Over here at More Intelligent Life, we've long been fascinated with the work Wendy Kopp has done with Teach For America (TFA), an organisation that convinces bright young college graduates to work as teachers in some of America's toughest classrooms. Some critics complain that the programme often scares away potential career teachers by throwing them into the deep end of the education pool—often with limited help and resources. But Kopp convincingly argues that TFA is not only meant to inject excited young teachers into struggling schools, but also to provide an opportunity for these often privileged and wide-eyed young adults to confront a public-school world that many have been spared. In this way, TFA also functions as an ongoing advocacy campaign, one that educates thousands of future leaders of the serious problems of America's schools every year.
Our sage colleagues over at Democracy in America cornered Kopp and had her answer a few questions. We've cherry-picked some of our favourites, but the full interview can be seen here. Relatedly, anyone who hasn't yet read "Building a Better Teacher", an excellent story by Elizabeth Green that appeared in the New York Times Magazine last month, is sorely missing out.
Ms Kopp: We look at both the impact our teachers have on their students' achievement and at the impact our alumni have as a force for change. We have an internal system to analyse the impact of each of our more than 7,000 teachers, but the most reliable way to be certain of their classroom impact is through independent studies conducted by third-party organisations which compare the student growth in our corps members' classrooms to that of other teachers in similar situations. As examples, the Urban Institute study published last spring, and a 2004 study by Mathematica Policy Research, showed that students taught by our teachers learned more than students taught by control-group teachers, including veterans.
For longer-term effects, we look at what our alumni go on to do and the degree to which they assume leadership roles in effecting change. The vast majority of our 17,000 alumni are still under the age of 30, but we already have nearly 450 school leaders, several area and district superintendents (including Michelle Rhee in DC), and a number of entrepreneurs who have started some of the most significant reform organisations in the field. The KIPP charter school network was started by two alumni, The New Teacher Project was launched out of Teach For America and its president is an alum, and here's one a lot of people don't know—the IDEA schools network, founded by alumni in South Texas to serve migrant students, includes a high school that was ranked the 12th best in America by US News & World Report.
DiA: Outside of TFA, what can be done to attract a larger number of talented, skilled people to the teaching profession?
Ms Kopp: Our experience at Teach For America has been that the more people understand educational inequity, the more they want to do something about it. When I started Teach For America as a college senior, I sensed that there were thousands of talented, driven college students and recent grads who were searching for a way to make a real difference in the world. I thought we should be recruiting people as aggressively to teach in high-poverty communities as we were being recruited to work in investment banking. This year, more than 46,000 people applied to Teach For America including 12% of Ivy League seniors. So clearly, there are a lot of talented people who are recruitable to this work.
As a country, I think we can attract more talented people to teaching by raising awareness of educational inequity and getting the public to understand from individual classrooms, schools, and cities that this is an issue that can be solved. When people think the issue can be solved, it becomes a moral imperative to be part of the solution. I also think we can do a lot more within our school districts to recruit aggressively, select people according to high standards, invest in their training and development, and foster and reward their leadership. Once we invest more in attracting, developing and retaining teachers, potential recruits will begin to see it as a profession worth considering.
DiA: Do you think the focus on standardised test performance has made the profession less attractive to people who might bring a more creative, imaginative approach to teaching?
Ms Kopp: I think people are attracted to teaching because they want to make a real impact. In my experience, the teachers who are making the greatest difference go far beyond meeting standardised test measures. They aspire to truly level the playing field for their students, which means inspiring a love of learning, fostering the highest levels of critical thinking, building perseverance in working towards academic excellence, and so on. Standardised tests cannot capture all this, but on the other hand, students who are not capable of doing well on standardised tests are not well-equipped to thrive in today's world and so it's important for teachers to ensure that students gain the foundation necessary to meet the baseline educational standards these tests represent.
I think it's important for school principals and teachers to keep the tests in this context—when used well they should not divert attention from providing students with a truly excellent education. So, no, I have not seen that standardised tests make the profession less attractive, though some principals respond to them in a way that drives the best teachers out of their schools (by over-emphasising test prep in the school curriculum for example). On the other hand, great teachers want benchmarks to measure progress and tests can help with that.
DiA: You are a very public figure in the world of education, you are creating a small army of education reformers, and yet you rarely engage in the specifics of the education-reform debate. (For example, I had trouble finding your opinion on charter schools, accountability, testing, etc.) Is that a deliberate strategy?
Ms Kopp: Yes, it is deliberate. Teach For America's greatest value in the education reform movement is to channel the energy of an extraordinary group of leaders against the problem of educational inequity, and education reform needs a bigger, better Teach For America a lot more than it needs to know my views on charter schools, to use that example. If we're going to maximise Teach For America's impact we can't afford to turn off the people who have opposing views on charters.
The other thing I would say is that the alumni we bring into this work will ultimately advocate for the specific changes we need in communities and states and at the federal level, and they will do so on the basis of what they learned working in urban and rural schools across the nation. This will be a lot more powerful than Teach For America attempting to build the capacity to be a policy shop.
DiA: Outside of recruiting smart college graduates to teach in low-income communities, how else do you think America should be dealing with educational inequity?
Ms Kopp: What I have come to see is that creating a high-functioning education system requires all the strategies involved in building high-functioning organisations anywhere. It requires a deliberate and aggressive strategy to ensure extraordinary talent at every level of the system, from the superintendency to district offices to principalships to classrooms. It requires building systems for accountability; offering parents the ability to choose their public schools is the ultimate form of this. It requires building a strong culture at the system and school levels based on high expectations for student achievement. It requires continuous improvement. And, ultimately, it requires more—if we are going to put students facing extra challenges on a level playing field, we need to give them more support, which means more time and more school-based services.
There is so much that gives me optimism that we can move the needle against educational inequity—we are seeing real progress in some school systems across the country that have embraced these strategies, we now have policymakers at the federal level and in states across the country who are shaping policy around these understandings, and, most importantly, the most precious resource involved in building any effective organisation—people—are in greater supply than ever. It is an extraordinary harbinger that 15% of the graduates of my alma mater, Princeton University, competed to channel their energy against our nation's most pressing educational challenges through Teach For America this year. Twenty years ago that would have seemed inconceivable.
Picture credit: Jean-Christian Bourcart