TFA Founder Wendy Kopp Offers Her Vision of Education Reform on 20th Anniversary
Care2 Editor’s Note: This weekend, Teach For America will celebrate its 20th anniversary in Washington D.C., bringing together 10,000 corps members, alumni and supporters for a day of reflection and discussion about what more must be done to achieve educational excellence and equity.
The organization, which recruits top recent college graduates and young professionals to work in high-need classrooms across America and become advocates for education reform, has trained more than 28,000 teachers to date and rigorous research has shown them to be highly effective. Two-thirds of the program’s alumni continue to work full-time in education, half of them as classroom teachers.
The 20th Anniversary Alumni Summit comes on the heels of the release of A Chance to Make History, the new book by Teach For America chief executive officer and founder Wendy Kopp, published by PublicAffairs. A special excerpt for Care2 appears below. For more information, visit http://achancetomakehistory.org/.
A couple of years ago, in a particularly striking example of the impact of transformational teaching, a group of Teach For America corps members and non–Teach For America teachers in the small border town of Roma, Texas, worked together to bring their students to Harvard for a college visit. The teachers and students had spent countless evenings selling nachos at middle school volleyball games, reaching out to local businesses, and hosting various events to raise funds for the trip. The teachers (and a Teach For America alumna who was a principal) raised money by reaching out to friends and relatives as well. Having grown up in one of the poorest counties in the country, many of the students had never been out of Texas except to Mexico, and most of those who had traveled did so as migrant workers picking or canning fruit with their families in other states during the summer. Most had never been on an airplane.
A number of Teach For America alumni at Harvard graduate schools rallied to host the students. Our recruitment director at Harvard at the time, Josh Biber (who himself had been a phenomenal teacher in our corps in Phoenix and is now our executive director in Boston), hosted one event in which he essentially put the Roma high school students in charge. He brought together a group of Harvard undergrads who were considering joining Teach For America and asked the Roma students to tell these college students what qualities they wanted to see in a great teacher. The Harvard students introduced themselves to the Roma students, going around the circle and announcing where they were from and what their majors were. Josh had asked them to tell when they would graduate, and each of them ended with “I will graduate from Harvard in 2009” or “I will graduate from Harvard in 2010.”
When the Harvard students’ self-introductions were finished, a Roma high school student stood up and introduced himself. With great confidence, he announced, “My name is Heberto. I’m a junior at Roma High School, and I will be graduating from Harvard in
2012.” The room exploded with laughter and applause, but Heberto wasn’t finished. He surveyed all the potential future teachers and spoke directly to them: “I want a teacher who will challenge me. I want a teacher who has high expectations for the work I can achieve.
I want teachers, and I want you all to become teachers, who will believe in our potential, no matter what. Even on the days when we act like we don’t want to learn, I want teachers who won’t stop pushing us to be the best we can.” And then he pointed at Zach Blattner, one of the teachers who had put the trip together. “I want teachers like Mr. Blattner. Mr. Blattner has me reading Kafka.” Heberto saw doubt on their faces, so he reached in his backpack and whipped out The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. “I’m on page 98—see?” The Harvard students broke into applause.
Heberto and his classmates’ trip to Harvard was just one vignette in an ongoing story of the transformational power of strong leaders in the Rio Grande Valley—both within and outside of Teach For America—who are investing students, their families, and their community in a vision of transformational change. Just five or six years earlier, when Teach For America was placing few if any teachers in the relatively isolated town of Roma, the area’s top-performing students (in terms of grade point average) were either not going to college or attending a two-year vocation-focused college. A few went to the University of Texas–Pan American down the highway in the Rio Grande Valley. For students in Roma, college was just not an expected step in one’s education, and few imagined attending a selective institution outside of the vicinity.
A steady stream of corps members teaching in Roma have insisted on rigorous college-focused instruction in subjects like AP English. Their work helped lead to the first Roma students passing advanced placement exams in a number of courses, including literature, English, U.S. history, and world history. Some of these teachers ran after-school ACT and SAT preparation courses for Roma students and helped focus students on college-ready writing skills.
Today, high-achieving students in Roma—thanks in part to the support, mentoring, academic instruction, and guidance from Teach For America teachers—have more options and possibilities than they once had. Roma has sent students to top-ranked universities all over the United States and Mexico. In the past few years, its top graduates have headed off to the likes of Harvard, Brown, Duke, Vassar, the University of Houston, the State University of New York, Austin College, and Georgetown.
Take a look at this video narrated by Wendy Kopp about A Chance to Make History and her goal to ensure educational opportunity for all of our nation’s children, regardless of their racial or economic background:
Photo courtesy of Jean-Christian Bourcart
by Wendy Kopp, Founder and CEO, Teach for America