Twenty years ago, Wendy Kopp started Teach for America in her Princeton dorm room. Today she finds herself and her pet project (now a $200 million enterprise) on the front lines of the battle over how to save America’s failing schools. Do she and her young army have what it takes to win?
It had to take guts. Last August, at the start of a back-to-school season marked by gushing reviews of Davis Guggenheim’s education-reform documentary, Waiting for Superman, Wendy Kopp got up on a Las Vegas stage and ventured the opinion that Superman maybe wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Her position was not necessarily a crowd pleaser. After all, Waiting for Superman, which follows five children and their families as they try to navigate the beleaguered world of public education, makes a passionate case for charter schools. And Kopp was speaking—along with three other leading reformers—at an event convened by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the well-regarded network of charter schools run by her husband, Richard Barth. Billed as the “godmother” of education reform by the program’s emcee, she was famous—and, in this crowd, revered—for having shaken up the education establishment with Teach for America (TFA), a highly selective program that places recent college graduates in troubled public schools.
Waiting for Superman delivers a controversial message: that bad teaching is to blame for the sorry state of American education. The film casts as the enemies of progress recalcitrant teachers and their unions—the very sort of people who have long disdained Teach for America because it places neophyte instructors in the toughest of schools after just five weeks of training and requires them to make only a two-year commitment to the classroom. Yet Kopp—a shy woman whose body language onstage looked like a plea for invisibility—wasn’t ready to jump on the film’s blame-the-teacher bandwagon. “We are lurching and have for the last 20 years, after that one silver bullet,” she said. In this movie, she continued, her voice steadily gaining confidence, “it’s the unions. You know what? It’s actually not. There are many, many issues in this . . . I don’t think we should blame anyone who’s stuck in this system for the fact that as a country we never decided that we want our education system to be transformational. We need to come together as a system. Let’s come together with a different idea about education.”
She went on to speak bluntly about charter schools, some of which, she said, are led by people who “should very possibly be put in jail”—this in front of an audience full of charter-school professionals. It was classic Kopp. Eschewing ideology, refusing to play to the crowd, and remaining true to her own positive message are what Kopp is best known for. She is successful, those closest to her say, because of her unshakable vision: a focus on what can be done rather than on the obstacles lying in the way. The achievement gap in this country is, Kopp says, “a solvable problem,” and her organization is built on the impressively optimistic idea that “this generation can make a huge difference as teachers in their first years out of college.”
“Wendy is the type of person who becomes obsessed with a thing and will work it until the wheels fall off,” says former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a heroine of Waiting for Superman and a TFA alumna. “Then she’ll pick it up, rebuild it, refine and improve it over and over and over again until it does what she wants it to do perfectly. Wendy is obsessed with closing the achievement gap and is convinced that TFA is the best way to do that. She has birthed, grown, groomed, rethought, refined, repurposed and expanded the organization to do just that.”