“A Chance to Make History” by Wendy Kopp

Teach for America began as an undergraduate senior thesis in 1989. The teacher corps now has more than 8,000 members in 39 cities and rural regions, and more than 20,000 alumni have completed their two-year contracts.

After 20 years of building and growing a corps of enthusiastic teachers, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp has written “A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All” (2011) to share lessons from corps members, alumni, and colleagues about “the problem of educational inequality and what it will take to solve it” (page 3). The book is filled with stories of teachers and schools who are succeeding against the odds, but there is little from students themselves.  

Kopp acknowledges that “We have pursued all manner of reforms… Sadly, in aggregate, we still have not moved the needle against the achievement gap that persists along racial and socioeconomic lines” (page 6). There are no quick fixes; more funding, technology, charter schools, vouchers, school size, and curriculum don’t guarantee success. Instead, she focuses on things we can change: teachers, schools, a culture of achievement, and community. “At the core of the solution to educational inequality is leadership” (page 11), Kopp insists. 

The book is divided into six sections, covering transformational teachers, transformational schools, improving systems, warnings about silver bullets and silver scapegoats, increasing the pace of change, and transformational change.

* Great teachers are effective leaders who try to change students’ lives (trajectories). They have high expectations for their students, with frequent assessments; they maximize every minute and are committed to teaching.

* Great schools have an ambitious vision that everyone works toward with excitement and urgency, a culture of achievement, highly effective teachers, a program for “master teachers” to mentor colleagues, effective administrators who recruit and retain good teachers, and a supportive community.

* Great school systems invest in teachers, create cultures of achievement and accountability, and have an inspiring vision.

Optimistic and practical, “A Chance to Make History” is more of a presentation than a personal account. At times it seems like a promotional story for Teach For America. Ironically, correcting “educational inequality” seems to require a drastically “unequal” effort to make up the difference between low-income communities.

“The key to success is local leadership and capacity to employ all the elements of strong vision, culture accountability, and management that distinguish highly effective organizations” (page 141), Kopp stresses.

You can read a helpful discussion guide and find out about book events at http://achancetomakehistory.org. To learn about Teach For America or apply to the Corps, visit www.teachforamerica.org.

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