I was so conscious of that.
And it was almost the world being wide open that led me into a funk, which ultimately led to Teach For America. But it was all because of the fact that I had had such incredible educational opportunities.
LAMB: Why was Dallas and this particular district so special?
KOPP: Well, I’m not – I mean, there are certainly very strong public schools and strong private schools in many different communities. I mean, I would say almost every community has at least one. And I think it’s much easier to be a high-performing school in a high-income community, which this particular part of Dallas certainly was.
So, I don’t know that it was Dallas so much, but I think it was fundamental for my development that I was able to go to a school with so many resources, and with such a focus on strong academics.
LAMB: What kind of work were your parents involved in?
KOPP: They ran their own company, which published guidebooks to people who attend conventions and cities in Texas.
LAMB: What’s your brother doing today?
KOPP: He is working at Yahoo! He lives in the Bay area.
LAMB: And you’ve never taught.
LAMB: Why not?
KOPP: Well, I guess I got sucked into this and the challenges of – I mean, we went through such an intense first decade of learning curves, as we worked to figure out how to do this well and how to sustain it over time.
And once we did gain a solid foundation – which is now, I guess, about seven or eight years ago – it became so clear that there was so much more we could do to fulfill our potential as a force for change. So, at every juncture, as I have asked myself, how can I personally have the greatest impact on this problem, it seemed to me that the best thing at that juncture was for me to sort of stay the course in this endeavor.
LAMB: One last question. When is your first girl child due?
KOPP: Late February.
LAMB: So, it’ll be three boys, one girl, and a husband who is involved with the KIPP schools.
Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America. Thank you very much.
KOPP: Thank you very much.