Education needs leaders, TFA founder says

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Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp spoke Tuesday about how college graduates interested in teaching can help address nationwide education inequality.

Kopp, who developed the idea for TFA as an undergraduate at Princeton University, argued that the education system needs a growing body of talented leaders to effect reform. The education sector needs improvement at the national, state and local levels, Kopp explained at a panel discussion in front of about 70 students and New Haven community members. By working in low-income communities facing educational challenges, aspiring teachers will be “better grounded” in problems of the field and prepared to address them — whether through teaching or by pursing careers in related careers, she said.

“If we were in the field of health, we’d think this was an epidemic,” Kopp said. “If hundreds of kids were dying of an epidemic, what would we do? We’d drop everything. We’d marshal all our forces to save them.”

Nonprofit educational organization TFA places recent college graduates in two-year teaching jobs in high-need areas of the country. Kopp said TFA aims to cultivate leaders who will help improve the education system in general, whether in the classroom or in a greater community.

She said the most successful schools always have a leader who “obsesses over building teams, manages aggressively and does whatever it takes” to ensure that students gain the skills and character strength that will carry them through college and professional life. This “educational theory of change,” she said, drives TFA to recruit the nation’s most talented postgraduates to teaching.

“There’s no substitute for getting to know a class of kids and deeply understanding them, their families and their diverse contexts,” Kopp said.

Though Kopp acknowledged that critics of TFA claim a five-week training program does not adequately ready people to enter the teaching force, she argued that TFA selects different people than those in training programs, specifically those that demonstrate “leadership characteristics.”

In addition to spending two weeks in a local orientation, finishing the five-week intensive program and completing “independent work,” TFA teachers also receive ongoing support during the two years, Kopp said. She added that studies from Louisiana and Tennessee have suggested that TFA is the “highest-performing teacher prep program” in their states.

In addition to getting talented people involved early on, Kopp said diversifying the education sector’s workforce is another of TFA’s “core values.” While Kopp said a candidate’s teaching abilities come first, she said TFA also considers how relatable the socioeconomic backgrounds of potential teachers are. When teachers come from the same socioeconomic backgrounds as the predominantly black and Latino students in low-income communities, those instructors can relate to students on a “different level” and serve as “important role model[s]” of how education can transform lives, Kopp said.

Zak Newman ’13, who has studied and worked with education reform, said he agrees that the education sector needs talented people in the profession. Though he commended TFA’s focus on developing talent, Newman added that he thinks Kopp “doesn’t always address policy and politics” in an issue many consider inherently political.

Manik Chhabra, a resident at the Yale School of Medicine, said he found it “remarkable” how Kopp stands by her mission and core values.

TFA was founded in 1990.

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