Book Alert: Wendy Kopp’s A Chance to Make History

I can’t begin to tell the world how pleased I am to have the opportunity to review Wendy Kopp’s new book, A Chance to Make History.  After all, I was one of the people Richard Mund, then Executive Director of the Mobil Foundation, turned to to inquire whether he should provide Teach for America with its initial grant some 20 years ago. Needless to say, he followed my advice.

The intervening years have been fruitful for Teach for America. Its influence has been salutary, to say the least, in rebutting the conventional wisdom that low-income students cannot excel academically.  But Wendy Kopp’s new book is more than a rationale for Teach for America.  Rather, it provides compelling evidence that in both urban and rural schools, no matter under whose organizational sponsorship, excellence can take place, given adherence to certain basic principles:

1) Teachers must believe in their students’ ability to measure up, attend college and thereby lead productive lives, no matter how poor they are;

2) Principals must be chosen not only for their managerial skills, but more particularly for their ability and willingness to support their teachers in their primary role as instructional leaders;

3) As the extraordinary success of the K.I.P.P. schools has shown, both the school day and the school year have to be lengthened. No longer can America get by with a schedule designed to accommodate the requirements of an agrarian society;

4) Teachers must be held accountable for the quality of their instruction.  While skeptics will question the practicality of this notion, given the reluctance of teacher unions to surrender their time-honored practice of tenure, Wendy Kopp is convinced that the unions can be brought around, given appropriate incentives.

However, the best thing about Wendy Kopp’s work is her ability to cite chapter and verse.  Where these principles are in place, when individual schools (and even school systems) raise standards of expectation for superior academic achievement, then the so-called “achievement gap” between privileged and low-income students can be completely neutralized, as measured by standardized tests.  Her conviction, enthusiasm and optimism are truly inspiring.  There can be no question that certain “lighthouse” schools and school districts, like post-Katrina New Orleans, have been transformed by this vastly more academic view of the purposes of public education.

The issue that arises, however, as Wendy Kopp readily admits, is that there are far too few people committed to this vision.  “Scaling up” would necessitate transforming teacher education. It would require recasting the place of teachers in a society seemingly convinced, for the most part, that teaching is a profession for those who could not do anything else.  It would involve the development of a truly rigorous set of national standards, not just in English and mathematics, as is currently the case.  It would presuppose a far more dynamic interrelationship between schools and the communities they purport to serve.  Above all, it would involve a comprehensive array of new assessment instruments for both students and teachers, replacing the relatively mindless multiple-choice standardized tests commonly in use today.

The strength of A Chance to Make History is in documenting that genuine reform can and is taking place throughout the country.  Its limitation is that by focusing on certain key individuals in what she calls “Transformational Leadership,” Wendy Kopp has chosen not to delineate broader questions of culture, educational policy at both local and national levels, and systems of student and teacher evaluation without which no substantial and nation-wide system of educational reform can take place.

-A. Graham Down

A. Graham Down was president of the Council for Basic Education.

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