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Wendy Kopp Responds to Teach for America Critics at Ed School

By JOE B. LERER, Contributing Writer

High-performing teachers can change the trajectory of students born into low-income families, said Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America, at a panel discussion Thursday evening at the Graduate School of Education.

Kopp argued that TFA and other programs have changed the conventional wisdom that claimed a generation ago that socioeconomic background almost inevitably determined educational success.

Kopp was joined on the panel by three former participants in TFA, a program that employs recent graduates of top universities as teachers in needy classrooms.

“I was changed profoundly by the faces and stories and hearts of the little people I met in my classroom,” said Aaliyah S. El-Amin, a former TFA corps member who is now a teaching fellow in African and African American Studies at Harvard.

El-Amin, an alumna of TFA’s Atlanta corps, said that her teaching experience in a classroom which lacked even windows gave her a newfound sense of responsibility for helping underprivileged children.

Kopp addressed critics of TFA’s two-year program who argue that a revolving corps of teachers cannot bring about long-term changes to public education.

“I know we are not going to change the education system with people teaching for two years. That’s not what we are trying to do,” Kopp said.

Instead, Kopp said that TFA’s mission is to recruit enterprising college graduates who will contribute to the field of education even if they do not continue in the classroom.

“Twenty years ago, zillions of dollars were spent recruiting the next leaders to spend two years working in corporate America,” she said. “We started thinking, ‘Let’s spend zillions of dollars aggressively recruiting those people who will one day be running our country to channel their energy into something other than Wall Street.’”

Erasmo A. Montalván, another former TFA corps member, stressed the intensity of the organization’s corporate recruitment strategy.

“Recruiting is hard-core,” said Montalván, who is now a student at the Graduate School of Education. “There were more layers in between me applying and getting accepted to Teach For America than me applying and getting accepted to Harvard.”

After his time as a TFA corps member, Montalván said he has come to believe that the American education system places an unfair burden on teachers by failing to provide the training and resources that they need to succeed.

“[Many] teachers start every morning in every classroom already losing. They don’t have the support,” he said.

TFA helps address that problem, Kopp said, by providing schools with teachers who have the leadership and collaboration skills needed to successfully change the lives of underprivileged students.

“Our most successful teachers are spending an extraordinary amount of their energy on the kids and parents to get the parents invested in what they are trying to accomplish,” Kopp said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the most transformational teachers do this. That piece plays large in our initiative.”

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