Ten Questions for Education Reformer Wendy Kopp

(And how Princeton played a role in Teach for America and Teach for All)

Photos Courtesy of Teach For All

Wendy Kopp, founder of the successful education access nonprofit organizations Teach For America, and more recently, Teach For All, was inspired by her time at Princeton University — as a 1989 graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She realized she had access to a good public and college education, but not everyone did. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to make a quality education accessible to all.

Her newest organization, Teach For All, is a global organization with the goal of eliminating educational inequity, tackling the complex challenges facing children in disadvantaged communities, and developing leaders to address the educational access problems. She has spent her adult life trying to ensure that all children are able to fulfill their potential. Kopp has written and published two books: One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way, released in 2001; and A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All, published in 2011.

Princeton Magazine writer Wendy Greenberg asked Kopp about how Princeton University set her on her path in education, and about her life and work today.

As a child in Texas, what was your own education like? Was there anything in your K-12 experience that ignited a passion for providing a quality education for all children? Or, in the culture at Princeton, which does not have an education major?

My parents ran a small business and were determined to buy a house in a community in Dallas that was known for its public schools. And so I was lucky to attend a high school that was always ranked as one of the best public schools in the country. Because of my secondary education as much as my Princeton education, I graduated from college feeling that the whole world was open to me. I was very conscious that I felt this freedom only because of the education I had access to.

Meanwhile, while it would be impossible to see the depths of educational inequity at Princeton, I saw there that where kids are born does determine educational opportunity. My freshman year roommate was a brilliant first-generation college student from the South Bronx, and initially she struggled to meet the academic demands of our classes. We lived next door to a roomful of women who had gone to prep schools on the East Coast and referred to Princeton as a “cakewalk.”

These experiences all came together to lead me to conclude that the most important thing I could do would be to devote myself to ensuring that all young people have access to an excellent education. 

“Today l got the opportunity to visit the Krisan Refugee Camp in the Western Region of Ghana and was literally blown away by the power of community and diversity. These kids are brilliant and they’ve learned to live with each other though they come from more than 10 different countries on the continent,” said Daniel Dotse of Teach For Ghana, on Instagram.

You had said in a Daily Princetonian interview that a conference you organized alerted you to the many young people who wanted to teach in urban and rural areas (which was contrary to the prevailing attitude that young people were more selfish). Can you tell us a little about how that became your senior thesis and how you came to work with the late Marvin Bressler, chair of the Sociology Department?

I organized a conference on education during my junior year, as part of the Foundation for Student Communication which published magazines and organized conferences to foster communication between today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. At that conference, student leaders from all over the country were saying they would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural public schools if called upon to do so.

This was the late 1980s, and our generation at the time was known as the Me Generation — supposedly we all just wanted to go work on Wall Street and make a lot of money. But I realized this would be different if we were recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools as we were being recruited to commit two years to work on Wall Street.

I became obsessed with the difference this would make. In the short run, it would expand opportunity for kids growing up in urban and rural communities. In the long run, it would change the consciousness of our nation by changing the priorities, beliefs, and career trajectories of a generation. 

By the time I decided to propose this idea in my undergraduate thesis, all the advisers in the Woodrow Wilson School were committed to other students. Finally, someone sent me over to talk with Marvin Bressler, who was the chairman of the Sociology Department and a larger-than-life figure. When I shared my proposed topic with him, he said, “You can’t propose an advertising campaign for teachers as your senior thesis.” But he said that if I proposed mandatory national service, he’d be my adviser, because that was his lifelong passion. Having no real option, I said okay. He signed on as my adviser, and four weeks later I turned in “A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps.” I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go over too well, but in fact he loved it!  He thought the thesis was great, but he also thought there was no way I was actually going to be able to start it. He told me I was absolutely delusional.

Following your thesis, how did Teach For America actually get off the ground? What were the funding challenges? And what would you tell others about how to make an idea a reality?

The day after I turned in my thesis, I boiled it down into a 30-page prospectus and sent it to 30 business executives – people quoted in articles on the topic of education, and others who led big companies I’d heard of.  A few of those executives actually agreed to meet with me. One incredible executive at Mobil agreed to make a seed grant of $26,000, and the chair of the Business Roundtable, which had made a commitment to strengthening public education, gave me free office space in Manhattan.

Still, it was slow going. I would send out 100 letters and just two people would agree to meet with me. But one thing led to another and by the end of the summer after my senior year I had met a lot of people – educators and potential donors.  Virtually everyone I met told me this was a great idea but that it wouldn’t work. They didn’t believe the college students would do it. This was the one thing I had reason to have confidence about, having just been a college student.

So my plan became to show people that college students would do this. A few other recent grads had joined me, and we set out to find students at a diverse set of 100 campuses to spread the word through a grassroots campaign (flyers under doors, since there was no email back then!). About 2,500 people applied within four months. 

Fred Hechinger at The New York Times wrote a column about this, remarking at this incredible outpouring of idealism from the Me Generation. Supporters came out of the woodwork, inspired to help enable our generation to channel our energy in this direction. Donors committed the necessary funds, veteran urban and rural teachers clamored for the opportunity to train them, school districts agreed to hire them. So, one year after I graduated from college, I was looking out on an auditorium full of Teach For America’s first 500 corps members.

What is Teach For America’s most important contribution to society at this point?

Leadership is the core of all solutions.  Our biggest contribution has been channeling a diverse group of not just a few, but many of our nation’s most educated and capable young people into the arena of expanding opportunity for children in urban and rural communities, and developing their leadership. 

More than 50,000 young people have joined Teach For America over these last 30 years, and they haven’t left the work – 85 percent of 50,000 Teach For America alumni are still working full time to address these challenges, whether in education (two-thirds of them) or to take on some of the surrounding issues from sectors like policy and public health. And they’ve assumed real leadership roles in the fight for change — as veteran teachers, school principals, school district leaders and superintendents, social innovators, elected officials, and more. 

In part because of the energy, leadership, and entrepreneurship they’re contributing, we’re seeing student outcomes change across whole communities. Take Camden, for example. When Teach For America alumnus Paymon Rouhanifard assumed the superintendency there, as a recent New York Times article noted, “23 of the city’s 26 public schools were on the list of New Jersey’s worst performing, [and] eight are now.” Beyond Paymon’s extraordinary leadership, Teach For America alumni played significant roles in contributing to this progress.  Five of the eight leadership team members in the district were Teach For America alumni, as were the leaders of functions including high school academics, human resources, restorative justice, and trauma-informed care. More than a quarter of all public-school principals in Camden — 10 of 38 — are Teach For America alumni. Paymon and his team embraced a collaborative approach: they engaged students, parents, and community stakeholders and developed partnerships with the mayor’s office and the local police department as well as a host of community organizations and companies. Together, they increased the district graduation rate from 49 percent to 70 percent while cutting the dropout rate from 21 percent to 12 percent and halving the suspension rate. Camden is one of so many examples of meaningful progress we’ve contributed to all across the country.    

What makes a good teacher?

I’ve seen that truly transformative teachers operate like the most extraordinary leaders I know. They build relationships with students and families, work with them to set ambitious visions for the future, and go to all ends to overcome any obstacles in the way to achieving goals that will put them on a path to these visions. 

Teach For All is a global network of partner organizations committed to the principles of recruiting, training and developing, and placing participants, and accelerating the leadership of alumni. What was the seed of Teach For All, and where do you see it 10 years from now?

About 12 years ago, I began meeting people all over the world who were interested in developing something like Teach For America in their countries. Ultimately, this led to the launch of Teach For All as a network of independent organizations all committed to galvanizing the rising generation of leaders in their countries to channel their energy towards ensuring all children fulfill their potential. I couldn’t have imagined then that a decade later there would be 48 network partners from Teach For India to Teach For Nigeria to Teach For Lebanon and Ensina Brasil.

Two years ago we stepped back in a network-wide, inclusive process to consider our 25-year vision. We came together around an ambitious vision of whole communities in every part of the world that are enabling all their children to have the education, support, and opportunity to shape a better future for themselves and all of us.  To get on a path to this, we’re focused on producing more extraordinary leaders, by growing our network particularly in low-income countries and supporting network partners to scale with quality. We’re also focused on supporting network partners to orient towards a broader set of outcomes for children, so that the educators we’re developing are growing students as leaders with the competencies, awareness, agency, and dispositions to navigate a turbulent economy and solve increasingly complex problems with empathy and compassion. Finally, we’re focused on enabling these locally-rooted leaders to learn from each other across borders, in order to accelerate progress.

From a programming language group, to a robotics laboratory, to plans for a regional ArtsakhTechExpo, Teach For Armenia fellow Ara Harutyunyan is working hard to bring technology into his classroom.

You recently visited Armenia, which is just one of the 48 countries in the Teach For All network. What hope did the trip give you for the future of education reform?

Teach For Armenia has been attracting some of Armenia’s most promising recent graduates, half of whom themselves grew up in the rural communities where they work. These fellows are so inspiring — they’re throwing themselves into extremely under-resourced, economically depressed, remote contexts and working to put their students on a path to developing their economies and becoming the teachers and educators who will shape a better future! Their deep immersion in their communities and commitment to fostering students’ leadership were so inspiring to see.

Describe a typical work day for Wendy Kopp.

I’m not sure there’s a typical day, but wherever in the world I happen to be I’m typically up early to respond to emails and go for a run. Much of my day is spent in meetings, whether in-person or by video, which are either about getting on a path to realizing our vision or securing the resources we need to keep going! My favorite working days are the ones I get to spend out in the field — visiting the network partners and their teachers, alumni, and community partners and learning from their innovations. 

As the spouse of another successful education reformer, raising four children in New York City, what do you make sure is happening in your own children’s education?

One thing we keep realizing — in our work and at home — is that society often underestimates kids.  They’re capable of so much more than we realize. I’m not sure we always succeed, of course, but we try to meet our own kids with high expectations and give them the space and autonomy to explore their interests and find their way.  I also feel so fortunate to be able to expose my kids to my own work. I just returned from visits to Teach For Ghana and Teach For Nigeria and took my 14-year-old son along. He was simply amazed by the extent of the needs these organizations are addressing, by the brilliance and commitment of their fellows. He told me he’ll never see the world the same way. What a gift to be able to have this exposure at this age!    

What do you want readers to know about Teach For All, education reform, and access? How can they help? How can the average person get involved?

A quarter of Princeton residents were born outside the United States, so odds are that many of your readers have a personal connection with one of our network organizations. Check out our network partners (https://teachforall.org/network-partners) and learn about the locally-led, globally-informed movements they’re working to build to ensure that young people are equipped to shape a better future for all of us! Social entrepreneurs don’t receive nearly the support that for-profit entrepreneurs do, so I always encourage people interested in our work to consider supporting them, especially those in low-income countries. Readers can also follow us on social media (Teach For All is @TeachForAll, and I’m at @WendyKopp) to stay up-to-date on our efforts and find out more about how to get involved.

Wendy Kopp speaking with a new cohort of Teach For Ghana Fellows in Ghana in July.