Has anyone done more to help Americaâ€™s school children in recent years than Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America? Iâ€™m not an education expert, so I canâ€™t say, but I can tell you that sheâ€”with the thousands of young college graduates that TFA sends into the nationâ€™s toughest schools every yearâ€”has changed a lot of lives. Partly thatâ€™s a result of what she calls â€œthe power of inexperience.â€
Kopp started TFA as a senior at Princeton in 1989 because she didnâ€™t know any better. She didnâ€™t know how hard it would be to raise money. She didnâ€™t know how hard it would be to get young college students accepted into schools, without the traditional credentials. She didnâ€™t know how to build and manage a big NGO.
But sheâ€™s learned. Next fall, TFA will place about 5,000 college grads into schools as teachers. It has a staff of about 600 people. Its annual budget is about $70 million. And Kopp, who turns 40 this year, wants to keep it growing, to double the budget and get about 8,000 new teachers into the schools by 2010. â€œWeâ€™d be the second largest employer of recent grads, next to Enterprise Rent A Car,â€ she says.
I interviewed Wendy Kopp the other day, in the latest of a series of teleconferences that I am hosting on leadership and corporate responsibility for Net Impact. Thatâ€™s a group of MBA students and recent grads dedicated to using business to make the world a better place. (Net Impact members should soon be able to download an audio file of our conversation.) Iâ€™d met Wendy once before at a FORTUNE Brainstorm conference and she is truly a force for change. Her mission is nothing less than to eliminate educational inequality–the terrible unfairness that lies in the fact that schools in poor neighborhoods so often fail their students.
At the simplest, most immediate level, the TFA teachers change the lives of the children they touch. Thatâ€™s not to be underestimated. They reach about 375,000 kids a year. They have a positive impact on student achievement (the organization does lots of evaluating) and principals in the schools where they work welcome them back, year after year.
Over time, TFA aims to change American schools, in part by creating a powerful alumni network of people committed to public education. I was surprised to learn that about 60% of TFA alumni work in education in some capacityâ€”as teachers, adminstrators, school board members, city officials. My misimpression had been that, for many graduates of American’s most elite colleges, TFA was a credential to put on a resume on the way to law school or a business career.
Whatâ€™s more, some TFA alum have become influential educational reformers. Two of them, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, who met in 1992 when they were enrolled in TFA, went on to start an influential network of charter schools called KIPP academies. (KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program.) If you want to know more, you can read an excellent article by Paul Tough about the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students, and the contributions of KIPP, that ran last fall in The New York Times Magazine.
Polls show that most people in America believe that the problem of educating the nation’s poorest students can’t be solved. Kopp says they’re wrong. What’s needed is a long-term commitment to getting better people into the schools. “There’s nothing magic about it,” she says. “It’s about people and leadership and the culture they build and the systems they build. Talent, strong cultures, accountability and continuous improvement.” Spoken like any CEO.
TFA has three national corporate sponsors: Amgen, Lehman Brothers and Wachovia. Lots of business people talk about fixing education, but those companies are stepping up. TFA has an excellent website that’s worth a look, and you can watch a video of Kopp here.