Wendy Kopp ’89 is the founder of the nonprofit organizations Teach for America and Teach for All. In anticipation of her May 4 lecture, “Wendy Kopp: From Senior Thesis to Global Social Impact,” the Daily Princetonian spoke to Kopp over the phone about her time at the University, the founding of TFA and educational reform in today’s political climate.
The Daily Princetonian: While at Princeton, how did you get the idea to write your thesis?
Wendy Kopp: I think a number of things led me to this idea. One was that I'd become really focused on the fact that where kids are born in this country of ours — that aspires to be a place of equal opportunity — really determines their educational outcomes and, in turn, their life outcomes. As a public policy major, as a Woody Woo undergrad, I had the chance to really engage in that topic and question in the classes I was taking. I actually organized a conference on this issue of educational inequality as part of the Foundation for Student Communication. At that conference, this idea just struck me because it occurred to me that all these students, from all over the country, were all saying that they would love to teach in urban and rural public schools. I think 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, and I was just convinced that actually that wasn't right. All of this came together to lead me to say, why aren't we being recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teach in urban and rural schools as were being recruited to work two years on Wall Street? I became very obsessed with the idea that that would make a real difference in the lives of kids growing up today, and at the same time I thought there would be a kind of larger power if we took all of these “future leaders” and had their first two years out of college be teaching in low-income communities instead of working on Wall Street. I thought that that would reset their priorities, their career trajectories, and overall the consciousness of the country. I became completely obsessed with this idea and realized that this was the answer to my search for a senior thesis.
As I was looking for an adviser, all the advisers in the Woodrow Wilson School were already committed. Finally, someone sent me over to the sociology department and said I should talk to Marvin Bressler, who was the chairman of the sociology department and an incredibly larger-than-life, revered, kind of icon at Princeton. When I went and talked to 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's his lifelong passion. I said okay, and I got him to sign on as my thesis adviser. Then I went back and didn't do anything about mandatory national service. I just researched this thesis and wrote it and then literally I didn't see him again until I turned it in, thinking I'm sure I'll get a terrible grade, but at least I developed a plan to start this thing. I was fully intent on actually trying to start this. A week later, he called me, and I went in to see him. He thought the thesis was great, but that there was no way I would actually be able to get this thing started. He thought I was absolutely delusional.
DP: After graduation, how did your thesis translate into Teach for America? At the start, what were some of the big challenges you faced and how did you adapt to them?
WK: The thesis included a plan for the first year. I had mapped out this plan of how I was going to get this thing off the ground. I developed a budget saying this was going to cost two and a half million dollars. That was my thesis adviser's main point: he was like how are you going to raise two and a half million dollars? He sent me down to the Head of Development in Princeton to explain to me how hard it was going to be to raise two and a half million dollars. The fact is I had no money to work on. I needed to figure out how to get someone to give me a seed grant in order to spend time working on this. There was a FortuneMagazine article my senior year where the cover story was about “Corporate America Taking on Education Reform,” and I literally wrote to all the executives quoted in the article saying “I have this idea, will you help me with it?” And I got a few meetings off of those letters, and one of these executives agreed to give me $26,000. Another executive offered to let me work out of his offices in Manhattan, and that's really how it started. So I spent the summer meeting everyone who would meet with me, which was very few people — I mean I had no credibility, no connections. I would send a hundred letters and get two meetings, but one thing would lead to another. So by the end of the summer I had met a lot of people in education, people concerned with urban education, some people in the funding community, some of those corporate executives, and everywhere I would go people said this is a great idea, but it will never work. The reason they thought it wouldn't work was that they were so convinced that college students would never want to teach in low-income communities. That was the one thing that I actually had reason to be confident about, having just been a college senior. So my whole plan became to show these people that college students wanted to do it, thinking that the rest of it would all come together. I found other college students, we all found students at each of a hundred campuses to start a grassroots recruitment effort, and within four months 2,500 people replied to this effort and applied for Teach for America. We sent people around the country in donated rental cars to interview them, to put them through a selection process, and ultimately that generated media, which generated some funding, and literally a year after I graduated I was looking out on an auditorium full of 489 Teach for America corps members who were in training and headed out to teach in six urban and rural areas across the country. That's kind of how we progressed the first year.
DP: How did your work with Teach for America inform your decision to create Teach for All?
WK: I think the most important thing is just realizing that we have happened upon an idea and an approach that would be a real source of the leadership we ultimately need in order to effect systemic changes. I think we've seen a lot of that impact that started inspiring people all over the world to say we want to do this in our countries. I wasn't thinking about the rest of the world, I had my head down and was focused on how to make Teach for America better. But about eleven years ago, within one year I had met 13 people from 13 different countries who were just determined to essentially adapt this approach in everywhere from India to Lebanon to Chile to China to the next place, and they were looking for help. That's really what led to Teach for All, which is a network of independently led organizations in all these different countries — so there's Teach for India and Enseña Peru and et cetera, which are each calling upon their most promising future leaders to channel their energy into this arena of working with the most marginalized kids and investing in their leadership, initially in two-year commitments to teach but then ongoing after that as well.
DP: With the changing presidential administration, we’ve been seeing a lot of debate on changing federal policy, especially in regard to school choice and charter schools. Do you anticipate any changes in the future of Teach for America because of this?
WK: There's a lot of uncertainty about what the new administration will actually do. The federal education bill was reauthorized in the Obama administration — the elementary and secondary education act that really governs our federal support of education — so there's not a lot of unfinished business. So the question is, will the new administration initiate changes to that construct, and will Congress decide to prioritize that in the midst of all the other pressing needs? My overall thought is that most of the work to improve outcomes for kids has to take place in local communities. We've learned a great deal over the last 28 years, and ultimately to really change things for kids we need to take the inequities on in their full complexity. That really requires cultivating collective leadership for change, and I think that means we have to work at the community level so that we ultimately have people working together, from every level of the education system and every level of policy, and across sectors. We're already orienting our work that way. We're working in communities all over the country, and that work needs to go on irrespective of what else goes on. We're very much staying the course in our work and in our strategy.
DP: What do you think the biggest challenge in fighting educational inequity today is?
WK: As we contemplate the state of the world and the state of the country, including the inequities and prejudices and racism that have become all the more visible over the last several years in communities, I feel greater urgency than ever [to ensure] that the kids in our classrooms today are growing as leaders who can navigate a turbulent economy and can solve increasingly complex local and global issues with empathy and compassion and critical thinking skills. It's very hard to imagine how we are going to ensure our collective welfare, and how the kids in our classrooms today are going to shape better lives for themselves and all of us, if we don't focus on that. If anything, I think just contemplating the world events and national events of the last couple years have led me to feel still greater urgency [to channel] the rising generation of real leaders and innovators into this arena of working with kids and then supporting them to not only ensure quality education as we know it, but to really reimagine education. When you think of what our school systems are oriented toward — and they're oriented toward a very narrow set of academic outcomes—that won't be sufficient to ensure that the kids in our classrooms today can shape a better future for themselves and all of us. So I think we need a real priority around reimagining education, and particularly for the kids facing the greatest challenges in our country. It's really all of that that makes me feel greater urgency than ever [to ensure] that the real innovators and the real pioneers in this generation of recent graduates are channeling their energy into that direction. If they don’t, I don’t know what our hope is going to be for the future.