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Posted at 11:30 PM ET, 08/04/2011

A conversation: Kopp, West, Smiley on Teach for America

Here’s a conversation that Wendy Kopp, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West had on Smiley’s and West's radio show (called “Smiley & West”) back in January about Teach for America, which Kopp founded and heads. Someone who found it infuriating just sent it to me, and though it took place months ago, it is still worth reading. Share your reaction in the comments. You can see the rest of the transcript here.

My colleague Jenna Johnson just wrote about the 2011 acceptance rate for Teach for America: 11 percent, down from 12 percent last year and nearly 15 percent in 2008. The organization recruits new college graduates to commit to teaching for two years in underserved urban and rural schools, gives them five weeks of summer training and then places them in classrooms. Teach for America’s critics say that five weeks of training, and a two-year commitment, is hardly enough to really help schools and the program is as much a resume builder as anything else. You can read Kopp’s defense of the program below.

WENDY KOPP INTERVIEW

Smiley: From PRI, Public Radio International in Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley.

West: Also in Los Angeles this week I’m Cornel West. It is a blessing to be in my dear brother Tavis Smiley’s space.

Smiley: Good to see you, brother.

West: Indeed. But even though I’m not in Princeton I still want to give a little Princeton love out to Wendy Kopp. She is the one who proposed the idea of Teach for America in her undergraduate thesis with the late professor Marvin Bressler. He was my dear brother. He served as her advisor. She went on to, of course, found the teacher training organization now considered harder to get into than Harvard Law School.

Smiley: That’s quite a statement.

West: That’s quite a statement, though, brother.

Smiley: Wendy’s done a great job and we are honored to have her on this program today. She is, again, the founder of Teach for America. Wendy Kopp, welcome to Smiley & West.

Kopp: Thank you. Honored to be with you.

Smiley: Glad to have you on. To Doc’s point about this idea being proposed in your undergraduate thesis, I know much has been written about this, but for those who are not familiar with your work, take me back to the campus of Princeton and this idea.

Kopp: I managed to arrive at Princeton without realizing 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 at Princeton University. But I saw there what I think you can see on really any college campus in America, which is, I at least saw the tip of the iceberg of the fact that kids socio-economic backgrounds really determines their educational prospects.

I had all sorts of first generation college students at Princeton who were really struggling to meet the academic demands. And one of them was my freshman year roommate, so I became kind of intimately familiar with the whole thing.

Ultimately just had a sense my senior year in college that while we were being labeled the “me” generation, our generation wasn’t the issue so much as that all the recruiters were corporations asking us to commit 2 years to go work on Wall Street and whatnot. I just one day thought, you know what, why aren’t we being recruited as aggressively to commit 2 years to teach in our country’s lowest income communities as we were being recruited to commit 2 years to go work on Wall Street.

That was the beginning. Needed a thesis topic. And ultimately became completely obsessed with the idea.

Smiley: So top line for us, the growth over these years now, you have 46,000 applicants for 4500 teaching positions. Tell me more.

Kopp: Yes. We have about 8000 teachers right now in the midst of 2 year teaching commitments across about 40 urban and rural regions. We have about 20,000 Teach for America alumni who continue to work from inside the education and also outside the education system to effect kind of the fundamental changes that we think are ultimately necessary to realize a world of educational excellence and equity. So that’s where we are today.

We’re working to get much bigger. We would have liked to take many more than 4500 of last year’s 46,000 applicants. And hope that this year’s incoming corps will be bigger.

Smiley: Dr. West and I have discussed it on this program, we’ve indeed had conversation with [Waiting for Superman” director] Davis Guggenheim and [Harlem Children’s Zone founder] Geoffrey Canada, but I have not heard your take on it, although I know you’ve had a thousand conversations, I suspect at least, about the film, the documentary that got more press this year than any other documentary, Waiting for Superman.

Can you share with Doc and me what your thoughts were about the film or are about the film?

Kopp: Yeah. I think the film brought to the public just such an incredibly powerful and accurate image of… I think it revealed what those of us who have been hard at work in this know to be true, which is that there is a deep desire on the part of kids and families in low income communities to access excellent education.

I think for too long in our country many, many people believe that the reason we have low educational outcomes in low income communities is because of the kids and the parents. And I think this movie helped move the kind of prevailing notions of that.

We’ve certainly seen through our own work firsthand that when kids are given the chances they deserve they seize them and excel on an absolute scale. And the parents care about their kids and they want them to have great opportunity.

So I think that was the greatest service the film did. And I think it also highlighted another thing we’ve seen, which is just a growing number of schools in low income communities, charter schools and also there’s a growing number of traditional schools as well that are absolutely proving that kids in our urban and rural schools can excel academically.

I think that was another huge service.

West: Wendy, I applaud your efforts, though. I think you’ve made a very, very important contribution these last 20 years or so. At the same time when I think of the movie I think of the degree to which we still put such low value on the lives and the opportunities for poor and working class kids of all colors, disproportionately black, brown and red.

I say that because you and I know Finland has the best educational system in the world. Their teachers are 98% unionized. The classes are small. In fact, they have a teacher and a teacher’s aide in those classes. It reminds me of what Exeter looks like. It reminds me of what Andover looks like. It reminds me of what Lawrenceville looks like. Which is to say the well to do send their kids precisely to the kind of schools that all kids go to in Finland.

In that sense it’s a matter of having priorities and values in place such that you really believe that every child has the same weight value and the same sanctity and dignity. So I think of the system that you’re trying to change. It’s a moral disgrace when you look at the schools in our urban areas. Not just black, but brown and white poor and so forth.

Your reformist efforts are significant. But we know that it’s not going to be a matter of castigating the teachers unions. It’s not going to be a matter simply of sending the best and the brightest into this situation. If we don’t make education for our poor and working persons a matter of national security the way we do Afghanistan and Iraq and when Wall Street is in trouble, when investment bankers need billions of dollars, then we’re still just dealing with the surface, as it were.

What do you make of such a read, though?

Kopp: I think as… I really couldn’t agree more. I think what gives me optimism is that I think we’ve seen over the last 20 years… I go back to 20 years ago and one of the hit movies in my senior year was Lean on Me, which took a high school in New Jersey which certainly was led by a wonderful principal, Joe Clark, who changed the school culture.

But I think about the fact that we put up in lights a high school whose academic outcomes did not change at all. That school is still No. 317 out of 326 in the state of New Jersey in terms of academic outcomes.

I just fast forward to 20 years later where the thought of putting a school like that up in a movie, it would honestly, it would just never fly, right. Because today we know what’s possible.

You think about, by contrast, what Waiting for Superman did do for us and what many other documentaries are doing. And the reality is that today we have growing numbers of communities that have growing numbers of schools that are taking kids who face all the extra challenges of poverty and kids of color who have to overcome people’s, in some cases, low expectations for what is possible for them to do and are truly putting them on a trajectory to graduate from college.

So I think what we’ve learned over the last 20 years is that it is possible to provide kids in high poverty contexts with what I would call transformational education. Meaning an education that changes the academic and life trajectory that would be predicted by socio-economic background.

I don’t think we do that in our country. I think about the high school I went to in a very privileged community in Dallas, Texas. That wasn’t a transformational school. And yet it was in the top 10 every year of top 10 high schools in America, public school. But honestly, we showed up at that school on a path to graduate from college and we ended up on a path to graduate from college.

I think what we’ve seen is it is possible to change kids’ trajectories but it takes a lot more. It doesn’t take even equal resources, it takes a very activist approach. It takes more resources, more time, more hours because, of course, the kids we’re working with in urban and rural communities face so many extra challenges.

But I think to me I couldn’t agree more when you say we’ve got to move beyond the blame game. We have to also move beyond the idea that any one silver bullet is going to solve this problem.

West: Exactly. I’m blessed to go to Dallas once a year. I get a chance to go to St. Marks. I go to Hockaday, I go to St. Phillips there in South Dallas. I have a very intimate relation to Dallas. Love the people there of all colors. At the same time I realize, as you realized, that it’s also a matter of the environments. It’s dealing with the poverty. It’s dealing with the lack of self-confidence. It’s dealing with the lack of self-respect. It’s dealing with teachers who really, really care. And administrators who are visionary and courageous.

It’s a combination. The kind of thing that James Comer has talked about and Marian Wright Edelmen have talked about. We see it in Dr. Terry Flowers there at St. Phillips in Dallas. Right on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Smiley: If I can add on, though, Wendy, to what Doc is saying now, just a quick story. Not so long ago, I happen to know this because a little birdie told me, that Dr. West had a little private tete-a-tete with Arne Duncan, the education secretary. And all I can tell you is in that conversation Dr. West said to our education secretary in critiquing the Obama administration’s program Race to the Top, Dr. West said to Secretary Duncan that education in this country ought to be a right. It’s not a race. It’s not a race. It ought to be a right.

And the conversation, you can imagine, went on from there. Whether it went uphill or downhill I won’t comment on.

West: Oh, it went uphill, brother. Wonderful conversation. Brother Arne was very, very respectful.

Smiley: So the conversation goes uphill. But to Doc’s point that education ought to be a right, it’s not a race, I raise that to ask your critique of the Obama administration’s effort where education is concerned, this program called Race to the Top.

Kopp: I guess I’ve seen a pace of policy change and a level of attention and momentum around the effort to ensure educational equity that, to your point, Dr. West, is not yet where we need… we need still more. But I don’t think we could have ever predicted the pace of change that we have today even 5 years ago.

I think that Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration in general has had, together with many other forces, some significant part to do with that. So I’m hesitant to critique them because I do think that they… in a way they have moved beyond the ideological debates that were holding us up to say everyone’s got to change. The union’s got to change, the district’s got to change, everyone’s got to change.

I think that’s important.

West: So you wouldn’t have one criticism of the U.S. government’s policy toward the educational system?

Kopp: I have a whole slew of them.

West: This is the part of the test that we pushed in education here now. That pie a day, that critical energy, that Socratic energy that we…

Kopp: I would have lots of critiques of all of us right now. I think you may have been getting to it earlier. But why haven’t we made… in the last 20 years despite immense amounts of investment and immense, lots of supposed commitment on the part of our political leaders, we have not moved the needle against the achievement gap.

To my earlier statements, there’s lots of good stuff happening. Lots of reasons for optimism. But we’ve still got 15 million kids in our country who are growing up below the poverty line, still 4th graders in urban and rural communities who are at a 1st grade level. Still we’re not graduating from high school half the kids. And the half who do graduate are in an 8th level still.

Those statistics were exactly the same 20 years ago. Why? Why despite all the investment have we not moved the needle? And I believe it’s because we… to be positive about it, maybe we feel such urgency to solve the problem that we’re looking for the easy, quick answer.

Put differently, we lurch from one silver bullet to another and from one “silver blame” to another. I just wrote a book about this which is about to come out. I really believe that that’s what’s holding us back.

I think when we spend time in the transformational schools that are putting kids in urban areas on a different trajectory, I think what we realize is there is no one thing. This is about all the hard work it takes to succeed in any endeavor. It’s about tremendously committed leadership who attract a team of very talented people who build a powerful culture of achievement, who invest the kids and the families in working incredibly hard toward very ambitious goals.

It’s about extra supports for kids who have extra needs. But it’s not about anything else. That’s what it’s about. And I think we all need to come together around that.

Smiley: You teased us a bit a moment ago. Tell me a little bit more about what you’re trying to get us to wrestle with, to marinate on in the new text that’s forthcoming?

Kopp: The new book, which is called A Chance to Make History, which takes its name, by the way, from a second year Teach for America corps member, just finished her 2 year commitment and went into her class on the first day in the Bronx and said this is your chance to make history. And she set them off on a path to take and pass the Regents exam, which she ultimately got all of them to do.

I think what her story… basically this book looks at what we can learn from teachers like her, from schools that are showing us what is possible. And from the school systems where we’re starting to see some of the New Orleans’s, the Washington DC’s, the New York City’s of the world, which many people a mere 5 years ago had written off, which today we’re seeing just incredible change.

It steps back to reflect on what is at the core of the successes we are seeing. Thirty-three percent of kids in a school passing some standardized test versus 30% is not going to change kids lives. We need a commitment to truly put kids on a different trajectory. And when we make that commitment and realize that there are no shortcuts, if we want to attain that then we’re going to have to invest immense amounts of energy, discipline and resources.

That’s basically what it says. It says we’ve got to start blaming the teachers, the kids, the parents, the unions. And any one actor in a system that is fundamentally messed up, right. We need to all step back and rethink.

West: I think, I’m talking to you, Sister Wendy, I’m talking to Brother Tavis, both of you all brilliant, successful, went to superb academic institutions. And there’s just basic features. You had parents who cared. You had teachers who cared. You had resources. And you had self-confidence and self-respect. So you had a culture that facilitated the kind of achievement that allows us to be in this conversation.

When we look at our precious and priceless poor and working class people in this country you’ve got 1% of the population got 80% of the income the last 30 years. Ten percent got all of the income. You’re talking about communities that have experienced social abandonment and political neglect with levels of unemployment and underemployment 40%, 45%. Then you send them into schools that are dilapidated, I don’t care what color they are, they’re not going to produce Wendy’s and Tavis’s unless they’re Louis Armstrong’s and Curtis Mayfield’s and geniuses who will triumph no matter what the circumstance is.

So we’ve got some structural and institutional issues we’ve got to address in talking about education or again, we’re just dealing with the services it seems.

Smiley: I wonder if I could take Doc’s comment, Wendy, and turn it into a question. I agree, I think we probably both do, since he referenced Wendy and Tavis. I’m sure Wendy and Tavis or Tavis both agree with everything Doc just said. But here’s the question out of that statement. Whether or not the issue is intractable.

Earlier in this conversation, Wendy, you said, you laid out a number of reasons why you’re optimistic. Dr. West always makes the brilliant point, his own formulation of the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful.

Optimism suggests that there are a particular set of facts or circumstances, conditions, something you can see, feel or touch that gives you reason to believe that things are going to get better. So one really can’t be necessarily optimistic about the future of education. One can always be hopeful. You don’t have to have the evidence necessarily to be hopeful. So I love that distinction that Doc makes between optimism and hope.

But whether you’re optimistic or hopeful, is this now an intractable problem?

Kopp: See I am optimistic because I do see the evidence. As much as we have yet to see the needle move in aggregate, we are seeing incredible evidence of the possibility of success.

Now hundreds of schools in our urban and rural areas where we did not see that evidence even 10, 15 years ago, to Dr. West’s comments, I think one of the most salient observations, if you spend time with the transformational teachers, the transformational schools you realize that at least half of the energy is going into creating a new culture, investing kids and their families in being part of a culture of achievement.

I think the teachers in the schools that have determined to put kids on a different trajectory have come to believe that that is a fundamental part of what it takes to succeed. So absolutely. But I think our schools can… it’s within the control of our schools and our education system to change that.

Smiley: One of the criticisms, Teach for America is a great program and if it weren’t Doc and I wouldn’t have wanted to have you on the program. You’ve done a wonderful job over these 2 decades since your time at Princeton, as Doc noted at the top of this conversation. So Teach for America a great program and I’ve worked with young folks who have been through the program. I have addressed students in your program. So it’s a wonderful program.

That said, as you well know, one of the criticisms, perhaps the most constant criticism of the program is this 2 year commitment. That for some of these young people it’s really not so much about staying, about choosing teaching as a profession, as Dr. West has for 35 plus years, but it’s a stepping stone.

Can you speak to the criticism of the program that for many students, many young people it’s a stepping stone and not really a lifelong commitment to young people and their learning.

Kopp: I think that’s an unfortunate perception. The people who come in to Teach for America, and I know you probably have met many of them along the way, are just deeply, deeply committed. They’re graduating seniors and the rest of their life is 2 years away. So they’re making a 2 year commitment to this instead of making a 2 year commitment to something else.

But most of them stay. Sixty-five percent of now 20,000 Teach for America alumni are working full time in education. Half of them as teachers, 600 of them as school principals. Others in district leadership, others in reform organizations. And of the people who leave, half of them have jobs that relate in some way to schools of low income communities.

So this becomes their life’s work. I think so much of that is because it’s a transformational experience for them, too, to teach successfully in our low income communities and they end up realizing they can’t leave it. Given the magnitude of the problem and the magnitude of the impact that they can have.

West: I think that when we look at Finland, though, it’s the stature of the teacher. If teachers had the same stature as doctors and lawyers as they do in Finland then it would be different. I think Teach for America certainly contributes to that. But we’re also talking about years of experience.

One of the distinctive features of the Finland educational system is the students, of course they start at 7 rather than 5. And they have the same teachers for 3 and 4 and 5 years, so the teachers get a chance to be a part of their lives and not in and out so quickly, as it were. So it’s a matter of not just of depth of commitment. That’s very real. Tavis and I can testify to that. But it’s also the experience, the longevity, the sense that I’m invested in you from K to at least 6 and maybe even 9 if I see you later on. That seems to be part and parcel.

Kopp: There’s a whole other piece of this. I just think that this is a deeply systemic problem and I think it is a crisis as you deal with it.

West: Absolutely, absolutely.

Kopp: For decades we’ve been talking about this and yet we haven’t solved the problem. I personally believe that our best hope for solving the problem is to literally create a movement of our country’s future leaders, the people, some of whom will leave, who will go into policy at every level, who will go into hopefully journalism and business, because we know how the world works, right? And will take with them a completely different level of commitment to solving this problem, a completely different level of how to solve the problem.

There’s no way to solve this problem without long term sustained committed leadership from within the system, as you say. And the fact that a majority of these folks who are never going to head in this direction end up staying is critical and important. But the fact is we’re not going to solve the problem from within classrooms and schools alone.

We need, to your earlier comments, we need our policymakers to think differently and act differently. And I think Teach for America will be, and we’re starting to see that it is a huge force for change at a systemic level.

Smiley: Let me offer this as a closing comment that I think perhaps we can agree on. We’ll see what Wendy has to say about it, Doc. My sense is, Wendy, and all three of us have spoken in schools and colleges and grade schools all across this country for years now. My sense is this. That the schools that do best in this country, without regard to whether they’re public or private, inner city or suburban, the schools that do best in this country are the schools where parents are involved.

Do we agree on that? And if we do, how important is parental involvement?

Kopp: I guess I’ve come to have a different, slightly different understanding of what kind of parental involvement is important. I think all of our successful teachers reach out to the parents of their kids right at the beginning of the school year and say, you know what, here’s what we’re going to try to accomplish in this class this year. Usually they lay out a big ambitious goal and they say I can’t do it without you and here’s what I need. I need you to make sure that your kid’s here every day, that they’re reading at home, that they’re doing X, Y and Z. Then they involve them as partners in the effort.

We’ve found that parents completely more than rise to the occasion when teachers reach out to them in that way. And I think that’s the form of parental engagement that is most critical.

West: I think Brother Tavis is right and Sister Wendy is right. It goes hand-in-hand with teachers, with the resources, with the culture of achievement, with teachers themselves believing in fact they have a major status in the culture, and connecting it to what it means to be a critical citizen concerned with public interests and common good to keep this democratic experiment afloat. John Dewey is right, education is at the center of it all.

Smiley: We want to thank Wendy Kopp, the founder and president of Teach for America.

Wendy, good to have you on the program as always. Thanks for sharing your profound insights.

Kopp: You too. Really appreciate it.

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