For Princetonians, the senior thesis is a high hurdle before graduation. For Wendy Kopp, class of 1989, it became a career devoted to transforming primary and secondary education. What began as an idea for a teacher corps for hard-to-staff schools, urban and rural, became Teach for America (TFA). At first it was merely a leavening ingredient in education; it has become a template for transformation.
Back then, Kopp’s generation was stigmatized by journalistic sociology as “the ‘me’ generation” composed of materialists eager to be recruited into careers of quick self-enrichment. She thought the problem was not her peers but the recruiters. So she became one.
This academic year, 16 percent of Princeton’s seniors and 18 percent of Harvard’s applied to join Teach for America, of which Kopp is CEO. TFA is the largest employer of recent graduates from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eight percent of seniors at the University of Michigan (undergraduate enrollment: 26,830) applied last year for TFA’s two-year commitments. More than 5 percent of graduating seniors at 130 colleges are applicants.
Kopp began by “meeting anyone who would meet with me,” soliciting corporate executives for seed money. She believed something that bemused skeptics — that students from elite schools would volunteer to have their first experience out of college teaching in difficult-to-staff schools in areas of urban and rural poverty.
“I knew college students would do it — I had just been a college student.” What was needed, she thought, was a high-status service organization with an aura of selectivity.
Raised in comfortable circumstances in Dallas, Kopp precociously understood not just the importance of education but the educational importance of where one is born. TFA’s first recruiting was done by fliers shoved under dorm room doors. Her Yale recruiter had 170 messages on his answering machine in just three days. TFA’s first cohort totaled 500 teachers. This year TFA will select 5,300 from 48,000 applicants, making it more selective than most colleges.
This school year, there are 8,000 TFA teachers. Of the 20,000 TFA alumni, two-thirds are still working full time in education. Of those, only one in six says that even without TFA he or she might have gone into K-12 teaching.
TFA has become a flourishing reproach to departments and schools of education. It pours talent into the educational system — 80 percent of its teachers are in traditional public schools — talent that flows around the barriers of the credentialing process. Hence TFA works against the homogenization that discourages innovation and prevents the cream from rising.
Kopp, whose new book (“A Chance to Make History”) recounts her post-Princetoneducation, has learned, among much else, this: Of the 15 million children growing up in poverty, 50 percent will not graduate from high school, and the half that do will have eighth-grade skill levels compared to those from higher-income families and neighborhoods.
Until recently — until, among other things, TFA — it seemed that we simply did not know how to teach children handicapped by poverty and its accompaniments — family disintegration and destructive community cultures. Now we know exactly what to do.
In government, the axiom is: Personnel is policy. In education, Kopp believes, “people are everything” — good ones are (in military parlance) “force multipliers.” Creating “islands of excellence” depends entirely on finding “transformational leaders deeply committed to changing the trajectories” of children’s lives.
We do not, she insists, have to fix society or even families in order to fix education. It works the other way around. The movie “Waiting for Superman” dramatizes what TFA has demonstrated — that low-income parents leap at educational opportunities that can break the cycle of poverty. Teaching successfully in challenging schools is, Kopp says, “totally an act of leadership” by people passionately invested in the project.
Speaking of leadership, someone in Congress should invest some on TFA’s behalf. Government funding — federal, state, local — is just 30 percent of TFA’s budget. Last year’s federal allocation, $21 million, would be a rounding error in the General Motors bailout. And Kopp says that every federal dollar leverages six non-federal dollars. All that money might, however, be lost because even when Washington does something right, it does it wrong.
It has obtusely defined “earmark” to include “any named program,” so TFA has been declared an earmark and sentenced to death. If Congress cannot understand how nonsensical this is, it should be sent back to school for remedial instruction from some of TFA’s exemplary young people.