Nation & World

Teach For America’s Kopp describes what works, what will work

5 min read

The woman who created a national teaching movement out of her college thesis was on campus last week to advocate for broader support for public education.

Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America (TFA) addressed a standing-room-only crowd at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) Askwith Forum at Longfellow Hall on Nov. 3. Many in the audience were education administrators, teachers, and students.

Kopp’s initiative places recent college graduates or professionals from various careers in challenging school districts to teach for two years. Since its inception in 1990, the program has developed a network of 14,000 alumni, many of whom continue to work in the education sector. According to its Web site, TFA has impacted nearly 3 million students through its efforts.

Harvard has various connections to the program.

HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney, the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development, introduced Kopp and noted that currently there are 43 TFA alumni in the HGSE master’s program and five in the School’s doctoral program.

The HGSE also has a partnership with TFA and the Chicago Public Schools to recruit and train TFA alumni for leadership positions in some of Chicago’s most challenged public schools. The collaboration trains fledgling teachers in an HGSE program in preparation for a one-year residency under the guidance of a principal at a Chicago elementary or high school.

Additionally, The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at HGSE has studied the career choices of TFA alumni. Some of the project’s recent research revealed that many TFA members remain in teaching well after their two-year commitment has ended. The study also showed that African-American and Latino TFA members remain in teaching longer than their Asian or white counterparts.

Kopp began her brief remarks by detailing the commitment and success of two TFA members. She said their example offered important lessons.

One of the teachers simply resolved to get her fourth-grade students in New York City up to grade level. By agreeing to work hard for them and asking them to do the same, said Kopp, she showed the students it could happen.

“This was an incredibly diligent person,” said Kopp, “who was spending hours and hours and hours trying to figure out how to plan and maximize every hour of the day.”

The teacher’s work included finding more time to spend with her students — either before school, during lunch, or after school. She also persuaded the principal to let her teach the same group of students the following year.

The second teacher Kopp described was tasked with preparing 58 10th-grade world history students, many of whom were only reading at a fifth-grade level, with passing a proficiency test in one year.

He succeeded, said Kopp, in large part because he got his students to believe that they would pass. He also had a sophisticated and engaging teaching style, went out of his way to regularly check in with the students and their parents, and even made pancakes Saturday mornings and brought them to school to encourage the students to do some extra studying on the weekends.

“What [these teachers] demonstrate so clearly, is that … educational inequity is a solvable problem.”

Additionally, said Kopp, the teachers did what all great leaders do. They were clear about their goal and they motivated their students to work with them toward achieving it.

The final message, driven home by the two teachers and the thousands of other successful alumni from the TFA program, said Kopp, is the need for a comprehensive system of support

“They are showing us that we need to do a whole lot more than expect that our teachers will alone solve the problem. … Our best hope is to have leaders at every level of our education system and at every level of policy and at every sector working to solve those issues. … It is about talent and leadership, … [it’s about teachers and administrators] who believe in kids and will do whatever it takes to help them achieve the opportunities they deserve.”

After her talk, Kopp opened the discussion to the audience.

Asked why she didn’t extend the TFA commitment to more than two years, Kopp said it’s driven by a large section of the recruits they are trying to attract.

“The biggest question I get on college campuses,” said the CEO, “is, ‘Can we do this for one year?’”

Addressing the success of teachers in the TFA program, Kopp said that a variety of factors play a role. Targeted recruiting — a rigorous screening process that identifies the characteristics of great leadership and dedication — is key. In addition, Kopp said that by closely tracking their members, TFA supervisors are able see what their most successful teachers are doing each year. They then use that information to refine their own training and support techniques.

“The biggest thing we need,” she concluded, “is young people who truly are ready for this [right out of college.] We need institutions that are producing folks who, at the time of graduation, have both real leadership skills and a deep sense of civic commitment.”