When Wendy Kopp's son Benjamin was 8 years old, he interviewed her for a school project on learning to overcome challenges. The topic was the founding of Teach for America, Kopp's bold experiment — which began as a 1989 Princeton University senior thesis — to convince recent elite-college grads to devote two years to teaching in struggling inner-city and rural public schools.
"I just don't understand," Benjamin asked his mother, "how if this is such a big problem — you know, kids not having the chance to have a good education — why would you ask people with no experience right out of college to solve it?"
Two decades into TFA's existence, Benjamin's question — recounted in his mother's new book, A Chance to Make History — remains a point of controversy. Though Teach for America began as an insurgent challenge to teachers' unions, teachers' colleges, and established school district hiring practices, today TFA is itself very much part of the American education establishment.
A power player in Washington education-policy debates and a favorite beneficiary of deep-pocketed philanthropists and corporations, TFA has 8,000 teachers working in 60 cities, and a network of 20,000 alumni spreading the school-reform gospel in fields such as banking, medicine, politics, and education itself. Its new sister organization, Leadership for Educational Equality, is aimed at helping TFA alumni win public office; some, such as Colorado Senator Michael Johnston and Washington, D.C. City Councilman Sekou Biddle, already have.
And it's fair to wonder if Kopp, 44, has her own political ambitions. In an interview at TFA's loft-like headquarters near New York's Penn Station, she smiles when asked if Mayor Mike Bloomberg spoke to her about replacing former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Despite a long relationship between TFA and the New York City schools, he did not, she says.
The job went to former Hearst magazines chief Cathie Black, who had no professional experience in public education, and who sent her own children to private boarding school. Kopp, whose four kids attend public schools on Manhattan's West Side, says running the city's schools would be a dream job, far more attractive than heading to Washington, D.C. to succeed Arne Duncan as the secretary of Education.
Kopp is not shy about saying what she'd do differently as New York City schools chancellor. While the Bloomberg administration is fighting the United Federation of Teachers in court for the right to release to the news media individual teachers' "value added" ratings — an estimate of how effective a teacher is at improving his or her students' standardized test scores — Kopp says she finds the idea "baffling" and believes doing so would undermine trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.
"The principals of very high performing schools would all say their No. 1 strategy is to build extraordinary teams," Kopp said. "I can't imagine it's a good organizational strategy to go publish the names of teachers and one data point about whether they are effective or not in the newspaper."
The chancellor job is "the best job in the world. I think it's just awesome," she gushes. Then she catches herself. "That being said, other than my job. I've really drunk all the Teach for America Kool-Aid myself."
With just a 12 percent acceptance rate, a stint with TFA has become as prestigious for ambitious college students as admittance to a top-flight law school or an entry-level job at a consulting firm. The organization has plans to double in size by 2015, eventually sending 15,000 teachers into public schools each year while growing its influential alumni corps to 40,000 people.
Yet it remains an open question whether the program is moving the needle on the goal of closing the achievement gap between middle-class white children and their poor, minority peers.
"If you look at the data on the aggregate level, the achievement gap has not closed at all in the last 20 years. But I'm so optimistic," Kopp says. "We have the chance to do something completely unprecedented in this country's history and really the whole world's history, which is to provide kids with an education that is transformational. We really haven't done that, not on average."
In her book, Kopp emphasizes the extraordinary amount of energy it takes from teachers to get low-income kids — who are often mired in dysfunctional schools and facing difficult family situations — up to grade level in reading and math. Kopp offers story after story of young TFA teachers who work themselves to the bone, rising at the crack of dawn to deliver personal wakeup calls to students; attending kids' birthday parties and sports games; offering free afterschool piano lessons to students four days a week; organizing fundraising drives for art programs; skipping lunch every day in order to give children extra tutoring; and holding test-prep classes on Saturdays.
A reader might wonder: Do these people date? Or even sleep and eat?
That's why TFA lingo — the language that suffuses Kopp's book and is introduced to new recruits at the five-week summer training institute — is full of words like "relentless" and "transformative." TFA's missionary zeal is even reflected in the organization's office, where twenty- and thirtysomething employees in jeans snack in a break room called The Mission Café. And in a direct challenge to the orthodoxies of veteran educators and their unions, Kopp says it's fair to ask whether teaching low-income kids, given how difficult and exhausting it can be, should be a lifelong profession for most of its practitioners.
"I've heard a number of our alumni — people who are running schools and school systems — think a lot about different models for the teaching profession," Kopp says. "Models sort of like in the law profession, where people come in and have to meet a very rigorous bar to make partner, maybe in year seven. You could consider a structure like that, where you try to recruit folks to spend five or seven years in teaching, and then retain a very, very few of them."
Such a proposition is controversial. While research shows the average TFA teacher is slightly better than the average veteran educator at improving children's test-score results in math, results in language arts are mixed. And there is significant evidence that two years is not long enough for an educator to hit their stride; a teacher's performance continues to improve until about year five according to some studies — or up until years eight and nine, according to others.
TFA says 85 percent of its recruits complete their two-year commitment, 60 percent of its alumni remain in the field of education two years after their commitment ends, and 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. In October, the group announced a partnership with Goldman Sachs, in which TFA recruits are guaranteed jobs at the investment bank directly following their two years in the classroom.
The program feeds straight into criticisms of TFA as more of a résumé-builder than a serious commitment to improving public education, but Kopp defends the idea of providing a pathway directly out of the classroom.
"I think it's hard to predict where the catalytic leadership will come from that ultimately solves the problem" of educational inequality, she says. "I think some of that will happen at the school level and the school system level, but enlightened business leaders can make an enormous difference in all sorts of things."
"We spend some time around here asking ourselves if enough of our people are leaving," Kopp admits. "Are enough of them going into policy… are enough of them going into business?"