Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp on the future of schools.
Question: How should Americans change the way they think about education?
Kopp: I guess I ultimately think we need to reach the point where not just a few of our nation’s leaders but many, many, many of them understand what you understand after you’ve taught successfully in a low income community, which is a couple of things. One, it’s just, you understand we can solve the problem, because once you realize that, then you realize we have to prioritize the issue and work relentlessly to actually reach the goal of solving the problem. The other thing is, I think you come out of this experience of teaching successfully rejecting any silver bullet theory. So, you come in and you think, it’s funding, or it’s maybe technology or it’s a curricular approach or whatever, and many people in our country are still searching for the silver bullet. You come out of this realizing, okay, it’s no one thing. It is everything. You know, there are no shortcuts, to quote a crew of our folks who have started this very high performing charter schools, the KIPP Academies. It’s about doing everything while just in the same way that success in any other sector. We always know in business, in government, whatever, it’s about doing everything well, you know? And I think that is a fundamental difference, so when I think about, for example, what’s happening in Washington DC right now, where, you know, a very courageous mayor assumed responsibility for the school system and appointed Michelle Rea, who’s a Teach For America alum, to run the school system. You know, the majority of her senior team are Teach For America alums, a growing percentage of the school principals, 10% and growing, including the principals of the fastest improving and highest performing schools are Teach For America alums, and what unites that crew is those two things, like, they are working with a level of conviction and a level of relentlessness that is hard to find, and, at the same time, you know, they’ve put all the basics at the center of their agenda. So, knowing that it’s not any one curriculum or it’s not any one, like, there’s no magic solution out there, they’ve said, you know what? Most fundamentally, this is about people, so we need to do everything we can to ensure that we have the most talented teachers, the most talented principals, the most talented school district officials. They’ve put that at the center of their agenda. They believe that those folks need to hold themselves accountable for results and continuously improve over time. I mean, it sounds mundane, but that is the name of the game, you know? And so, I guess what inspires me to your question around scale is realizing that every person in that picture and all of the Teach For America alums in various other communities where they’re at the center of real momentum around reform really came in to Teach For America in the ‘90s, our first decade, when in the whole decade we produced 3500 Teach For America alums. So, the fact that we’re at the point now where, you know, well over, we’ll bring in 4,000 core members this year alone, and I just think, gosh, you know, what will we be talking about five and ten years from now? I really believe we’re going to reach a point where we have a critical mass of leaders working from within education and also, really importantly, from outside of education as well, because as much as we’ll never solve the problem without long term committed, sustained leadership from within, we’ll never solve the problem if we don’t have a policy context and a kind of, I mean, think about the influence of our journalists and of our business leaders. If we don’t have folks in influence in other sectors who also share a deep understanding of the problem and of the solutions.