Thesis sparks thriving teacher corps

Regina Tan

Princeton NJ -- When Wendy Kopp was an undergraduate at Princeton in the late 1980s, she was deeply concerned about inequality in the educational system. Her thesis for the Woodrow Wilson School, "An Argument and Plan for the Creation of the Teacher Corps," became the launchpad for Teach For America, a two-year program in which recent college graduates teach in the nation's underresourced public schools.

Wendy Kopp



Determined to create the "teacher corps," Kopp sent a proposal in October 1989 requesting help from potential funders: "I graduated from Princeton this past June and have been working to put my senior thesis into action ever since. I proposed the creation of an organization that would use the Peace Corps model -- active recruitment on a national scale, a selective application process, lots of publicity, a short initial time commitment, and a centralized application, training and placement mechanism -- to attract top recent graduates into teaching in the United States. With the help of a number of business and education leaders, I have created the organization as a privately funded nonprofit called TEACH AMERICA Inc. I am writing to request your help."

The philanthropic community responded by providing two and a half million dollars for the recruitment, selection, training, placement and support of the 500 charter corps members in 1990. Since then, more than 6,000 people have participated in Teach For America. Each year, some 1,500 corps members reach more than 100,000 students at 15 locations across the country, including South Central Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta and the South Bronx.


My biggest learning curve was in developing the management skills needed to ensure my idea fulfilled its potential."


Kopp recounts how she established Teach For America in her new book, "One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way" published by PublicAffairs.

"I wrote this book in part because I wanted to communicate what I had learned for would-be social entrepreneurs and for those in the philanthropic community who wish to support them," Kopp writes in an e-mail interview.

"Yet I also think the book is a perfect launch into our second decade, as many of the learnings it articulates undergird our plan for the future. I don't feel that I have completed my work with Teach For America and won't feel satisfied until we meet the new goals we've set for ourselves -- to substantially increase the scale on which we operate, to ensure that our corps members are successful in attaining dramatic student achievement gains during their first and second years as teachers, and to foster the ongoing leadership and collaboration of our alumni as a force for change," Kopp writes.

Princeton was one of the first stops on Kopp's book tour for "One Day, All Children."

In her April 24 lecture at the Woodrow Wilson School, "Educational Opportunity For All," Kopp spoke about how she wanted Teach For America to be a movement that "communicated a sense of national importance." She also emphasized the necessity of "activist teachers/leaders" in the classroom who set visions and goals.

In addition, Kopp outlined the mission of Teach For America: to commit to the big idea; to accompany commitment with a long-term institution-building approach; and to invest more resources into education in the lowest-resourced communities.

At the 11-year mark of Teach For America, it seems that Kopp aims to continue establishing a network of credibility for Teach For America. And to accomplish that goal, Kopp reiterates the mantra of the organization: "to create equal opportunity for excellence in education and to close the achievement gap."

As founder, Kopp also has created a sense of corporate culture in Teach For America. And in some ways, Kopp regards the organization as an exercise in business management.

When asked what advice she would have given to the young Wendy Kopp in May 1989, she writes, "Looking back, I would probably sit down for many hours and talk through the basics of organizational leadership -- of the power of clear outcomes and clear values, of the importance of recruiting and developing great people and strategies for doing that. My biggest learning curve was in developing the management skills needed to ensure my idea fulfilled its potential."

Two new programs have evolved from Teach For America's success -- the New Teacher Project and the New York City Teaching Fellowships.

Kopp describes the New Teacher Project as a program that helps school districts develop the capacity to recruit and train new teachers more effectively.

"Whereas the mission of Teach For America is to be a catalytic force in closing the student achievement gap between low-income and high-income communities, I felt that we had also learned a great deal about how teachers should be brought into the profession," Kopp writes. "I didn't think my work with Teach For America would be complete until I applied that knowledge in a way that would have a systemic impact, and so launching the New Teacher Project was important from that perspective."

Started under the umbrella of the New Teacher Project, the New York City Teaching Fellowships recruit recent college graduates to teach in the city's lowest-income schools.

The new beginning -- the New Teacher Project -- and the publication of "One Day, All Children" appear to mark a turning point in Kopp's career.

She writes, "I feel a sense of closure to the first decade of Teach For America's life -- the decade during which we launched the idea, survived the challenges that face many new start-ups, and built a thriving institution that has the foundation to last as long as it's needed."

As for the future of Teach For America, Kopp noted in her Woodrow Wilson School lecture that, to continue the movement, it is necessary to spread the word to college campuses and future generations.


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