Empowering Teachers to Find America's New Sputnik Moment

Wendy Kopp discuses A Chance to Make History.

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In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama said America's teachers should be known as "nation builders" and emphasized investment in education as vital to the nation's future. This is something Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, a nonprofit that places teachers in low-income schools, knows well. In her new book, A Chance to Make HistoryChance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All, Kopp argues that American education is at a critical point, particularly for low-income communities. She recently spoke with U.S. News about how the nation's teachers, school leaders, and policymakers can make history. Excerpts:

Do you agree with President Obama's State of the Union comment that we need a "Sputnik moment" in education?

Yes. We have an unprecedented opportunity to do something that has never been done in the history of our country or in the history of the world, which is to provide kids in urban and rural areas with an education that literally changes their academic trajectories and life prospects. We could . . . send the man to the Moon in education.

[See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

What would a "man on the Moon" look like in education?

Today, versus 20 years ago when I first got into this work, we see hundreds of classrooms and whole schools that are literally putting kids who face all the extra challenges of poverty on a trajectory to graduate from college at much the same pace as kids in high-income communities. Putting the man on the Moon would be assuring that that happens, not only in a few hundred schools, but across all of our school systems in economically disadvantaged communities.

What is vital to a good teacher?

I believe it's leadership ability. The most successful teachers do what great leaders do: set an ambitious vision, rally others to work hard to reach it, are very goal-oriented and purposeful, and are absolutely relentless in reaching the end goal.

What about a good school?

In the communities where we're working, the highly successful schools have really adopted a different mandate. They're not working to simply put learning opportunities in front of kids, but rather to literally put their students on a different academic trajectory and life trajectory. And they're approaching that goal with all of the energy and discipline that it takes to reach ambitious outcomes in any endeavor.

You say that Americans have a costly fixation on "silver bullets." What reforms work?

When we really understand what is at work in the truly transformational classrooms or schools, we see that there is transformational leadership. And there's just no way around the need to build more of that. I think we wish that it was easier than that, that maybe we could throw more money at the problem, or more technology at the problem, or effect governance change, and then that would alleviate the problem. We may need all those things. It's just that none of them alleviate the need to engage in the long, sustained effort required to grow the leadership pipeline, the force of people who are committed to truly transformational change, who can work at every level of the education system, at every level of policy, and really across our professional sectors, ultimately to effect the fundamental changes we need to see.

Where does the United States go from here?

I think we need to heed the president's call to our country's future leaders. We need them to dive in and decide to channel their energy in this direction through teaching, and hopefully teaching in the communities of greatest need.

What should government involvement be?

We're going to need to effect policy change to empower our educators to achieve results. And I think that does mean holding our educators accountable for results; it also means giving them a lot more freedom and flexibility than we do today. We should reconsider our state-level and federal-level policies with the recognition that we'll never micromanage a system to transformational change. We may effect incremental change, but given the stakes right now, and given the magnitude of the problem, we need a lot more than incremental change.