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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.[…]

The founder of Teach For America talks about the importance of local leadership for implementing government directives.

Question: What is your Education Action Plan?

Kopp:    Well, the first thing I would say is that, I guess, we’ve come to think that, you know, the reason we have educational inequity is it’s a function of many things working together, you know?  It’s a function of the fact that the kids in low income communities are facing huge extra challenges that kids in other communities simply aren’t facing, just as a function of growing up in poverty, largely, you know, the kids we’re serving are kids of color who face all sorts of other challenges as a function of societal discrimination, etc.  And then, they’re showing up at schools and school systems that arguably have not historically have the mission and certainly don’t have the resources and the capacity to take kids who face extra challenges and actually put them on a level playing field.  So…  And why do we have all of that?  Because of, you know, our policies and practices, and really the prevailing ideology of our country.  So, as we step back and think about, okay, so how do we solve the problem?  We think, well, you know, on the one hand, we need to do a lot to take some of the pressure off of schools, you know.  If we can improve the quality of, you know, economies in urban and rural areas and the quality of social services and health services and such, you know, we can do a lot to make our work easier.  At the same time, what the teachers have been talking about and the school leaders are showing us is that even as our socio-economic disparities persist, it’s within our power as a society to build the capacity within our schools and school systems to actually take kids who face extra challenges and truly put them on a level playing field, and I guess what we’ve come to see over time is that, you know, as I said before, there’s nothing magical or elusive about it, right?  Like if you go into one of these very high performing schools and ask the person running the school, “What’s going on here?  How are you all…?”  I mean, you know, I think about a guy named Chris Barbick who had started a now collection of schools in Houston, Texas.  You know, 7% of the kids in this low income community in Houston actually graduate from college and the kids who go to Chris’ middle school, which turns into a high school, 90% of them graduate from college, so you just think, okay.  There’s something different going on in this school.  What is it?  And if you ask Chris, he would say, “Nothing magical,” you know?  And you think, “What?”  But, no, it’s true.  There’s the school leader who deeply knows that the kids he’s working with have every bit as much potential as the kids in, you know, River Oaks, which is the kind of wealthier community in Houston, and absolutely could graduate from college and have a world of opportunities open to them.  He has attracted teachers at every level of his school who deeply believe the same thing and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that their kids fulfill their potential.  He’s built an incredibly powerful culture in his school, a culture of achievement, which aligns the kids and their families and the teachers as well around the school that we’re going to do whatever it takes to graduate from college and have real choices in life, and the school itself is just committed to achieving that end and to the continuous improvement it would take to get there.  I mean, it’s like all the basics, you know?  And, I guess, I think that’s an important recognition that the same thing that accounts for success, really, in any sector is what accounts for success in education, and so what we need is, you know, the same kind of investment in talent development at every level of the system, in technology systems, in all the things that our highest performing corporations are investing in.  So, I guess those are the things that would shape my policy recommendations. 

Question: How would you implement these changes?

Kopp:    Yeah.  I mean, I think, I guess I think it’s important that, as a nation, we continue to commit ourselves to attain immeasurable progress in closing achievement gaps.  So, you know, this kind of accountability framework that was initially implemented within No Child Left Behind, this federal law, we would is critical, you know?  We would say, in fact, you know, we need to make greater investments in ensuring that we have very rigorous standards and very helpful, useful, meaningful assessments so that we can put, you know, in the hands of our teachers and our kids, actually as well, and the kids’ parents a real understanding of where they are against the standards that all kids should meet and should have the opportunity to meet.  So, we would say that that, providing that framework is really important.  And then, I think the question is, you know, what can we do at the federal level to inspire the level of local leadership and local initiative and local capacity necessary to really meet rigorous standards.  I personally think there’s only so much we can do from the federal level, but I do think we can, you know, set up a set of sort of policies that lead folks at the local level who are aspiring to this, to have more resources at their disposal.  I don't know if that makes sense, but I think, I think there’s a tendency to think that we can almost micromanage things a bit from the federal level, and as much as we would all like to be able to that, I think, if anything, we’ve seen real evidence in the last eight years since No Child Left Behind was implemented that, you know what?  A federal mandate can only accomplish so much.  Ultimately, this is about local leadership and initiative. 

Question: What do you think about the appointment of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary?

Kopp:    We’re excited to have…  I mean, first of all, I would say, we’d be excited by anyone President-elect Obama, you know, appointed as our Education Secretary.  We’ve worked closely with Arne Duncan in Chicago and have watched him, you know, work to, you know, improve educational opportunity for kids there and really have a wonderful working relationship with him and believe in what he does and are looking forward to working with him as he…  When I think, you know, he comes at this from a perspective that, you know, we know what works now in our urban areas and we need to come together across ideological lines and commit ourselves to scaling what works, and we’re just really excited to work with him in that pursuit. 

Question:  Where do you stand on performance pay for teachers?

Kopp:    All of these proposals around teacher compensation come down to, you know, the details, but what I would say is that we need to have within our education system a talent mindset, meaning we should be obsessed at every level of the system with how do we attract extremely talented and committed people, how do we develop them over time, you know, how do we keep them in the system.  I mean, we should be obsessed around that, and that should drive so much in terms of how we recruit, how we select teachers, you know, what we invest in training and development of teachers and principals and school administrators over time, and it should certainly influence the way we think about teacher compensation and educator compensation in general.