Wendy Kopp, CEO/Founder, Teach for America: Reaping the Rewards of High Expectations

January 30, 2009
Wendy Kopp, CEO/Founder, Teach for America: Reaping the Rewards of High Expectations

As an undergraduate at Princeton University in the 1980s, Wendy Kopp saw firsthand how "differently prepared" for success students from low-income communities were from those who had had greater economic and educational advantages. Kopp became convinced that many in her generation were eager to make a difference in the world and that talented college graduates would choose teaching over more lucrative career opportunities if a prominent and respected teacher corps existed. So, in 1989, she used her senior thesis to propose the creation of just such a corps, which she called Teach For America.

But she didn't stop there. Kopp then raised $2.5 million in start-up funding, hired a skeleton staff, and launched a grass-roots campaign to get college students to commit two years to the Teach For America program. During the organization's first year, in 1990, five hundred men and women began teaching in six low-income communities across the country. Since then, Teach For America has become the nation's largest provider of teachers for schools in low-income communities, with a network of 20,000 corps members serving 400,000 students in twenty-nine urban and rural regions every year.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Kopp about Teach For America's phenomenal growth and success, what it takes to be a successful K-12 teacher, and what the future holds for the organization.

Philanthropy News Digest: What inspired you to start thinking about educational inequities in the United States? Was it your experiences as a student, as a volunteer, or was it a particular teacher?

Wendy Kopp: It was probably many things. But most important, I think, was the depth of educational inequity I witnessed at Princeton, something that exists at all colleges and universities. I got to know a lot of students who had grown up in places like the Bronx and gone to public schools, and their experiences and the poor preparation many received caused me — a public policy major and also a concerned student — to focus on the inequities that exist in our country's K-12 system. I even organized a conference around the issue.

PND: Teach For America recruits the top students from the most prestigious U.S. colleges and universities, including Harvard and Yale. Have you ever worried that the organization might be perceived as elitist?

"...Our incoming recruits this past year represented at least five hundred colleges and universities...."

WK: Actually, we recruit far and wide. Our incoming recruits this past year represented at least five hundred colleges and universities. At the same time that we're getting 10 percent of the seniors at Harvard and Yale to apply, we're getting between 5 percent and 10 percent of the senior classes at a hundred other colleges and universities to apply. That includes big state schools, small colleges, and some but not all the Ivy League schools. In other words, we're looking for the most promising future leaders at a whole range of colleges.

PND: How do you get them to sign on with Teach For America?

WK: Our approach to recruitment is a bit counterintuitive. First, we identify the top prospects on a campus and then we sit down with them one-on-one to convince them that although they thinkthey want to go to medical school, what they really should be doing is teaching. [Laughs.] Last year, we talked to thirty-one thousand graduating seniors. Once a prospect has agreed to sign on, we invest tremendously in his or her pre-service training as well as their ongoing professional development. Over many years, we've come to understand what differentiates teachers who make the greatest impact on student achievement, so we factor that into our recruitment, training, and support models as well. The fact that we are accountable for our teachers and support them all the way through their second year in the classroom is critical in driving our impact.

PND: Has it been difficult competing with Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies for talented minority graduates?

WK: It's true that many employers are trying to recruit the same graduates as we are, and that competition for those kids is great. It's also true that we invest disproportionately in recruiting great kids, particularly African Americans, Latinos and Hispanics, and students from low-income families, where the pressure to succeed often is greater, especially for those first-generation college students who face family and social pressures to get on the right track to a good-paying job. In fact, Teach For America kids tend to be minority kids from low-income backgrounds. I think our mission resonates uniquely with that demographic, which explains our comparative success in recruiting those kinds of kids.

PND: So what arethe characteristics of a successful teacher?

WK: Demonstrated achievement, perseverance in the face of challenges, the ability to influence and motivate others, organizational ability, and critical thinking ability. I'd also have to include a group of characteristics that "fit with our mission," such as having high expectations for kids in low-income communities, the ability to navigate cultural differences, and a commitment to work relentlessly.

PND: To what do you attribute Teach For America's impressive growth over the last five years? And is there a downside to growing as quickly as you have?

"...Given the magnitude of the problem we're working to address, we believe there are huge advantages to attaining critical mass...."

WK: As we entered our tenth year, we felt we had created a solid foundation for ourselves. So at that point we asked ourselves what it would take to fulfill our potential as a force for change, and the conclusion we came to is that it would require us getting both bigger and better. To get there, we decided to set clear, ambitious goals around growth and diversity, and we began to work to increase the measurable impact of individual corps members during their two years with us while at the same time accelerating the leadership provided by our alumni. I'm happy to say we've made progress on all fronts. Given the magnitude of the problem we're working to address, we believe there are huge advantages to attaining critical mass — in individual communities and nationally. At the same time, growth without a focus on quality is not an answer. By also focusing on quality, we've been able to mitigate the downsides of growth.

PND: Obviously, Teach For America recruits have to demonstrate leadership qualities in order to be accepted into your program. So what do you mean when you talk about accelerating the leadership provided by your alumni?

WK: When a college graduate commits two years to a Fortune 500 training program, it's clear what the next steps are. But when a college graduate commits to teach at-risk kids for two years, it's a lot less clear what happens after his or her commitment has been fulfilled. In some cases, the road can even seem long and not terribly inspiring. We've discovered that we can do a lot to accelerate the speed at which Teach For America corps members assume positions of leadership after their two years with us by streamlining and making clearer the paths to leadership. For instance, in the last couple of years we've doubled the percentage of alumni who are pursuing school principalships. We've also created a political leadership initiative both as a way to increase interest among our alumni in running for office and to support them as they launch campaigns; a policy and advocacy initiative to support alumni pursuing careers in public policy, community organizing, or advocacy; and a teaching initiative to support alumni who want to make teaching their career. We have a social enterprise initiative as well.

PND: Is it correct to say that at least half the college graduates who sign on with Teach For America are not considering a career in teaching at the beginning of their two-year commitment?

WK: Actually, only one in ten corps members say they were considering a career in teaching before they joined Teach For America. And only about 3 percent of our alumni majored in education, so we clearly appeal to kids with different career interests and futures. That said, two-thirds of our alumni today are working full-time in education: 37 percent are still teaching, and the rest are either school principals or assistant principals, district administrators, or working in teacher education.

PND: What is the most telling feedback you've received from TFA corp members after they've fulfilled their two-year commitment?

"...I think the most salient lesson of our work is simply this: Where you are born should not determine the quality of your education...."

WK: We're a feedback-generating machine, but I think the most salient lesson of our work is simply this: Where you are born should not determine the quality of your education. Through their TFA commitment, young people realize that it's absolutely possible for every kid in this country to receive an excellent education. At the core of that realization, of course, is a successful teaching experience, one in which the teacher starts out with a group of kids who are often far behind and, through a lot of hard work and perseverance, sees them make dramatic progress. It's like a light bulb goes off: Kids don't fall behind because they lack potential, or aren't motivated, or their parents don't care; in most cases, they fall behind because they just haven't been given the opportunities they deserve. We see it over and over in communities across the country and at every grade level. That realization has done more than anything to fuel our sense of urgency as an organization and the commitment of our alumni to continue doing this work, whether from inside the education system or as a change agent from outside.

PND: How do you measure TFA's impact on students, on school systems, and on your own alumni?

WK: We look at both the impact corps members have on their students' achievement and at the impact our alumni have as a force for change in education. The most reliable way to look at the former is through independent studies conducted by third-party organizations — things like the Urban Institute study published last spring, or a 2004 study done by Mathematica Policy Research. For longer-term effects, we look at what our alumni go on to do and the degree to which they assume leadership roles. We haven't commissioned a third-party study on that score yet, but we're encouraged to see what's happening in communities where large numbers of our alumni have settled, places like Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Houston. I think the educational leaders in those cities would say the leadership provided by our young alums has contributed significantly to the changes that have taken place in public education in those cities over the past five or six years.

PND: How has the relationship between Teach For America and school districts around the country evolved? Are district administrators more, or less, receptive than they were when you started?

WK: In some cases, the minute the principal hears about Teach For America, he or she wants to hire as many TFA corps members as possible. Others are more skeptical because they have preconceived notions about how we recruit, select, and train our corps members. Principals who start out as skeptics generally become fans, though. We've also grown a lot, and as we move into new communities and place corps members in new schools, one of our greatest assets is the relationships we've already established with principals and school districts in other communities.

PND: What is Teach For America doing right that others haven't figured out?

"...The problem of educational inequity is so pervasive and systemic in nature that our only hope of reversing it is to channel our country's future leadership into doing something about it....:

WK: Our theory is that the problem of educational inequity is so pervasive and systemic in nature that our best hope, our only hope, of reversing it is to channel our country's future leadership into doing something about it. We know how important a good education is, and we know our corps members are make a huge difference through their efforts in the classroom. Ultimately, however, we're creating a cadre of leaders who will work at every level of the education system, and in every sector — public, private, the media — to support education reform and solve the problem once and for all.

PND: Teach For America is among the most popular education-related nonprofits in the country. Has its success translated into foundation support?

WK: In the last eight years, our funding base has grown from $10 million annually to $120 million, and we hope to pass $150 million by the end of this year. I think what has enabled us to grow our funding base is our strong track record coupled with a set of ambitious goals. Most of our foundation and corporate partners clearly see the role their investment plays in growing our impact. That's been key to the growth in our funding base.

PND: Foundations that fund education reform tend to have their own reform agendas. To what extent do TFA's foundation partners push you to do things their way?

WK: We receive support from a number of foundations and corporations that are very committed to the broader education reform movement, and I think they see Teach For America as a source of talent and leadership for that movement. I also think they believe our greatest impact in terms of the larger reform movement is to become as big and as good at what we do as possible. There are so many opportunities to improve education in this country, and we desperately need to attract more talent and leaders to the field. Teach For America isn't a policy shop, and funders recognize that. Our core competency is finding and cultivating talent.

PND: Teach For America has been likened on more than one occasion to the Peace Corps. How do you feel about that?

WK: Flattered. Our first priority is to build an enduring American institution, and the Peace Corps is as good a model as any. The keys to doing that are investing in the strength and capacity of our staff and leadership team, and building a diversified — and therefore sustainable — funding base. It also means maintaining our brand and reputation and having the best financial and technological systems in place to make our work as easy and efficient as possible.

PND: Well, thank you very much, Wendy.

WK: Thank you.

PND staff writer Alice Garrard spoke with Wendy Kopp in October. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.