Class Warfare

Wendy Kopp-the woman who wants to save our schools.

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Michele Asselin

Today TFA is a post-college destination of choice for super-high-achieving, would-be do-gooders, 45,000 of whom vied for 4,600 slots this past year. Put another way, Kopp has made teaching cool again: The odds of getting an exhausting TFA job working with often poorly prepared kids are about on a par with the chances of getting into a top-flight law school. Kopp has grown TFA into a juggernaut that now operates on a $200 million-a-year budget; this summer alone, TFA received a whopping $50 million in federal grant money to fund the expansion of its programs.

Unlike many other charitable organizations, TFA has been able to grow through the recession—a sign, Kopp says, that donors recognize its effectiveness. The recession has also benefited the organization, by making its already impressive pool of applicants that much more glittering. “Anyone who has been supporting education realizes that the most precious resource is talent and leadership,” Kopp says. “The silver lining in this economic environment is that that resource is more available than ever.” Now Kopp is working to double the size of her teaching corps over the next five years so that by 2015 the organization will have about 15,000 first- and second-year teachers in 60 urban and rural regions and an army of approximately 55,000 alumni. She says, “I feel like every few months I encounter the possibility of serious, system-level change that I wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months earlier.”

Kopp in many ways could not be more unsuited to life as a cultural lightning rod. For all the audacity of her dream, she is a self-effacing powerhouse— retiring, introverted, extremely private. “My parents grew up in the Midwest, in small towns in Iowa and Minnesota,” she says. They married, relocated to Texas and ran a small business together, providing guidebooks to people attending conventions in cities in Texas. The family moved to Dallas so Kopp and her brother could attend the area’s excellent public schools. “They were entrepreneurs, and I guess I got that from them,” Kopp says.

The Kopps also gifted their daughter with a never-say-die work ethic: In eighth grade, she had a job at an arts-and-crafts store where, chafing at the business’s disorganization, she rearranged the merchandise to make it more accessible. In high school, she edited the newspaper, helped at her parents’ business and graduated at the top of her class. In her spare time, she founded her school’s first debate team and funded it by picking up half-price doughnuts twice a week and selling them to classmates. (“I think she was not wired to understand that was not the normal thing to do,” says her husband.) At Princeton, Kopp worked for a campus magazine, organized an education conference and, as the head of the Foundation for Student Communication, managed a staff of 60 and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. “She was one of the hardest-working people I know,” says Ellen Siminoff, a close friend from college who now runs Shmoop, an online resource for students and teachers. “This was a person who was going to do great things.”

By senior year, however, Kopp felt that her drive needed new direction. She was following the expected path for top students with highly developed organizational skills and a practical, real-world orientation: signing up for interviews with the likes of Morgan Stanley and McKinsey, considering a future on Wall Street. But her heart wasn’t in it. “I was so ridiculously over-involved in my high school and in my college,” she says now, “and it was truly just feeling like all of a sudden I have to figure out what I can do to make a huge difference in the world—because I didn’t want to work as hard as I knew I’d work without doing something that would make a real difference.”

Share Your Thoughts!


STLReader 04.23.2011

When TFA started, I thought it sounded like an amazing idea. But 20 years later, that's all it is - a good idea that simply doesn't work. In fact, I believe it does far more damage than good. I know two former TFA teachers and both say it's a complete joke. But it's no skin of their backs-- both are now attending law school at major universities, where the yearly tuition is more than the total income of every child in both schools, combined. To pretend that a 22-year old from an upper middle class home could possibly have the experience and maturity to teach a group of poor kids in one of the worst school districts in my state is just ... ridiculous. I don't have the answers either, but I'm sad to day that TFA isn't one of them.

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