Class Warfare

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

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Michele Asselin

Kopp’s drive in those early years is legendary. In an attempt to better maximize her time, she resolved to sleep only every other night, recalls Daniel Oscar, TFA’s second employee, who is now president and CEO of the Prince­ton Center for Leadership Training. Her devotion to her members is office folklore, too. For years she paid herself the same entry-level salary—$25,000—earned by the rest of the staff. (She now makes a reported $300,000 a year.) Iris Chen, an alumna and now president and CEO of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which helps low-income kids reach college, remembers trying to reassure Kopp as she rushed off (in heels) to a meeting between New York City corps members and a major donor. “I said, ‘Don’t worry; I told the funder we’d all be trickling in,’ ” Chen says. “She said, ‘I’m not worried about the funder! I’m worried about the corps members! We can’t keep them waiting.’ ” 

Given how much time Kopp devoted to the organization, it perhaps makes sense that she met her husband on the job, too. “It all goes back to Richard’s mom,” Kopp says. “She sent him a clipping about TFA and said, ‘You should go work with this woman’ . . . So he wandered into the office one day. I said no, we didn’t need another white guy from Harvard. But then we got desperate for people a few weeks later, and he came on board.” They married in 1998. Today they have three boys, ages 11, eight and six, and a two-year-old daughter. “When we go home at the end of the day, we’re going home to the four kids, and it’s a little bit consuming,” says Kopp. “We have shared values. We have such intense work lives that maybe we talk less than people would ever imagine about our work. But we see things in the same way.”

One thing they agree on is sending their kids to public school, an option many well-to-do parents in New York City avoid. “I don’t feel pressured by my work to put my kids in public school,” says Kopp. “And I do feel it’s a choice. I personally would rather have my kids in public school. I would be terrified to have them in private school, though maybe that’s a huge generalization about private school. I want my kids to grow up in a truly diverse and real world, and I do personally believe we should all be invested in the public system.” When asked how she makes it all work—she and her husband both travel about 90 days a year—Kopp sounds like any other multitasking mother. “I don’t know!” she says. “I love my kids. They seem to love each other and their parents, but who knows? My husband is very supportive. I think that’s the key to the whole thing. He believes in my work, and that is a huge enabler.” Then she adds, laughing, “He believes the kids will be best off if I’m not home with them . . . No! If I’m fulfilled!”

So is Kopp the Superwoman that public education has been waiting for? Not according to her critics, who have long viewed this mild-mannered idealist more as villain than hero. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and TFA’s most prominent longtime critic, has called the corps a résumé-enhancing “pit stop,” a “frankly missionary program” for “advantaged college graduates for whom TFA serves as something useful to do on their way to their ‘real jobs’ in law, medicine or business.” (She declined to comment for this story.) Margaret Smith Crocco, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, has gone so far as to argue that TFA poses nothing less than “a long-term threat to public education” and that its message “that only a ‘chosen few’ really teach for America gets it backward: It is the traditionally prepared teachers who give their careers and lives to institutions of public education who truly serve American students.”

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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