By Wendy Kopp
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From her dorm room at Princeton University, twenty-one-year-old college senior Wendy Kopp decided to launch a movement to improve public education in America. In One Day, All Children… , she shares the remarkable story of Teach For America, a non-profit organization that sends outstanding college graduates to teach for two years in the most under-resourced urban and rural public schools in America. The astonishing success of the program has proven it possible for children in low-income areas to attain the same level of academic achievement as children in more privileged areas and more privileged schools.
One Day, All Children is not just a personal memoir. It’s a blueprint for the new civil rights movement–a movement that demands educational access and opportunity for all American children.
One Day, All Children is not just a personal memoir. It’s a blueprint for the new civil rights movement–a movement that demands educational access and opportunity for all American children.
One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
As a college senior, I happened upon an idea that would put me in the middle of an incredible movement. The idea was to create a corps of top recent college graduates—people of all academic majors and career interests—who would commit to teach two years in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders dedicated to the goal of educational opportunity for all. Called Teach For America, this corps would mobilize some of the most passionate, dedicated members of my generation to change the fact that where a child is born in the United States does a great deal to determine his or her chances in life.
Schools in America's inner cities and poor rural areas have low academic achievement rates. By the time they are only nine years old, children in low-income areas are already three to four grade levels behind their peers in high-income areas in reading ability. And the gap widens from there, to the point that children born in low-income areas are seven times less likely to graduate from college than their more privileged peers.
As a result, children born in poor communities have fewer life prospects and opportunities than children in the rest of the country. This is not fair. Through Teach For America, my generation is insisting upon educational opportunity for all Americans. To us, this is a civil rights issue.
As the following pages will show, my germ of an idea exploded into a movement. It magnetized thousands of people—including college students, experienced educators, and philanthropists—who shared a commitment to eliminate educational inequality. As a result, Teach For America grew quickly. And it swept me along on a steep learning curve.
I started out as one of the most naive college seniors in the history of Princeton University. That Teach For America came to be in spite of my naïveté is testament to the fact that together idealism and determination can make bold ideas happen.
Of course, it was not easy. Teach For America struggled and nearly died, but thanks to hard work and tough lessons, it has grown into a sustainable, effective organization. The journey has been both illuminating and deeply rewarding.
Along the way, I have met some remarkable teachers and school leaders, people who are fighting with all their might—and succeeding—at putting children in low-income communities on a level playing field with other children. These people have shown me that it is possible to realize our vision. And the fact that it is possible gives us the responsibility—and the opportunity—to make it happen.
I wrote this book about Teach For America's first decade because I wanted to share my journey with others—those committed to eliminating educational inequality, those interested in making their own ideas a reality, and those committed to supporting social entrepreneurs. Please join me in reliving these sometimes difficult, sometimes funny, and certainly instructive ten years.
This book will tell one story of Teach For America. There are thousands of other stories, including those of the individuals who make up our corps, the challenges they've faced, the impact they've had on their students and schools, and the impact their experience has had on them. This is my story—the story of one naive college kid with a big idea.
It was in October of my senior year at Princeton that I realized I needed a plan. What was I going to do after graduation? To this point my life had always been driven toward some academic or extracurricular goal. But now, as I grappled with the biggest decision of my first twenty-one years, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I felt uninspired. I was searching for a place to direct my energy that would give me the kind of significant responsibility that I had enjoyed in various student organizations. I wanted this opportunity right away, not ten or twenty years down the road. More important, I wanted to do something that would make a real difference in the world. I just didn't know what that was.
The issue of my future weighed on me all my waking hours, beginning with my early morning runs. Jogging used to bring me clarity, but now as I ran around the town of Princeton, I felt only more lost. My frustration grew. It became a nagging inner monologue that followed me as I walked across campus between classes or tried to listen to lectures or headed over to Nassau Street, where I would grab lunch and dinner since I'd never found my niche among Princeton's eating clubs. I was in a funk.
This was 1988, and I was a member of the Me Generation. At least that's what the media said. If you believed the pundits, all my generation cared about was making money and leading luxurious lives.
It did seem that just about every Princeton senior was applying to a two-year corporate training program, most with investment banks and management consulting firms. Yet something seemed wrong to me about that "Me Generation" label. Most of the people I knew weren't heading to these two-year programs because they were dead set on making money. Most weren't doing so out of a deep interest in business or high finance either. They just couldn't figure out what else to do. I sensed that I was not alone—that there were thousands of other seniors like me who were searching for jobs that would offer them significance and meaning.
At the same time that I soul-searched about my future, I found myself increasingly engrossed in another issue: the failures of our public education system. This issue had first captured my attention as a college freshman. My roommate, who had attended public school in the South Bronx, was smart and creative. She was a brilliant poet. Still, she struggled under the academic demands of Princeton until she had time to gain the skills necessary to compensate for her weak preparation.
I had attended public schools in an upper-middle-class community in Dallas. My schools had money to spare. A $100,000 scoreboard hung above Highland Park High School's $3 million football stadium with Astroturf that cost $1 million every three years to replace. Our student body was almost completely homogenous, racially as well as socioeconomically. More than 99 percent of the 300 or 400 incoming freshmen would graduate, and about 97 percent would go on to college. Because of the high quality of my schools and the support provided by my family and community, I graduated with an education so solid that I was able to do well at Princeton without locking myself into solitary confinement at the library.
Princeton University was not the most likely place to become concerned about what's wrong in education, but it made me aware of students' unequal access to the kind of educational excellence I had previously taken for granted. I got to know students who had attended public schools in urban areas—thoughtful, smart people—as well as students who had attended the East Coast prep schools. I saw the first group struggle to meet the academic demands of Princeton and the second group refer to it as a "cake walk." Clearly at Princeton I could not glimpse the depths of educational inequity in our country, but the disparities I did see got me thinking. It's really not fair, I thought, that where you're born in our country plays a role in determining your educational prospects.
In an effort to figure out what could be done about this problem, I organized a conference about the issue. At this time I led an organization called the Foundation for Student Communication. Run entirely by Princeton students, it was designed to bring student leaders and business leaders together to discuss pressing social issues. So in November of my senior year, my colleagues and I gathered together fifty students and business leaders from across the country to propose action plans for improving our education system.
There were many interesting discussions and debates, but one in particular stuck out. In a session about teacher quality, nearly all of the student participants—who had been chosen through a rigorous application process and were certainly among the nation's more talented students—said that they would teach in public schools if it were possible for them to do so. And one speaker maintained that people without education degrees were frequently hired by public schools because there weren't enough education majors interested in teaching in low-income communities.
At one point during a discussion group, after hearing yet another student express interest in teaching, I had a sudden idea: Why didn't this country have a national teacher corps of top recent college graduates who would commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools? A teacher corps would provide another option to the two-year corporate training programs and grad schools. It would speak to all of us college seniors who were searching for something meaningful to do with our lives. We would jump at the chance to be part of something that brought thousands of our peers together to address the inequities in our country and to assume immediate and full responsibility for the education of a class of students. I suggested the idea in a discussion group; others responded enthusiastically.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this simple idea was potentially very powerful. If top recent college graduates devoted two years to teaching in public schools, they could have a real impact on the lives of disadvantaged kids. Because of their energy and commitment, they would be relentless in their efforts to ensure their students achieved. They would throw themselves into their jobs, working investment-banking hours in classrooms instead of skyscrapers on Wall Street. They would question the way things are and fight to do what was right for children.
Beyond influencing children's lives directly, a national teacher corps could produce a change in the very consciousness of our country. The corps members' teaching experiences were bound to strengthen their commitment to children in low-income communities and spur their outrage at the circumstances preventing these children from fulfilling their potential. Many corps members would decide to stay in the field of education. And those who would go into other sectors would remain advocates for social change and education reform. They would become business leaders and newspaper editors, U.S. senators and Supreme Court justices, community leaders and school board members. And, because of their experience teaching in public schools, they would make decisions that would change the country for the better.
Now during my morning runs and campus walks, I would roll the idea of the teacher corps over and over in my head. This could be huge, I thought. This could be the Peace Corps of the 1990s: Thousands would join, and, in the long run, we would fundamentally impact our country.
As I became increasingly excited about the idea of a national teacher corps, I was still trying to figure out a practical answer to my own uninspired job search. Teaching just might be it, I thought. I went to the career services office. They referred me to the teacher preparation office, which helped ten to twenty Princeton students attain teacher licensure each year. It was too late for me to enter this program, but the office pointed me to a file cabinet stuffed with job applications and certification requirements from school districts across the country. The files were a mess of mismatched, multicolored, jargon-filled papers.
Overwhelmed by all the information and completely confused about whether I could actually teach without an education degree, I decided to call the New York City public schools directly. I spoke with a former teacher who was working to recruit recent graduates of East Coast colleges to teach in New York. He told me that if I could wait until Labor Day, I would probably get a teaching job. The schools couldn't be sure of their job openings until then. This was a major disappointment. I needed money to live on right away, and I wanted greater certainty—for my sake and my parents—that I would actually have a job after graduation.
This whole experience was discouraging, and it only made me more convinced of the need for a teacher corps that would recruit as aggressively as the investment banks and management consulting firms that were still swarming all over campus. The teacher corps would make teaching in low-income communities an attractive choice for top grads by surrounding it with an aura of status and selectivity, streamlining the process of applying for teaching positions, and assuring recent graduates a job and a steady income despite districts' inability to hire them until Labor Day.
I became so obsessed by the idea that I decided to try to make it happen. I wrote a letter to President George Bush suggesting that he should create this new corps. John Kennedy had set up the Peace Corps, I thought. Who better than the President of the United States to create the teacher corps? With high hopes, I mailed off an impassioned letter. It must have slipped into the wrong stack. In return I received a form letter rejecting my application for a job.
At some point in December, I saw that I simply needed a job—a job that would pay my bills after graduation. So I made a weak attempt, applying for a total of five positions—one at an investment bank, two at consulting firms, one at a food products company, and one at a commercial real estate venture.
And I began musing about another possibility. If the President wasn't going to create a teacher corps, maybe I could start one as a nonprofit organization. My experience at the Foundation for Student Communication, where I managed a staff of sixty and sold hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of magazine advertisements and conference sponsorships, made me think that I just might be able to pull this off. More important, I didn't have the experience to see why it couldn't be done.
Meanwhile, as a senior at Princeton, I was obligated to write a thesis. I had been looking for a topic that would inspire me to spend hours and hours researching and writing. After the education conference, I knew that the teacher corps idea was my answer. Here was something that motivated me personally and that would also satisfy my requirements at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton's public policy program.
And so, during the spring of my senior year, I withdrew from the world—skipping whatever classes I could and talking to just about no one—in order to research the viability of a national teacher corps. I was certain such a corps must already exist somewhere—it was too obvious! —or that there was some reason it wouldn't work.
I couldn't find one. Just as the conference speaker had told us, even in times of general teacher surplus there is always a shortage of qualified teachers in very low-income areas, and it is possible for individuals who haven't majored in education to be hired to meet the need. And although there were a number of initiatives to improve the recruitment of new teachers, there was no national teacher corps. I also researched potential models—the Peace Corps, the teacher corps that had been run by the federal government in the 1960s, and alternative certification programs that existed in certain states to ease people without traditional teacher certification into teaching.
As I wrote my thesis, I became all the more determined to make this idea a reality. I thought it would have such power, in the short run and in the long run. Thankfully, the firms to which I was applying for more conventional jobs made my choice easy. I didn't get a single offer. I remember standing at a pay phone at school, hearing the Morgan Stanley recruiter—my last remaining corporate possibility—tell me that they had decided I wasn't the right fit for the firm. I was upset by this rejection, but I figured it must have happened for a good reason. The moment I hung up, I made my decision. I would start the teacher corps.
In the end, I produced "A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps," which looked at the educational needs in urban and rural areas, the growing idealism and spirit of service among college students, and the interest of the philanthropic sector in improving education. The thesis presented an ambitious plan: In our first year, the corps would inspire thousands of graduating college seniors to apply. We would then select, train, and place five hundred of them as teachers in five or six urban and rural areas across the country. According to the budget calculations I had done, this would cost approximately $2.5 million.
I knew we had to start big. Only a monumental launch would convey the urgency and national importance of our effort. And only that would inspire the nation's most talented graduating seniors—those with the most attractive career options—to forgo other opportunities to be part of this movement. I found support for this plan in my research about the Peace Corps. President Kennedy had appointed Sargent Shriver to develop a proposal for the Peace Corps, and most of Shriver's advisers suggested a cautious beginning. But Shriver knew that a corps that proceeded gradually would never become a symbol of the New Frontier. And so Shriver recommended that Kennedy create the Peace Corps by executive order, that it be launched within weeks, and that several hundred volunteers be placed within the year. Shriver's plan led thousands of idealistic college students to apply, and it ensured the Peace Corps's place as an enduring part of the American landscape. His theory worked for the Peace Corps. I was sure it would work for the teacher corps.
In early April of 1989, a week before my thesis was due, I called Marvin Bressler, then chairman of Princeton's sociology department. Professor Bressler had agreed to be my thesis adviser on the condition that I make an argument for mandatory national service. I accepted the condition because, as the last senior in my department to decide on a thesis topic, I didn't have much choice. I had tried to convince Professor Bressler of what I thought to be the brilliance of my idea, but he said I couldn't write a thesis on something that amounted to little more than an advertising campaign for teachers. I was banking on Professor Bressler's forgetting his stipulation. So instead of telling him what I was really writing about, I steered clear of him until the last minute.
When I finally called Professor Bressler one week before the due date, I wasn't sure if he would even remember agreeing to be my adviser. So I reminded him that I was the student proposing a national teacher corps and then told him that I had completed a draft of the thesis. "I've actually decided to start the corps," I told him. He suggested I drop the draft off. I did. Two days later he called to ask me to stop by his office.
I walked across campus, terrified of what this brilliant, opinionated man would think of my paper and, more than anything, worried that he might insist I revise it. Would he force me to make a pitch for mandatory national service?
Professor Bressler quickly put my fears to rest. What he really wanted to know, he said in his booming voice, was how in the world I planned to raise the $2.5 million. I told him I was positive Ross Perot would help. Having grown up in Dallas when Mr. Perot had led a campaign to improve Texas schools, I was certain he would love my idea. And given his own background, surely he would relate to something so entrepreneurial. "He's from Dallas, and I'm from Dallas, and he's really into education reform," I said.
Professor Bressler leaned back, contemplating my answer. He didn't seem convinced. "Do you know how hard it is to raise twenty-five hundred dollars?" he asked. He arranged for me to meet with Princeton's director of development, who could fill me in on just how difficult it would be.
Suspending the Laws of the Universe
On April 12, 1989, the day after I turned in my thesis, I went back to the computer room to turn it into a thirty-page proposal. I was excited to be moving forward but anxious about what needed to be done in the less than two months before graduation. I needed a seed grant so I could survive after college with no other source of income and so I could spend my summer traveling around the country meeting with education leaders, school districts, and as many potential funders as possible. Without a grant, I would have to get a real job and there would be no teacher corps.
So I went to Princeton's library. This time I wasn't searching for volumes about the state of education or the history of the Peace Corps but for a reference book. I needed the names and addresses of the chief executive officers of major American corporations. I picked companies I recognized and also those that had surfaced in my thesis research as being committed to education reform.
Within a week, I had photocopied my proposal, stapled a red card stock cover on top, and sent it off to Ross Perot and the CEOs of thirty companies such as Mobil Oil, Delta Airlines, and Coca-Cola. In each packet I enclosed a letter requesting a meeting to discuss how the company might be able to help me with my plan. Then I started calling to follow up on the letters.
I didn't get through directly to the CEOs, but my letter did make its way down various corporate ladders, and I got meetings with six or seven executives. It didn't occur to me to be surprised that I was securing any meetings at all. Instead I mostly just wondered why the CEOs themselves didn't think this idea was worthy of their time. But I was happy to have any audience, so while my classmates spent April and May unwinding from our thesis ordeal and celebrating our imminent graduation, I dressed up in suits and took New Jersey Transit into New York for one appointment after another. More than once, as I struggled out of bed to catch the 6:30 A.M. train into the city, I wondered why I hadn't chosen a normal path.
That May I met with executives at Xerox, IBM, AT&T, Metropolitan Life, and New Jersey's Dodge Foundation. I also met with an official in the Department of Education; the dean of Harvard's undergraduate teacher education program; the head of the Education Commission of the States, which advises states in their efforts to improve education; and Stanley Kaplan, the founder of the test preparation company and a man deeply committed to education reform.
Everywhere I went, I described my idea and why it had to happen. I talked about the impact a national teacher corps would have and why it would work—how all around me college students were searching for a way to assume a significant responsibility and make a difference, and how they would jump at the chance to act on their ideals. I described my plan and why there had to be at least five hundred corps members the first year. And then I explained what I was looking for: a seed grant and $2.5 million within the first year. I wasn't feigning confidence; I really was confident. I was sure that the plan would work and that it would work in exactly this way. Looking back, it seems somewhat astounding that anyone would take me seriously. But at the time I didn't see any reason for these funders to doubt me.
One of my letters landed in the hands of several executives at Union Carbide, which had just formed a task force to explore how their company could contribute to education reform. One afternoon I got a call in my dorm room. An executive from Union Carbide told me that he and another task force member would be in New Jersey the next day. Could they take me to lunch? I was excited and nervous with anticipation: Anyone interested enough to take me to lunch was bound to help me. The next afternoon not only did I get a free salad at a fancy restaurant off campus, but I was offered office space in Manhattan and an introduction to Union Carbide's CEO.
This was good, I thought, but not good enough. What I really needed was a seed grant. Although I was doing everything I could think of, I was running out of time. Still, I didn't develop an alternative plan. Something just had to work out. This was an idea that simply had to happen.
Another letter landed on the desk of Rex Adams, Mobil's vice president of administration. Mr. Adams agreed to meet with me. Throughout the meeting, he kept asking, "What are you going to live on?" And I kept responding, "That's exactly why I need a grant." At the end of our meeting, he suggested I send him a budget. I put some ambitious numbers down on a sheet of paper, held my breath, and mailed it to him. Less than a month before I graduated I got word that Mobil would be offering me a seed grant of $26,000.
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2008
- Page Count
- 352 pages