TOPICS > Education

Teaching Children: Wendy Kopp

May 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The book is One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way. Wendy Kopp tells the story of how a young college graduate, with no teaching or business experience, created a multimillion dollar organization. Its goal: To save the nation’s neediest urban and rural public schools. Wendy Kopp, welcome to the NewsHour.

WENDY KOPP: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: Describe for us briefly what exactly is Teach for America?

WENDY KOPP: Teach for America is the national teacher corps that recruits outstanding recent college graduates, some of the most highly sought after graduating seniors across the country, people of all different academic majors, and asks them to commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools.

GWEN IFILL: You tell a story in your book about how you came up with the idea. You were literally, not even a college graduate at that point at Princeton.

WENDY KOPP: Right. I was a college senior. I was a member of the me generation. I don’t know if you remember.

GWEN IFILL: I think way back, if we come back to it.

WENDY KOPP: Right. We were… You know, we were the generation of kids who supposedly just wanted to make a lot of money and work for investment banks and management consulting firms. And, you know, I found myself just searching for something that I wasn’t finding. And I started getting the sense that I wasn’t alone and that there were thousands of other graduating seniors out there searching for the same thing. And one day that thought came together with my concern about issues of educational inequity that I had explored as public policy major and such, and I just thought of this idea. You know, why doesn’t this country have a national teacher corps?

GWEN IFILL: Why in the end– we’ll go through some of the pain you went through to get it started– but why was this, as you describe in the title of the book, an unlikely triumph?

WENDY KOPP: Well, I think, you know, if we go back to where I was as a graduating college senior, as you just said, with no education experience, and no business experience, with this big idea… Because my idea was not that we would – you know — start as a little nonprofit organization. This was about creating a movement among some of our nation’s most, you know, promising future leaders to… to effect change in education. And I think, you know, if you think about that probably at the time, anyone, you know, would think, how would that ever get off the ground?

GWEN IFILL: This was in 1990…


GWEN IFILL: …When this all began. So you talk about the power of a big idea. How powerful is a big idea or how unreasonable is a big idea now, ten years later looking back at this?

WENDY KOPP: Well, I think what I learned and what I try to communicate in the book is that, you know, I think Teach for America would have never gotten off the ground and then survived all of the challenges we faced along the way if it weren’t for the fact that it was just an important idea whose time had come. And it magnetized so many thousands of people, everyone from graduating college seniors, to people in the philanthropic community, to people in the education community who the minute they heard it just said, “Yes, that makes sense.” And what I also learned along the way was that the big idea wasn’t enough, that it would only fulfill its potential, you know, if we complemented that with the kind of management and organization building skills that it takes to be successful in any sector.

GWEN IFILL: This turned out to be more taxing in resources and commitment than you even anticipated, didn’t it?

WENDY KOPP: Certainly. I mean, my greatest strength 11 years ago was my complete naiveté about anything about the way the world works. And thank heaven… I mean, that was a good thing, and we wouldn’t have Teach for America today if it weren’t for that. But at the same time, I clearly had to go through a huge learning curve to get where we are today.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you also talk about some of the cultural challenges of going into the nation’s poorest schools and trying to sell this idea. There is one passage where you described, “here I was, a white 23-year-old who had never been in front of a classroom, trying to dispel tension among veteran African American teachers and administrators more than twice my age.” How did you do that?

WENDY KOPP: Well, you know, I was recounting a specific story there. And I think, you know, so much of this, I guess, is just about listening. And this is the thing: I mean, we have so many recent college graduates, people who in many cases haven’t ever worked as part of a larger institution or a larger organization, and they come from a great diversity of backgrounds, but they’re all going through these same kind of learning curves, in terms of figuring out how to work effectively in the cultures in which they’re placed. And I think what we have all learned is that it’s just important to approach these environments with tremendous humility and respect, because there is so much to be learned, and just openness. And just hope that that, you know, that ultimately that leads to good things.

GWEN IFILL: Your critics seem to think both resource-wise and skill-wise in going into these schools, that you were a little naive, and that translated into arrogance, condescension, you know the criticisms. How did you overcome that?

WENDY KOPP: Well, I think, you know, I guess some people may have heard this idea and sort of attributed those things to it. But I guess if you actually… I think the people who have had experience with working for Teach for America in the communities where we are actually have a tremendous respect really for the corps members themselves who just bring so much commitment and dedication and do reach out and become parts of their school communities and the broader communities in which they’re working. And I guess if you look at even just the feedback that we get from school principals who are some of our greatest fans in the world who really can’t say enough about what the corps members bring to their schools and the impact that they have on students, I guess I would just point to that as evidence of the fact that those criticisms haven’t lined up with reality.

GWEN IFILL: “Corps members.” You’re talking about members of a corps, and I think the Marine Corps, and Americorps.

WENDY KOPP: Like a service corps.

GWEN IFILL: Like a service corps. How many over the years?

WENDY KOPP: We’ve placed 6,000 people over the last ten years.

GWEN IFILL: And how many working now?

WENDY KOPP: We currently have 1,500 corps members. And they’re everywhere from South Central Los Angeles to the Bronx and Harlem and Washington Heights in New York to remote rural areas in southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta.

GWEN IFILL: When you hear Washington debate education and what the federal government should or should not be doing with education, do you see things which appeal? When people talk about school choice, for instance, or when they talk about using faith- based initiatives to get at the same problems that you’re trying to address, do you see that any one of these is the right approach?

WENDY KOPP: You know, I think we’re clearly going to need so many…so much energy coming from so many different directions to get where we need to be, and as I say in this book, I think it’s going to take a few things to get where we need to be. On the one hand, I think we need to commit ourselves as a nation to the big idea that one day all children in this country, regardless of where they’re born, will have the chance obtain an excellent education. I don’t think we’ve actually made that commitment. And what a saw from my experience and from what I’ve seen from seeing tremendously successful teachers and tremendously successful school leaders is that there’s a power in just making that commitment, that the commitment alone generates new energy and new solutions. But, as I also learned through my experience, I think it’s essential that we complement the commitment to the idea, with the recognition that it’s not going to be about one single strategy or one quick fix, that the solution in education is really the same as the solution in any sector: It’s all about taking a long-term institution building approach.

GWEN IFILL: Put yourself in the shoes now, of an impending college graduate this spring who doesn’t know what he or she wants to do — knows they want to do some good, but doesn’t even know how to begin to try. What do you tell that person?

WENDY KOPP: I would say join Teach for America. You know, we’re looking for people out there who have demonstrated that they are leaders, have track records of achievement, and want to be part of a force… of a much larger force of determined people who want to bring about, ultimately, institutional change. They want an opportunity to assume a significant responsibility right after they graduate that’s going to have a tremendous impact in the lives of kids growing up today, but they also want to join a force of people who are going to, through that experience, learn a lot about, not only the challenges facing kids growing up today, but the solutions.

GWEN IFILL: How do you combat the cynicism though, of so many people who say “I can’t make a difference”?

WENDY KOPP: Well, we’re looking for the idealists out there. We are looking for pragmatic idealists, people who do have an optimistic… that there is an optimism about them — because what we’ve seen through our experience is that you can make a difference. It is absolutely possible. And we’re looking for all those young leaders out there who want to join the force of people who are making a difference and who ultimately are going to work together to effect the broader changes that we need to see.

GWEN IFILL: The name of the book is One Day, All Children. Wendy Kopp, thank you very much.

WENDY KOPP: Thank you.