Teach for America Founder Wants Educational Equity
Wendy Kopp to deliver BU’s 140th Commencement address
When Wendy Kopp proposed the creation of a national teacher corps called Teach for America in her senior thesis at Princeton University in 1989, her advisor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs liked the concept, but doubted that she could pull it off. “‘My dear Ms. Kopp,” she remembers him saying, “you are quite evidently deranged.’”
Kopp wasn’t deranged, and she was persistent. Then 22 years old, the Texas native raised $2.5 million in private donations and launched Teach for America’s charter corps in 1990 with 500 recent college graduates. After five weeks of training, those 500 volunteers fulfilled two-year teaching commitments in high-need, mostly urban schools. Over the ensuing 23 years, the nonprofit has trained some 38,000 young men and women, who have reached 3 million students in nearly 50 sites nationwide. Last year alone, it recruited 10,000 teachers. Fortune magazine named Teach for America one of the top 100 best companies to work for in 2011, and Kopp has been named to Forbes magazine’s Impact 30 list as a leading social entrepreneur.
On Sunday, May 19, Kopp will be the Commencement speaker at the University’s 140th Commencement ceremony, and will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.
“I wanted to have someone as Commencement speaker who’s made a huge, huge impact on the world,” Brown told the Class of 2013 at this year’s Senior Breakfast. “She did it coming out as an undergraduate.”
Teach for America blossomed from Kopp’s desire to address educational inequality in America. She grew up on the outskirts of Dallas in a community that called itself “the Bubble” for its lack of diversity, attended a top 10 public school, and arrived at Princeton “really very unaware of the disparities that exist in our country.” Her roommate was a freshman who graduated from a public school in the Bronx, and while brilliant, initially struggled academically.
“That was a little window into what is obviously a much, much bigger problem than you could ever realize the depths of at Princeton,” Kopp says. Her studies revealed the public policy side of the economic inequities, and her conscience compelled her to imagine a solution.
Looking back, Kopp sees how parallel events led to the success of Teach for America. She needed a thesis topic and a postgraduation plan, knew of her generation’s discontent with traditional career options, and read regular headlines about teacher shortages at school districts nationwide. “There was just a lot that made the timing perfect,” she says.
As Kopp has often said, just 8 percent of the 16 million children in America who grow up below the poverty line will get through college by the time they’re 24. That means 14.7 million of them do not get the education that could give them a better life. She hopes corps teachers inspire their students and that their experience encourages the teachers themselves to continue to strive for educational equity long after they leave the corps.
Teach for America has attracted students from colleges across the country. At more than 130 colleges and universities, over 5 percent of seniors applied to the organization, according to the Teach for America website. About 27 percent of Spelman College’s most recent graduating class applied, 18 percent of Harvard’s, and 16 percent of Duke’s. Yet the nonprofit’s acceptance rate hangs around 17 percent, which means that for some students, it’s harder to get into Teach for America than it was to get accepted at their alma maters.
“From the start, it was very selective,” says Kopp, who sought college graduates with the kind of leadership skills that allow them to survive, succeed with their kids, and learn the right lessons to effect fundamental change in the future. “We’re looking for a rare person,” she says.
While independent research has shown that Teach for America recruits are making a difference, some educational professionals have criticized the nonprofit for sending what they believe to be inadequately trained young people into some of the nation’s toughest public schools.
Kopp says the problem of educational inequity is so pervasive that the solution requires the efforts of trained teachers and people who will enter other professions that influence the quality of education. “We believe the best way to go about gaining traction against this problem,” she says, “is to channel the energy of our future leaders who will work not only inside of education, but at every level of policy and across other sectors.”
Teach for America’s success has attracted the attention of social entrepreneurs worldwide, and many have approached Kopp for advice on how to start similar programs. In 2007, she collaborated with Brett Wigdortz, founder of the United Kingdom’s Teach First, to create Teach for All, a network of independent social enterprises that replicates Teach for America’s model in high-need areas around the world. The network now includes organizations from 27 countries in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East, and 20 more countries are expected to join in the coming years.
This year, Kopp stepped down as Teach for America’s CEO and became the organization’s board chair, allowing her to focus more attention on Teach for All. She has written two books about her experience, One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way, in 2003, and A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All, in 2011.
Kopp holds a dozen honorary degrees from institutions that include Harvard, Princeton, and Marquette, and among other accolades, has been awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the JFK New Frontier Award, and the Clinton Center Award for Leadership and National Service. And perhaps equally impressive, she held her own in a February 2007 interview about Teach for America with Stephen Colbert.
Equitable education is a family affair for Kopp, who is 45, lives in New York City, and is married to Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, which operates the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of free college-preparatory public schools around the United States. They recently searched for public schools and were pleased by the “incredible options” they found for their children and were reminded that many American parents don’t have any choice, much less a good one, for their children.
“On a human level,” Kopp says, “it’s made me feel all the greater urgency.”
More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.13 Comments