Doing the Basics Right: Wendy Kopp on the Road to Education Transformation

Posted on Categories Milwaukee Public Schools, Speakers at Marquette, Uncategorized

I remember watching a television interview in which a famous tennis player described his first appearance in a big-time tournament. He said he always wondered what was said during breaks in such matches when the player and his coach conferred. He figured there must be some kind of sophisticated strategy talk fit for the top of the sport. But when he came to the first pause in the action, what did the coach tell him? Keep your eye on the ball. Swing smoothly. Concentrate. Which, of course, is what you would tell anyone playing tennis.

There are no magic tricks, no silver bullets. Do the basics, and do them well.

That was a central theme of Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach for America, during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” visit to Eckstein Hall this week. Teach for American now has more than 8,00o “corps members” working in high-needs schools across the US, including in Milwaukee.

Kopp, one of the most influential figures on America’s education scene in the last 20 years, gave a decidedly optimistic message about the future – or possible future – for the education of students in schools that have long been associated with poor outcomes. One of her favorite words is “trajectory,” and she is convinced that the trajectory of millions of children can be changed so that they are on a path to academic success.

In the last 20 years, she said, a lot has been learned about what it takes for a school to be successful with high-needs students. There are scores of schools across the country attaining success well above conventional expectations. And there is increasing attention to how to spread that success to more schools and to entire school districts, Kopp said.

But the recipe is to do the basics really well, she said. School leaders need to make it a paramount goal to recruit talented teachers and develop their abilities continuously. They need to make sure teachers work together as a team and that a school has “a powerful culture” aimed at success. And there has to be a strong belief in the ability of students to succeed and a determination to do what is necessary to bring that success.

She talked about specific star teachers who have been part of Teach for America, but said there are not going to be huge numbers of such teachers. Broader success requires creating school cultures that allow a wider group of teachers to lead high-needs students consistently to make more than a year’s progress in a year’s time. A big element of that is developing more “transformational leaders” of schools and school systems, Kopp said.

Kopp met during her visit with Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton, and was clearly impressed. Asked by Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, about Milwaukee, her answer included these remarks:

I’ve fired myself up to believe that the future is bright in Milwaukee. I actually do. I see here the same building blocks that I can say existed in some of the cities that four or five years ago [were doing badly] . . . . The civic leaders in the communities (such as Baltimore and Charlotte) I just mentioned had just given up. They were like, we have had it, we have tried everything, nothing changes. These were hopeless communities and today they are very fast changing communities. . . .

People around the country are desperate for reform minded superintendents, who are — I mean desperate — who actually have visions of serious, not just incremental change.  Incremental changes will get us nowhere right now. We are graduating more kids into prison than into college. Kids moving three percent higher on proficiency levels or whatever is not good enough. We need to change lives, we need serious, radical, transformational change.

You all have a superintendent who is committed to that . . . .  I think there is serious potential when you put all this together.

Kopp said she was impressed with how much progress is being made in New Orleans, where a large number of new schools have been created since Hurricane Katrina five years ago. She said she had toured some recently that she would be willing to send her own children to.

“Do we have a hurricane (in Milwaukee)?,” she asked. “I’m glad we don’t have a natural disaster. But, you know what, we have a crisis that is every bit as appalling. And I think we need to call it as such and create dramatic change. You have all the conditions right now, right here.”

Kopp’s appearance was part of a tour to promote her new book, A Chance to Make History. A video of the conversation with Gousha can be seen here.

One thought on “Doing the Basics Right: Wendy Kopp on the Road to Education Transformation”

  1. I had the opportunity to hear Wendy Kopp speak at a Teach For America luncheon on March 8 and then at the Law School event that same evening. In the latter, Mike Gousha described Wendy’s new book as “unrelentingly optimistic” and in your post above you describe her appearance as “decidedly optimistic.”

    My own take is slightly different on the basis of what I heard at her two appearances. Ms. Kopp talked about possibilities and hopefulness on the basis of the notable, but non-systemic success that has been demonstrated the past two decades in urban schools.

    We now know that schools can be transformed, but we do not know that the movement can be taken to scale. Therein lies the challenge, and it is a formidable one. To date no one has come remotely close to figuring it out. To Wendy’s credit, she was careful to acknowledge this reality, which I took as tempering her reported optimism in a balanced, objective, and appropriate way under the circumstances.

    She rightly noted that although there are hundreds of schools that have made significant progress, the national needle on academic achievement has moved very little or not at all. Surely we can and should take stock that progress is possible, and we must always remain committed to achieving it, but we must also keep perspective on how extraordinary the effort must be to solve this insidious problem. As she points out, incremental change is not going to cut it.

    Fact is, as a city, a state and a nation we have to start thinking with a systems orientation, or we’re going to be having this same conversation decades from now.

    For our school children’s welfare, I pray we get it right.

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