TFA's Wendy Kopp: Is This Our "Chance to Make History" in Education Reform?


Teach For America Corps Members, alumni, staff, and community members at-large squeezed into the sold out Woodruff Arts Center Auditorium in Atlanta on Monday evening to hear Teach For America Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, President of Spelman College Dr. Beverly Tatum, and Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed discuss solutions to educational inequity. What solutions did this illustrious group of education reformers come up with?

Mayor Kasim Reed followed preliminary introductions by Kwame Griffith, Metro Atlanta Teach For America Corps Executive Director, with a speech that exhorted those present to commit to an open and honest dialogue on solving a very real problem. After a few brief questions which were centered around Kopp’s newest book, “A Chance to Make History,” the community was invited to ask questions about solutions to the challenge of educational inequity.

According to Kopp, the major difference between where we see educational inequity today and where we saw it 20 years ago, when she founded Teach For America, is that, “Today, we know it’s possible to change students’ educational outcomes.” The dialogue throughout the night hinged on the idea of transformational change, a change that can transform underprivilged students’ trajectory. Kopp constantly referred to the New Orleans Public School District and the District of Columbia Public School District as examples of how transformational change in a few classrooms can be scaled up for larger systems.

With those models in mind, I asked Kopp whether other large public school districts, like Atlanta, could also create transformational change for their students under different circumstances (i.e. without the mayor’s gaining direct control over the school system and hiring a Michelle Rhee-esque persona in Washington, D.C., or a national catastrophe literally wiping out the school system in New Orleans). Mrs. Kopp responded with a question to the audience, but also speaking to the community at large, “Do you think you’re in a crisis?” She then expounded that the changes in D.C. and New Orleans happened because people in those communities perceived a real educational crisis at hand.

On a national level, the reality is that the the movement to close the achievement gap has not gained the necessary amount of intensity due to public ignorance. If what we need, as Kopp suggested, is a crisis-like frenzy to create real change on this issue, then I’m not sure where it will come from, as the average American is either oblivious, unconcerned, or disinterested in what our current educational system does to the kids in many urban centers (Full disclosure: I am Teach For America Corps Member teaching in Atlanta Public Schools).

As Kopp’s best-selling book suggests, we have a chance to make history, but this chance may very well be missed if a broader cross-section of Americans do not become engaged on the issue (beyond the small minority of people who have been activists for decades). So, what do you think has to happen for enough interest to be generated in education reform for us to take advantage of this "chance to make history?" Share your ideas.

Photo Credit: EnergeticNYC