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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wendy Kopp On Fixing Schools seems that Ms. Kopp and Mike Bloomberg have something it common: good (effective) teaching does not require any experience. Cold turkey is best.

Betsy Combier
Wendy Kopp: Teach for America founder on fixing schools

3:48 pm March 11, 2011, by Maureen Downey

Wendy Kopp, who, as a Princeton student founded Teach for America as her senior thesis, agreed to be interviewed by her 8-year-old son for a school project on what led her to invent an elite teaching corps.

Benjamin’s final question to his mother is one that people still ask Kopp: “If this is such a big problem — kids not having a chance to have a good education — why would you ask people with no experience right of out of college to solve it?”

Kopp’s answer today, 21 years after she launched Teach for America, is that the program works, that it benefits both the idealistic college graduates who enter the classroom and the struggling students they serve.

She told Benjamin that while there’s value in experience, there is “a power in inexperience — that it make a huge difference to channel the energy of young people, before they know what’s impossible and when they still have endless energy, against a problem that many have long since given up on.”

Last year, 46,000 college graduates, including 20 percent of the seniors at Atlanta’s Spelman College, sought Teach for America posts. There are more than 20,000 alumni of Teach for America, including the founders of the KIPP charter schools, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin; former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee; Atlanta school board member Courtney English; and new Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

Transferring the Peace Corps model to America’s most challenging classrooms, Kopp dispatches Ivy League whiz kids to communities and cultures as foreign to them as Morocco and Tonga are to Peace Corps volunteers. They have training and ongoing support, but it is a baptism by fire that singes a few and sparks 60 percent to remain in education.

In Atlanta this week to talk about her new book, “A Chance to Make History,” the 44-year-old Kopp, a married mother of three, drew from her Teach for America lessons to discuss what needs to be done in education today.

First, she says, it can no longer be argued that socio-economics determine a child’s education course for life. “We have hundreds of schools that are putting kids whose socio-economic background would predict one end, on a track to literally graduate from college. There is nothing elusive about it. We can replicate it.”

If it can be done, why hasn’t it?

“I do think we need to ask ourselves why we haven’t we moved the needle in an aggregate sense,” she says. “We lurch after one silver bullet idea after another. You realize that it is no one thing. It is not small schools, voucher laws and charter laws. ”

Instead, Kopp says it is teachers like Teach for America member Maurice Thomas, who tells his Atlanta students at the School for Technology, Engineering, Math and Science at Therrell, “All of you are going to go to college,” and then makes it his mission to see it happen. He offers tutoring during lunch hour and after school and runs a Saturday school.

Kopp’s book pays homage to Thomas and other teachers like him, but admits that systematic education reform can’t hinge on heroic teachers willing to work 15-hour days .

“There are only so many Maurices out there,” she says.

Kopp says the solution is creating school-wide cultures where all teachers share Thomas’ mission, if not his relentless schedule. And the keys to such school cultures are principals who, as teacher themselves, succeeded in raising achievement in low-income students.

“We have 3.7 million teachers. The notion that we can do this by just changing teachers is not realistic,” she says. “We have to develop a leadership pipeline of extraordinary leaders…they have to had taught successfully in this context because once you have done that, no one can ever shake your conviction that these kids have potential.”

Traditional public schools can learn from charter school companies, says Kopp. “These charter school organizations view finding extraordinary leaders as their only task. It has to be the core of the work.”

Along with silver bullets, America embraces “silver blame,” says Kopp. In the past, school failures were pinned on unmotivated students and uncaring parents. Now, teachers are the villain du jour.

“We are blaming the group whose engagement we most need,” says Kopp. “If I were a teacher right now, I would be infuriated by the public discussion. Most teachers come into this because they want to do good things for kids. It doesn’t seem to make sense to spend a lot of energy blaming them.”

In her book, Kopp tells of the creed that Thomas adopted when he decided that everyone is his class, even those reading at a sixth-grade level, would go to college.

“This is not kindergarten and we don’t have 12 years to fix this,” Thomas said. “I’ve got 12 months to get this done if they are going to college. Twelve months. We have to get to work.”

They did. And all his students went on to college.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog.