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WENDY KOPP, FOUNDER OF TEACH FOR AMERICA
In the late '80s, as an undergraduate at Princeton in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Wendy Kopp wrote an ambitious senior thesis. Kopp envisioned enticing bright American graduates with a two-year service program to work in under-staffed, struggling public schools. This year's members came from a pool of more than 18,000 applicants, including more than 11% of the senior classes at Amherst and Spellman; 10% of those at the University of Chicago and Duke; and more than 8% of the graduating seniors at Notre Dame, Princeton and Wellesley. The year's corps size shows a 19.5% increase over the 2006 class. It's also the highest ever rate of matriculation of accepted applicants, with nearly 80% of those admitted joining the corps. TFA turned down over 80% of its applicants, making it harder to get into than the University of Pennsylvania. This year more than 5,000 teachers will lead classrooms in 26 urban and rural areas across the country.
What she's most proud of about TFA:
"We are out there recruiting our top recent college grads, the folks who are leaders on campuses, as aggressively if not more aggressively than corporations to get them to channel their energy in this direction. Between 5 and 10% of the college seniors at the 90 top colleges compete to teach in low-income communities through TFA every year. It's about the impact those folks have in the lives of kids growing up today in our country's most under-resourced communities. We know that that experience for the corps members is a really transformative one and one that changes their career paths, shapes their convictions and their level of commitment to addressing this problem throughout their careers.
What about the criticism that TFA teachers have a shorter training period than the average teacher and thus aren't sufficiently trained or qualified to teach?
"We probably need to do a better job of communicating the kind of training and professional development our corps members get. They come into an extremely intensive two-year professional development program. I would put it up against any training program in the country for sure. It's based on 17 years of learning around both what differentiates the most successful teachers in low-income communities and how you train and support new teachers. They go through a very intensive summer. They then have two years of support and professional development. We're training people differently, but if you look at our programs and the entire continuum of it, it's at least as extensive as the other programs out there, university based programs or whatever. Mathematica Policy Research did the study that...found that the corps members were moving their kids forward more than would typically be expected in both reading and math and significantly more in math than even the certified teachers and veteran teachers in their schools.
Why is TFA a transformative experience for the members?
"No matter what, this experience is transformative because you learn so much about why we have the problems we have and about, maybe more importantly, how to solve them. We are producing a force of people who deeply believe that we can solve these problems of educational inequity. Most people in America think this is an intractable problem...that we have it because of all the societal issues that stem from poverty. Yet our corps members come out of this believing, no, if we were making different choices as a society, we can solve these problems. The reason they know it is because they saw their kids make serious progress."
What are the challenges a national service program would face?
"It is very hard to do this well. We have gone through immense learning curves. Just to recruit and select people who are ready for this is difficult. Next year we will have 65 two-person recruitment teams. We have learned a lot and continue to learn still more around what are the personal characteristics that differentiate the people who are most successful as teachers. Past demonstrated achievement is still the biggest indicator of future success."
Why make TFA as selective as you do?
"There were many things we didn't know but we did know at the beginning that it would be very challenging to teach successfully and we knew we were looking for our future leaders. Our whole theory of change...is that there has to be an immediate significant impact in the lives of the kids we are reaching. But we are also influencing this generation of future leaders. That is extremely important if we are going to affect the fundamental changes necessary to actually solve this problem at the roots. We should be sending a message to our young people that you can pursue careers that make a social impact and a public impact."