Wendy Kopp proposed the creation of Teach For America in her undergraduate senior thesis in 1989 and has spent the last 19 years working to sustain and grow the organization. In the 2008-2009 school year, more than 6,200 corps members are teaching in our country's neediest communities, reaching approximately 400,000 students. They join more than 14,000 Teach For America alumni who—still in their 20s and 30s—are already assuming significant leadership roles in education and social reform. Under Kopp's leadership, Teach For America is in the midst of an effort to grow to scale while maximizing the impact of corps members and alumni as a force for short- and long-term change. Kopp also serves as the chief executive of Teach For All, which is supporting the development of Teach For America's model in other countries. She is the author of One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way, and holds a bachelor's degree from Princeton University, where she participated in the undergraduate program of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Question: How did you develop the concept for Teach For America?
Kopp: You know, really, the fall of my senior year, I found myself, really, for the first time in a complete funk as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and also as I tried to figure out my thesis topic. But there were a number of things going on in my head. One, I’d been really focused on this issue of educational inequity. Just the fact that where you’re born in our country does so much to determine your educational outcomes, and, of course, in turn, your life prospects, and as a public policy major and really just a concerned college student, I was thinking a lot about that issue, organized a conference about it that brought together college students with kind of leaders from across the country to think about what can we do to improve our education system. And, one day, that concern just came together with my own search for what I really wanted to do after I graduated, and I just thought, you know, why aren’t we being recruited as aggressively to teach in low income communities as we were being recruited at the time to work on Wall Street, and, supposedly, our generation was “the me generation” and all we wanted to do was go work for these two-year corporate training programs, which I thought was great for people who really wanted to do that but, ultimately, I just thought that the label “the me generation” was wrong. It wasn’t that that’s all we wanted to do. It was that those there were the only people recruiting us. So, that was where the idea of “Teach For America” came from and it became the perfect answer to my thesis dilemma.
Question: What advice would you give to a young person looking to start her own organization?
Kopp: You know, I would say that I had a number of things going for me with this particular big idea. One was that, one was the timing. I mean, truly, there really was a mood among college seniors where that was just conducive to this. There was a tremendous need in school districts which were experiencing significant teacher shortages, and, you know, my senior spring, there was a front page article in Fortune Magazine saying that corporate America was going to take on education reform. So, there were so many elements that made the timing for this perfect. The other things is, I say this all the time, my greatest asset was my inexperience, my complete naïveté. I was convinced that this both had to happen and could happen, that it had to start on a significant scale right from the start and really, no one was going to talk me out of this, like people would tell me how crazy this was and I would just not really hear it, and I think that was truly one of my biggest assets. The other thing is that I think this particular idea was one that just very quickly magnetized just thousands of people, really, who really identified with the values on which it was built and just thought it made sense, you know, from college students who did in fact, you know, 2500 recent college graduates, you know, in four months responded to a grassroots recruitment campaign which at the time was flyers under doors, you know? The folks in corporate America who were quoted in that article actually came through with seed grants and ultimately with significant support, so, you know, in the first year alone, corporations and foundations donated $2.5 million to make it possible, and there was tremendous support in the education community as well, in school districts, from central administrators, from school principals, from veteran teachers who were honestly inspired by this outpouring of idealism from this generation and wanted to be a part of it. So I think we had a lot going for us in that initial year.