Idealist who pricks the conscience of a nation

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Thinkers who have shaped modern education. Harry Brighouse profiles Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, the inspiration behind Teach First

Every undergraduate worth her salt wants to change the world. Some might even write down their plans. Most will later look back on what they wrote with disappointment and, perhaps, embarrassment.

Not Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America (TfA), the United States model for Teach First. Her senior undergraduate thesis identified the crisis in urban education - and the need for a movement to address it - and served as the founding document for her contribution. A week after submitting it, she graduated, then set up the organisation she still leads 20 years later.

Kopp looked around her at Princeton, one of America's most prestigious and exclusive colleges, and observed that almost all her peers were, like her, products of privileged homes and high quality schools. By contrast, disadvantaged children in the US attend the least well-funded schools, with the least qualified teachers and administrators, and the highest staff turnover.

Her Princeton peers were destined for the highest paying jobs in the economy: investment banking, corporate law, medicine, etc. None of the most privileged and best educated young adults in America were going to be teachers. But she was convinced, somehow, that a strand of idealism in her generation could be tapped by the right cause. Kopp's hunch was that the cause was teaching the most disadvantaged children.

So she founded Teach for America which recruits highly qualified students from top universities who, after brief but intensive training, teach in schools in struggling districts for a two-year stint.

By approaching foundations and corporate bosses, she raised millions of dollars to fund the operation. Despite placing several hundred students a year in classrooms, it was financially iffy for the first decade. It now thrives, recruiting 3000 teachers a year which should rise to 4000 by 2010.

Kopp is not like most of the other thinkers in this series. There's a simple moral idea: that those who are favoured by our society have considerable obligations to those who are not. Then there's a rather simple idea of how to make this happen in the particular reality of American educational institutions. The UK resembles America enough that modelling Teach First on her scheme makes sense.

Not everyone loves TfA, however. It is widely criticised, especially from Schools of Education and by veteran teachers.

One objection is that it is bad for disadvantaged schools to have teachers who won't stay around beyond two years. Its design makes this inevitable, because it has not included a certification process by which members would become qualified teachers (this has changed in some districts in recent years). But this criticism neglects the fact that most new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, that those who leave are the better qualified, and that, in disadvantaged schools the attrition rate is much higher.

Administrators seek out Teach for America because they know that the attrition rate will be no worse and that many people on it will invest in schools the 70 to 80 hour weeks their friends invest climbing the corporate ladder.

A related criticism is that its graduates are not good enough teachers. How likely is it that a group of poor teenagers from socially disrupted neighbourhoods who are already underperforming will respond well to a posh 22-year-old with no background in education?

But studies confound expectations. One in North Carolina recently found that pupils taught by such teachers improve in both reading and mathematics scores more than those of taught by their colleagues. An earlier study, using random assignment methods, found a significantly better gain in mathematics scores.

Both criticisms misunderstand the purpose of the scheme. Kopp insists her aim was never simply to put intellectually capable teachers in disadvantaged classrooms, but to start a movement of people who see tackling educational inequality as the first priority. She did not expect people to forgo multi-million dollar salaries in corporate law for a lifetime in the classroom. But she did hope to divert some of the talent and energy from the corporate world into educational leadership, administration, and innovation.

Her success in this cannot be evaluated with quantitative academic studies (unfortunately). There are two indicators.

One is the extent to which academic high-fliers seek out such programmes. In its first year I was impressed when one of my strongest students was rejected. Over the past 20 years, commitment to traditional left-wing ideas about achieving social justice has declined dramatically, to be replaced by the "we can fix it" volunteering that TfA promotes. Students who might once have become leftist activists find the scheme and similar organisations very appealing. Many on the liberal-left will lament the decline of left-wing activism, but it is better to have talented and privileged kids wanting to do something good than just furthering their own careers.

The other indicator is the extent to which TfA alumni actually make educating the least advantaged part of their lifelong career goals. The scheme now puts considerable resources into maintaining its alumni network. Last year's appointment of alumna Michelle Ree as Chancellor of Washington DC's troubled schools is probably TfA's biggest coup so far, but others include David Levin and Michael Feinberg, who founded the influential KIPP charter schools; two members of Barack Obama's education policy team; several elected officials; and numerous principals and administrators in low-income schools and districts. Almost all are under 40.

The lessons for Teach First are clear. It is unlikely to persuade highly qualified undergraduates to stay in teaching for good. But providing a non-traditional way of siphoning talent away from the private sector into education, and building an appreciation among the elite for how difficult teaching is and the difficult conditions disadvantaged children face, are eminently achievable goals.

The measure of Teach for America's success will be how many of its alumni in 15 years are running schools, producing new educational technologies, and shaping educational policy with the least advantaged as their priority.


One Day, All Children by Wendy Kopp(Public Affairs Books, 2003)

Lessons to Learn: Voices from the Front Lines of Teach for America by Molly Ness(RoutledgeFalmer, 2003)

Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America by Donna Foote (Knopf, 2008)


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