Wendy Kopp at the Commonwealth Club

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (TFA), lectured 21 April 2011. The video is here, while we got the audio via iTunes subscription. (see also our recent post on Wendy’s lecture at Stanford). If you need some cheering-up regarding education, this is a good place to start. Teach for America is not another “magic bullet” but is a data-driven search for approaches that work.

Near the end of her talk Wendy described the post-Katrina transformation of the New Orleans schools. You probably remember the disaster of the pre-Katrina bankrupt NO public schools. I also recall that New Orleans became a battleground between the education establishment and the charter schools initiative – but I did not know how it worked out. Very briefly, the city decided to close the schools for a year. In reaction the LA state government took over the school district. After drafting rigorous charter criteria, the state opened the district to the formation of charter schools. The non-charter schools have upped their game due to competition from the charters.  [Some 60% of NO students are now in charter schools, Ed]

So overnight NO “moved from the traditional compliance culture to an accountability culture. Second, they put an enormous amount of energy into their human capital.” Roughly, they replicated the TFA model inside the district – e.g., development programs for school principals.

Because TFA teachers have been working in NO for twenty years Wendy knew the dysfunctional system well: “you can’t imagine putting one of your own kids in one of those schools as of five years ago”. Last spring “it was still shocking — spending two days going school to school, realizing you could put your kid into any one of them. The reason is that the district was now populated with entrepreneurial leaders who are on a mission to serve their kids.”

For sure NO is a work in progress – but the transformation is underway. Enjoy Wendy’s talk – there’s much to be learned from the TFA experience. Already the global expansion of TFA-model organizations is feeding new learning back into the parent and through the network of Teach for All (we already have a very small effort here in Australia).