Helping college grads give something back to the education system Wendy Kopp turned her idea for an elite teaching corps into a reality


NEW YORK -- When she was 21, it was a very good year for Wendy Kopp: She graduated from Princeton (class of '89), parlayed her senior thesis on the creation of a Peace Corps for teachers into a non-profit corporation, coaxed more than $1 million from sponsors such as the Mobil Corp. and Union Carbide and, a month after graduation, started administering her program, Teach for America, from donated office space in Manhattan.

And to top it all off, she got an A on her thesis.

But, look, that was 1989; this is 1990. So what has Wendy Kopp been doing lately?

Well, when she was 22, it was another very good year. She lined up the heads of major corporations such as American Cyanamid and the Xerox Corp. to serve on Teach for America's board, raised more funds from foundations and corporations, contacted school district officials around the country to verify that they'd be interested in hiring college graduates with teaching certificates, attended numerous education conferences seeking advice on the best training for her recruits and, finally, sent young recruiters out to interview applicants at 100 top universities and colleges. Anyone from any campus may apply, and applications are accepted as well from individuals already out of school.

The student response surprised many: More than 2,600 seniors applied, from such colleges as Harvard, Brown, Williams, Yale, as well as many of the major state universities. From this group, 505 were selected to participate in the first Teach for America corps. Starting this month, the young teachers have been assigned to inner-city classrooms in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and rural districts in North Carolina and Georgia.

But Wendy Kopp, now 23, was not surprised by the response. "knew students would respond to this," she says, sitting in Teach for America's offices on the 33rd floor of the McGraw Hill Building. "It's such a natural. Because it just fits in with the mind-set of what graduating seniors are looking for. They don't have to be sold on the program, because they're looking for ways to take on a lot of responsibility and to give something back to this educational system that has given them so much."

Ms. Kopp, who grew up in Dallas and attended private and public schools there, telegraphs complete confidence when laying out her plans for Teach for America. When she hits a snag -- and there have been some -- she simply attacks the problem. "You can get around anything," says Ms. Kopp. "And I just have this attitude that things will work out."

That's the attitude, say those who know her, which enabled her to conceptualize and create Teach for America in less than a year.

"She came in one day and told me she had this idea for the development of a teacher corps," says Marvin Bressler, chairman of Princeton's sociology department and Ms. Kopp's thesis adviser. "What she proposed to do was have it financed completely by private money, involve the entire education community in it and have it done and ready to go in a year ... I said, 'Kid, this is a demented idea.'"

But Ms. Kopp persisted and finally Professor Bressler reluctantly agreed to the thesis material. "It turned out to be an absolutely brilliant thesis," he says. "She wrote in her preface she was going to start the week after graduation. Well, I'd heard that before. Three weeks later she called me from Union Carbide's offices, already at work. I can't tell you how much I admire her."

What Ms. Kopp did in those three weeks after graduation was this: She turned her thesis into a booklet that outlined her ideas for Teach for America and sent it out to about 30 chief executives of major American corporations. One executive who was impressed with the booklet was Rex Adams, who as vice president of administration at the Mobil Corp. oversees the Mobil Foundation.

"We get flooded with requests like this, but this was very well-written, so I took the trouble to read it," says Mr. Adams. "What struck me most was that it was a very specific, targeted attempt to deal with one aspect of the education problem. Most want to tackle this problem in a very cosmic way. And I thought, 'It's a pity. She's done so much work, and she's going to get chewed alive and maybe she could use a little advice from a more experienced person."

They met, and it was the Professor Bressler syndrome all over again. "She is quite impressive in her determination and preparation," says Mr. Adams. "I asked what the bare minimum was to keep the project going for three months. We gave her $26,000. And she hasn't looked back."

A Princeton professor described Ms. Kopp as someone who is "undeterred by complexity ... and considers everything."

One decision Ms. Kopp did not consider thoroughly while at Princeton occurred in 1987 during her tenure as publisher and editor-in-chief of Business Today, the largest student publication the country (circulation: 200,000). A scandal erupted when reporters from The Daily Princetonian discovered that some of ,, the letters to the editor were bogus -- written by Business Today staffers with the permission, in most cases, to use the names assigned to the letters.

"I don't want to say that what we did wasn't wrong," Ms. Kopp says now of the incident. "It had been going on before I got there. And it just got out of hand basically." As for the ethics of it, she says: "More than anything it taught me to think about everything."

In discussing the concept of Teach for America, however, Ms. Kopp does seem to have thought about everything. Her ability to quickly size up a situation and tease out the strands that will advance her concepts is striking and direct as demonstrated in the way she came up with the idea of a teacher corps.

"Here were all my peers saying they were pretty uninspired with the career options they saw and that they would like to teach but couldn't because they didn't major in education. They didn't know there are all sorts of alternative certification programs that enable people who don't major in education to teach."

Still, Ms. Kopp says, there were some negative perceptions about teaching that had to be addressed in order to attract the highest-quality students. "Even though I think a lot of students see teaching as something that's incredibly important and extremely challenging, I also think that society tells people that teaching in the public school system is downwardly mobile," she says, choosing her words carefully.

To combat that perception, she hit on the idea that by making the corps highly selective -- choosing only the best through extensive interviews and even some demonstration teaching -- its appeal to top students would be greatly enhanced.

She also attracted recruits by offering an alternative to the lack of direction many seniors experience at the end of four years in college. "I'm a perfect example of that," she says, laughing. "I was totally undirected. I had majored in public policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, but that doesn't provide you any direction ... Very few people know enough when they're 22 to commit to a lifetime in anything."

What Teach for America corps members are asked to commit to is a two-year teaching stint in a school district where there is a teacher shortage. In return, they receive a salary commensurate with that paid to a regular first-year teacher -- usually in the $18,000 to $29,000 range -- plus the opportunity to defer payments on their college loans. All staff members at the New York headquarters, including Ms. Kopp, receive an annual salary of $25,000.

For eight weeks during the summer, corps members participated in a training institute set up by Teach for America on the University of Southern California campus. It is the only teacher-training provided, and some members of the education community think it's not enough.

"There is the potential for promise in the Teach for America program," says Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher's union, "but we have our reservations. They are taking the least experienced teachers and putting them in the most difficult-to-teach classes -- those in the inner-city schools. If we would deal with salaries and working conditions in those schools instead, we'd be able to get experienced teachers."

Mr. Geiger also echoes the criticism of many experienced teachers in his skepticism about the value of "two-year teachers who will then go on and take another position. I want to train teachers for life."

But James A. Kelly, president of the National Board for Teaching Standards, supports the idea of Teach for America. "It addresses one of the serious problems facing the teaching profession -- that it doesn't now attract a sufficient number of young people from the top tracks at the top universities and colleges. And Wendy Kopp has succeeded so far in accomplishing that part of the mission. As for the 'only two years' criticism, I take that with a grain of salt. Most young people who enter teaching sign only a one-year contract."

There have been snags in the program, to be sure. The plan to defer payment of student loans to the government ran into trouble, and until resolved, Teach for America will make payment on the loans; the North Carolina regional office was set up late and several corps members have been left temporarily without teaching positions in that district; and not all of the schools have been able to provide the teacher recruits with an experienced mentor as planned.

But Ms. Kopp remains confident that all the knots can be untied and that the Teach for America program, which has attracted national attention, can become a viable, self-perpetuating institution. "What we have to do now is come up with a long-term strategy on fund-raising," she says.

No strategy is needed, however to continue to attract top-notch people to the corps. "I cannot think of another job that will enable you to have more responsibility and make more of an impact straight out of college," she says. "Or to feel you're a part of something bigger."


Born: June 29, 1967; Austin, Texas.

Education: B.A. in public and international affairs from Princeton University, 1989.

Family: Single. Parents live in Dallas and publish guidebooks to Dallas and Houston. One brother, a senior at Harvard.

On the idea behind Teach for America: "We don't think that our 500 people are going to rescue the schools or that there are no great teachers already in the schools. We just think there's this whole pool of people who want to teach and could be extremely effective teachers for two years. Whether or not they continue in education -- and some of them will -- those who go on to business or government or law will have the commitment to be advocates for educational improvement."

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