On Wendy Kopp, poverty pimp

Imagine watching a man try unsuccessfully to unlock a door for 20 minutes. He keeps putting the same key into the keyhole and turning, but to no avail. Then imagine standing behind him are a number of people who keep telling him that his key obviously does not work, and that he should try another one instead. The man retorts back “I am happy to admit I am a hopeless optimist” about this key eventually unlocking the door.

This is the story of Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. After 20 years of Teach for America (TFA) failing to achieve anything of note, and after as many years of critics suggesting that TFA’s approach is misguided, Kopp continues to defend her project, saying “I am happy to admit I am a hopeless optimist.” In one sense of the word optimist, the label might be fitting for Kopp. However, I suspect stubborn and stupid are more apt labels for a person like Kopp and the hypothetical man described above.

There is nothing doggedly idealistic about trying to remedy a social problem through a program that clearly does not work. A large number of studies have been conducted on the efficacy of Teach for America, and their findings range from TFA teachers do substantially worse than non-TFA teachers to TFA teachers do very marginally better than non-TFA teachers. The biggest study to-date is a Stanford study involving 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students. It found that students taught by TFA teachers performed significantly worse than students taught by certified teachers on all six administered tests. Although Kopp characterizes these studies differently than I do, even she admits that TFA “teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students.”

That Kopp has failed to achieve anything with TFA is not reason alone to criticize her. She took a shot with a program she thought could help, and that is commendable in many ways. However, her refusal to abandon the program and her clearly unsuccessful approach to educational improvement deserves sharp condemnation. Critics of Kopp’s view have pointed out that the consequences of poverty and economic inequality have more to do with a child’s educational success than anything else. The upshot of this criticism is that Kopp’s approach has it all wrong: if you want to fix educational inequality, you need to fix economic inequality first. Instead of running Teach for America, Kopp should be running Give Poor People Money for America.

Detractors of Kopp — like Diane Ravitch — point out that countries like Finland with low poverty, almost no standardized testing, and significant teacher autonomy do the best in education. In response to this criticism, Kopp said something unbelievable:

However, we must recognize that most of our lessons won’t come from a small, homogenous country that does not have the same pervasive socioeconomic and racial inequalities we do. Four percent of Finland’s 800,000 school-aged children, or 32,000 kids, live in poverty. The U.S. faces massive obstacles to providing 16 million children living below the poverty line with the kind of education that will truly give them access to the same opportunities in life as their wealthier peers.

Kopp recognizes that differential poverty rates make Finland and the US perform differently on education, but does not seem to understand that the takeaway from this is that we should reduce US poverty. Instead, she says we cannot use Finland as a model to fix the US educational system precisely because Finland has lower economic inequality. It is as if Kopp thinks horrific US childhood poverty rates — 1 in 5 American children live in poverty versus 1 in 25 Finnish children — are an unchangeable constant that we can do nothing to fix. If we cannot do what Finland does because Finland has low poverty and the US has high poverty, the correct reaction is to make the US have low poverty, not to continue a failing program that tries to fix educational inequality without ever addressing its underlying cause.

Given the overwhelming evidence that even she admits shows TFA is ineffective and the slightly less overwhelming evidence that suggests economic inequality is the problem, I find myself unable to explain what Wendy Kopp is even doing. How does Kopp get out of bed each day to run an utter failure of a program and to proliferate the false narrative that school-side problems are primarily to blame for educational inequality? I have always found these questions hard to answer.

But then it hit me: Wendy Kopp is a poverty pimp. Like all poverty pimps, she profits off of pretending to be the voice of poor people across the country. Indeed, Kopp recently pulled down a $49 million grant from the Walton Family foundation, a drop in the bucket compared to other grants given to Kopp’s TFA. The Walton Family grant is an especially ironic one because the Walton Family’s Wal-Mart stores pay so many of their workers poverty wages that they cause more educational disparity in a week than TFA has managed to eradicate in 20 years.

When you are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, praise all over the country, and have put your entire life into a project, you are probably not going to abandon it. That is the position Kopp is in. Through money, accolades, and ego-boosting, she profits off pretending to help poor children, making her one of history’s most successful poverty pimps.