It is not always the case that American elementary and high school students do not care — they have not been given enough resources to bring out their full potential, said Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America, an organization that provides teachers for low-income communities by recruiting college graduates to teach for two years and was the largest employer of graduates of Yale’s class of 2009.
“Kids growing up in rural areas have the same potential, they just need more opportunities,” Kopp said, addressing an audience of about 50 at a Davenport Master’s Tea on Friday afternoon, during which she discussed the program’s origins, its successes and the shortcomings of the American education system.
There are many families and students that are much better off today because of Teach For America, she argued, pointing to cities such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and Houston, where the organization has achieved measurable results — she said she would now feel comfortable sending her own child to any New Orleans public school. She also referred to studies done by the Urban Institute, which show that on average, the positive impact of having a Teach For America teacher is two to three times more than that of a veteran teacher with three or more years of experience. Kopp said replicating teaching techniques that corps members have found successful, together with the high standards used for recruiting new teachers, has helped to ensure continued success.
“The only way to succeed with kids is to exert truly exceptional leadership,” she said. “Successful teachers plan and execute purposefully, continuously improve, and do whatever it takes to make their vision a reality.”
Despite the accomplishments, Kopp said the campaign is still far from where it needs to be. Schools need to improve, she noted, but some of the pressure can be taken off them by improving economies, health care and social security systems in their communities.
Kopp developed the idea of Teach For America while she was a senior at Princeton University, a time when she said most students were being recruited to work on Wall Street. Still, there were many students who wanted to make a difference but did not know how, Kopp said, because few perceived her generation as being willing to put aside career goals.
Kopp said she wanted to make a difference for students who faced the challenges of poverty.
“It is outrageous that in a nation that aspires so admirably to be a place of equal opportunity, too often an individual’s educational outcome is determined by where he or she was born,” she said.
The campaign was launched in 1990, when Kopp raised $2.5 million of seed funding and recruited 500 teachers to teach in 6 low-income communities, she said.
When asked about the sustainability of the campaign, Kopp explained that corps members stay in the classroom for an average of seven years, and although not all them continue after the required two years of teaching, their experience in the classroom affects the way in which they will make decisions as policy makers at the district level, where a school system’s success begins. Districts need to recruit teachers aggressively while maintaining high standards and also create compensation systems that will reward teachers who are truly effective, she added, noting that currently most of the money is spent on teachers who have been teaching for over 30 years, even though they are not necessarily the most deserving. The intentions are right but there needs to be a proper strategy, Kopp said.
Sam Purdy ’10, who will be teaching in Texas with Teach for America after graduation, said he agreed with Kopp that although it is not guaranteed that all the teachers who participate in the campaign will go into education, they will be equipped with an experience that will help change policy through the decisions they make in other fields.
“They will bring education equity into the dialogue in a way that they wouldn’t have done before,” added Cara McClellan ’10, who has also applied to Teach For America.
Teach For America received 46,000 applicants this year and currently serves 35 urban and rural regions. More than 60 percent of the alumni work full-time in education.