Wendy Kopp’s Big Education Idea

Wendy Kopp founded Teach For America in 1990 after proposing the idea in her undergraduate thesis at Princeton University. Participants in the program commit to teach in high-need schools for two years. More than 30,000 participants have completed the program, and this year more than 11,000 TFA corps members are teaching in communities across the country. In 2007, Kopp co-founded Teach For All, a global network of independent organizations that have adapted TFA’s model to expand educational opportunity in their own countries. LMU is TFA’s exclusive university partner in California, providing graduate training, mentoring and support for corps members teaching in the state. Kopp visited the LMU campus Sept. 17 to be honored with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree for her work in education. She was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

What qualities do you look for in Teach For America applicants?
We are looking for people with a passion for working in the highest need communities. The biggest differentiator in our most successful teachers is perseverance in the face of challenges. There are other factors, too: an ability to influence and motivate others in a sophisticated way rooted in an understanding of another person’s values, problem-solving abilities, an ability to work across lines of difference, holding high expectations for kids in low-income communities. Then we invest a great deal in them, alongside partners such as LMU’s School of Education, to inculcate the mindset, skills and knowledge that we found differentiates our most successful teachers. Much of this is about mindset development: helping them internalize a sense of personal responsibility for ensuring their students’ success.

Was altruism a major force in motivating you to start Teach For America?
I was motivated to start it as someone in the “Me” generation. We supposedly all wanted to make a lot of money and work on Wall Street. That label just didn’t ring true. I had become very focused on education and educational inequity. That led me to wonder why we weren’t being recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teach in high-need communities as we were being recruited to commit two years to work on Wall Street.

Teach For America has been criticized for attracting political friends who are deeply engaged in highly charged, politicized debates about education. Is that a fact of life for an organization like yours, or is it avoidable?
Education has always been a politicized realm, and there always has been a fair share of political challenges. But if you go back just five years ago, the state of public discussion was different: the extent of polarization and contentiousness, educators fighting each other more than we’re fighting our common enemy in terms of the injustice facing kids. It’s really tragic to see, honestly. I guess I haven’t yet accepted it as inevitable. Teach for America, alongside other groups, has come to the recognition that we’re going to have to invest more in shaping the public discussion if we’re going to get where we need to go.

The success of Teach For America has helped lead to Teach For All, an international program of which you are co-founder and CEO. How are the two different?
Teach For All is a network of independent organizations in 30 countries. These programs are recruiting their countries’ most promising future leaders, investing in their training and development and fostering their ongoing education. What we’ve learned in the past six years is that the problem of educational inequity is pervasive all around the world. It’s true that socio-economic background affects educational outcomes and life outcomes everywhere. The problems are similar from place to place, which means solutions are shareable.

LMU is Teach for America’s exclusive university partner in California. What does LMU have that makes it valuable in accomplishing Teach for America’s goals?
First, a spirit of true partnership. There is a shared sense of values, commitment and mission, and openness to working together to tackle whatever challenges we each face, reinforce one another’s efforts and make a positive impact. We used to have many partnerships, but we saw that our teachers were strongest when they benefited from LMU’s programs. The expertise and commitment of your faculty has a tremendous amount to do with it.