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The challenges facing education

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Kai Ryssdal: If past State of the Union speeches are any guide, at some point tonight President Obama will say America needs to invest more in education.

That’s a message Wendy Kopp has been trying to get across for 20 years. Kopp’s the founder of Teach for America, a program that sends young and passionate college graduates out into some of the poorest performing classrooms in the country. In her new book called “A Chance to Make History,” she reflects on the progress that’s been made and some of the challenges yet to be met. Problems that can’t be solved just with better teachers, or more computers, or more money.

Wendy Kopp: I mean I think all of us feel such urgency to stop this problem, and it is a true crisis, that we kind of lurch from one big idea to another. And the reality is that, you know, when we look at what is happening in the schools that are putting whole buildings full of kids on a path to graduate from college at the same levels as kids in much more privileged communities, when we really understand what’s happening there, what we realize is, this is about a group of people — teachers, school leaders — who have embraced the different mandate, and who are then pouring themselves into this work with the same level of energy, the same level of discipline that we would find in any high-performing organization where we’re trying to reach ambitious outcomes. And I think we tend to kind of try to oversimplify the problem. I mean if only it was as easy as pouring more funding into this.

Ryssdal: You have actually a great example in the book. It’s in the chapter incidentally called “Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats.” You have this example, it’s this school of the future in Philadelphia. $62 million facility, technology provided by Microsoft, everything that the kids can want. And yet, on the Pennsylvania assessments, the school fails miserably.

Kopp: Yeah. This is just the classic example of very well-intended effort, but without an understanding of the true drivers of truly transformational, successful education, which requires a lot more than anyone thinks — it’s going to require extraordinary leadership at the school-level, it’s going to take obsessing over who every one of those teachers are, developing them over time, and it’s going to take a lot of extra supports for the kids who do bring extra challenges and face just all the burdens of poverty.

Ryssdal: There are schools in this country that are doing it right. Some of them use this concept called, the whole school. It starts early, it ends late. They’re there for the kids 24/7, they give them food and homework help and all that. Is that what it’s going to take?

Kopp: It’s going to take an all-out effort. You know, I think about your Philadelphia example, because there are extraordinary schools today in Philadelphia working in the same neighborhood as the “School of the Future” that are literally accomplishing just unprecedented results. And the way they’ve done that is to be very clear about, Here is the mission of this school. They work very closely with parents and with the kids, and they invest them in a vision of academic success. And then they go about doing the hard work.

Ryssdal: But along those lines, you know, you have been steadfast in your career and your leadership in education in this country that quality teaching makes a difference, that the person who stands at the front of that classroom has a disproportionate impact. Yet you say in this book there are limits to what you call “heroic teaching.” Given what we pay these people, given what’s expected, they can’t just keep going like this for 25 years.

Kopp: See, what I’ve been steadfast in over the last 20 years is the idea that we need to channel the energy of our country’s future leaders against the problem of educational inequity. You know, to the discussion we were having earlier about, it’s easy to oversimplify the problem, I actually think that anyone who believes that the answer is just to change the teachers, everything I’ve learned over the last 20 years would tell me that that’s not the way to go. We need everyone in the picture to change. But the easiest way to improve the quality of teaching is to take on the whole school like this is an organization issue. And we need to focus on ensuring that our school leaders have the foundational experiences that they need and that they are driven to build high-performing teams and to develop them over time.

Ryssdal: Wendy Kopp is the founder and CEO of Teach for America. Her new book about the future of education in this country is called, “A Chance to Make History.” Wendy, thanks a lot.

Kopp: Thank you.

Ryssdal: There’s more in that book, obviously, than what we just talked about. You can read about it and find an excerpt on our new book blog.

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