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.”
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.”
Tellingly, when Kopp is asked what motivated her, she doesn’t relate a self-dramatizing moment of epiphany but rather describes how lost she felt at the time. “I was just truly searching for something,” she says. “I was in an absolute funk. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do.” The inspiration came as she organized an on-campus conference on the problems of American public education and began to daydream about solutions. What if people like her—hundreds, no, thousands of top-achieving college graduates—could be channeled into taking their drive and ambition to our nation’s public schools? In 1989, Kopp sent a letter to President George H. W. Bush urging him to start a teaching corps; she received a form letter job rejection in response. “It seemed like [a teacher corps] had to happen,” she says, “and it wasn’t clear to me that it would happen if I didn’t just do it.” She was totally inexperienced, which she now sees as an asset. “I told myself, What do I really have to lose?” she says. “Because if it doesn’t work out, by the time my friends come back from Europe, I’ll just go find a job. It’s not like I had money. I had to find the funding to live on. But I had a sense, because of my education and whatnot, that I could take that kind of risk.”
It is now also clear that Kopp was able to get her organization off the ground not just because of the simplicity of her idea—funnel high-achieving graduates who don’t really want to work on Wall Street into the public schools—but also because she tapped into a deep vein of energy that no one else had seen. Kopp felt that the so-called experts had misjudged America’s youth: Prevailing wisdom held that, post-graduation, kids of privilege would apply themselves to making money with the same fervor with which they had set out to earn good grades. But as a college senior, Kopp preferred to save the world—and she suspected that other young people probably did, too. “One of the primary motivators was thinking that this label of the Me Generation that we had was so crazy,” she says. “I just didn’t get it. I felt I was one of thousands of people who were searching for something and not getting it. I didn’t know anyone who fit that Me Generation label. Even the people who were just going into the two-year corporate training programs were doing it because they weren’t sure what else to do. I thought the issue wasn’t our generation; it was the recruiters.”
Ignoring the thesis adviser who, she says, told her she was “quite evidently deranged,” Kopp set up with a skeleton staff in donated office space, recruited talent at Yale and other prestigious colleges, flew her first 500 teachers to San Diego on a shoestring, hired former and current teachers to train them in a five-week “boot camp” and delivered them to desperate school systems. And then she struggled. In its early years, the organization wrestled with growing pains, managerial issues (decisions reached by consensus; Chinese-food-fueled staff meetings that lasted until 2 or 3 am) and funding problems so serious that it looked, four years in, as if TFA wouldn’t see its fifth anniversary.
“At every turn we underestimated what it would take to do this well,” Kopp says. “The first decade, we were recruiting with posters and letters. We had to compete with companies that were sending 20 people to Harvard’s campus with a million-dollar budget and wining and dining people.” She underestimated how much money the organization required to function. “We learned the hard way that we needed as much money to go into the generation of revenue as into the programs if we were really going to have the resources necessary to fulfill our potential,” she says. “That’s not how the rest of the world thinks nonprofits should be. But we realized that if we didn’t have a fund-raising infrastructure, we weren’t going to have any programs. That has been the most central learning curve.”
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.”
Another criticism of TFA, whichborrows heavily from the corporate-management playbook in its approach, is that a classroom can’t, and shouldn’t, be run like a widget company. “There’s a kind of cultural consensus that I think is really dangerous, that the private sector always does things better than the public sector, that we can operate schools in the same way we operate businesses,” says Crocco. “They’re not the same.” Fairly or not, some of this criticism has rubbed off on Kopp herself, a prime example of the new type of “social entrepreneur”—the Ivy League–educated, often business-school-trained, private-sector-schooled person—now popping up in the nonprofit world. The new social entrepreneurs use words like efficiency and accountability, refer to donors as high-net-worth individuals and genuinely believe that the problems of public education can—in fact, should—be solved according to the same principles and priorities that a McKinsey consultant might use to save an ailing corporation. (Indeed, TFA president Matt Kramer once said of the group’s recruitment practices, “We look for the same things McKinsey does.”)
Such complaints, coming from people in the teaching establishment, could be interpreted, not unfairly, as push-back from interested parties: TFA, after all, is learn-as-you-go, with recruits receiving feedback and training on the job and working to meet state licensing requirements over the course of their two-year commitment. It’s a model that directly threatens traditional teacher-training institutes like Darling-Hammond’s at Stanford or Crocco’s at Columbia, both of which train people before setting them loose in the schools. Yet humming under the critiques is a much broader concern about TFA that resonates widely among teachers and some school administrators as well: a charge of base-level elitism, of a kind of know-it-all egghead paternalism that profoundly irritates those who have worked their way up through the traditional ranks in education. TFA is built on the faith that a 22-year-old with a gold-plated educational résumé will be able to teach disadvantaged young people and propel them onto a path of mainstream success. This, many experts say, not only smacks of arrogance but also betrays profound ignorance of the lives of the kids whom TFA purports to serve.
And so the debate rages. Confronted with charges against TFA corps members, Kopp comes to life in a way she doesn’t when talking about herself. “There are just much easier ways to build a résumé,” she says. “TFA is well known to be an extremely challenging endeavor. You have to be passionate about wanting to do this and wanting to make a difference to go through all the work and ask for the intensity of the experience. I think you cannot meet the TFA corps members and alumni and have that concern.”
Kopp also points out that 61 percent of members continue teaching beyond the two-year commitment, according to a 2008 study from Harvard, and that 65 percent overall remain in education, 32 percent as teachers, according to TFA’s surveys of its alumni. However, these numbers are disputed. For instance, a June 2010 examination of a number of peer-reviewed studies about TFA coauthored by Julian Vasquez Heilig, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found that more than 50 percent of TFA teachers leave the profession after two years; by four years, 80 percent are no longer teaching. (TFA says the Heilig report is flawed; among other problems, it relied on studies that did not account for corps members who switched schools but continued teaching.)
Beyond commitment, there is the question of whether TFA teachers are effective. Here, too, the critics have attacked, and here, too, it is nearly im-possible to arrive at a definitive answer. Darling-Hammond, in a 2005 study of more than 132,000 students and 4,400 teachers in Houston public schools, found that uncertified TFA teachers actually had a negative impact on student achievement on five of six tests, although the teachers’ performance greatly improved once they achieved certification.
TFA, in response, takes issue with Darling-Hammond’s methodology and analysis, saying, among other things, that the TFA teachers were not compared with teachers in their own schools. TFA, for its part, cites a 2004 independent report from the Mathematica Policy Research group that showed that TFA teachers performed as well as other teachers in six regions across the country in teaching reading and just slightly better in math.
TFA also stresses the effort the organization puts into improving teacher performance. All corps members receive ongoing training and mentorship, and all are instructed to constantly evaluate their students and then adjust their own performance accordingly. TFA’s national leaders study members’ results in order to derive data about what works and what doesn’t—the better, they say, to perfect the work of the corps. “We’re accountable for our teachers’ performance, and we have an advantage that schools of ed don’t have,” Kopp says, “which is that we see how they’re doing at month one, month six, so we can understand from our people what the folks who are very successful are doing differently and feed those lessons into our training and support programs.”
Kopp is a fierce but unruffled advocate for her program (her husband says she has developed a thick skin: “Twenty years into this, it’s not like she wakes up in the morning and her confidence is easily shaken”). “People don’t understand what we’re doing in terms of training,” Kopp says. “There’s a misconception that we think you don’t need training in order to be an effective teacher. The reality is we think it’s exceedingly tough to teach successfully.” When asked later for her biggest self-criticism, Kopp returns to this issue of teaching quality and says, “The bottom line is: Over time we have learned from some of our teachers what is possible, and yet we’re still not where we want to be in ensuring our teachers are where they ought to be. How do we ensure that our teachers are truly transformational? It’s obviously extremely challenging.”
However, it’s when you consider the issue of effectiveness together with the question of attrition that you begin to really understand critics’ concerns about the program. “The studies I’ve seen say that TFA teachers are just as effective as other new teachers after they get their credentials,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “The research also says that the least effective teachers are those in their first two years. Most teachers begin to be most effective after their third year, and most TFA teachers are gone by then . . . Schools that serve poor kids need stable, experienced staff, not constant turnover.”
Standing in opposition to such assaults is Kopp’s unalterable belief in her mission. “You have a 1-in-10 chance to graduate from college if you’re from a poor urban or rural area, compared with a 75 percent chance if you happen to be born in a high-income community,” she says. “The only way we can solve this problem is to literally take our future leaders and put them in the midst of it and say, ‘Now go solve it.’ The biggest problem in this picture is not the dilettantism of TFA. It’s that we’ve allowed this problem to go on for decades. Where you are born determines your educational outcomes in this country. That’s the problem we should be solving.”
Whatever the arguments over attrition and effectiveness, there is one area in which TFA is an unquestioned success: It has greatly influenced our country’s education-reform debate. In fact, TFA has an impact far disproportionate to the organization’s actual presence in the public schools, where TFA recruits still represent just 0.2 percent of all teachers. This is partly due to the ever-widening reach of TFA’s 20,000-plus alumni: 550 now serve as school principals or superintendents and 45 have been elected to public office. And there’s Rhee, perhaps the program’s most famous alumna, who made history as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system by firing hundreds of teachers, removing dozens of principals and bureaucrats and demanding that the city’s teacher-tenure system be replaced with one that would reward teachers for producing demonstrable results. (She resigned in October.) “As every year goes by,” says Kopp, “I feel like we see more and more the effects of having a critical mass of alumni, who then collectively change what’s happening in communities.”
TFA’s impressive reach also has to do with having fans who are both prominent and outspoken—people like Andrés Alonso, superintendent of the long-beleaguered Baltimore school system, who boasts of his 389 teachers, 13 principals, head of new initiatives and three special assistants who all hail from Kopp’s corps. “I think of TFA in Baltimore as integral for creating the conditions for reform,” he says. “In order for reform to happen, there have to be foot soldiers in a school who will be open to innovation and change, or else there will be tremendous resistance to what has to be done.”
The organization also has the active support of New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, under whose watch TFA’s presence in the city increased from 225 recruits in 2002 to 500 in 2010. And then there’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who praised TFA in his Senate confirmation hearings and whose Race to the Top fund—a $4.3 billion initiative designed to push states to improve teaching—looks in many ways like Kopp’s playbook writ large. “It’s a really exciting time, a convergence, a tipping point,” says Iris Chen, who taught fourth and fifth grade in a New York City public school for TFA and then went on to multiple leadership roles within the organization. “If you ask people now, ‘What are the most important things in education reform?’ there is a distinct cadre who will agree it’s high expectations, teacher accountability, flexibility around talent. TFA’s alumni are a force behind this.”
On the most basic level, Teach for America would seem to be all about Kopp: taking her style of success, her habit of overachievement, and generalizing it into a prescription for optimizing the performance of all children and all teachers. But is this model, which depends for its success on finding teachers of Kopp-like devotion, talent and single-mindedness, generalizable to a profession that employs not a select few but millions? And a follow-up question: If the option existed to fill America’s schools with Harvard MBA types and by extension transform all of America’s children into high-performance Princeton undergraduates, should we take it?
Such questions are, perhaps, just the kind of do-nothing hand wringing, just the sort of ineffectual, unaccountable and perhaps irresponsible obstructionism that some would say has left education reform in the doldrums for so many decades. Kopp, for one, has no time for the navel gazing. She’s focused on what comes next. Her second book, A Chance to Make History, comes out in January 2011; she is expanding Teach for All, the program she started to bring TFA’s ideas to other countries. “I continue to be more and more obsessed with this,” she says. “I really believe that we’ve only begun to see the impact of TFA.”
Since that last year at Princeton, Kopp has been siphoning off some of each generation’s leaders, steering them away from Wall Street and into service. Kopp has seeded the schools. “The most successful teachers—teachers who are putting kids on a different academic and life trajectory—are operating like successful leaders anywhere,” she says. “They’re goal oriented and purposeful. They’re maximizing every minute, constantly reflecting and improving. This is teaching as leadership, and it’s the foundation of everything we do.” Now we all wait to learn where her army of alumni will lead our children.
Judith Warner is the author of We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.
Originally published in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of More.