An Interview with the CEO and Cofounder of Teach For All
Wendy Kopp on Improving Education Around the World
Wendy Kopp is CEO and cofounder of Teach For All, which is fueling a global movement for ensuring educational excellence and equity. The organization seeks to accelerate the impact of national organizations that are enlisting their nations’ most promising future leaders in the effort.
Kopp founded Teach For America in 1989 to marshal the energy of her generation against educational inequity in the United States. Today, 9,000 Teach For America corps members—top recent college graduates from all academic disciplines—are in the midst of two-year teaching commitments in the highest-need urban and rural regions in the nation. Teach For America has proved to be an unparalleled source of long-term leadership for educational change. Just four years into its development, Teach For All is a growing network of 23 independent organizations around the world, including the cofounding organizations Teach For America and the U.K.’s Teach First.
J. Puckett, a senior partner and managing director in the Dallas office of The Boston Consulting Group, recently spoke with Kopp about the challenge of equity in education around the world. The following are excerpts from their conversation.
At a Glance
Born in Austin, Texas
Year Born: 1967
Bachelor of arts degree, Princeton University
2007–present, cofounder and CEO, Teach For All
1989–present, founder and CEO, Teach For America
Recognized as one of the Time 100 (Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People), and is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards for public service
Author, A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All (2011)
Author, One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way (2000)
What is Teach For America, and what role does it play?
The big idea behind Teach For America is to enlist the energy of our country’s most promising future leaders in addressing one of our nation’s most fundamental problems: that where kids are born really determines their educational prospects and, in turn, their life prospects.
This year, almost 50,000 people applied to Teach For America. We select those who possess the leadership skills necessary to succeed with kids in our lowest-income communities—and who have the potential to exert real influence in the long term. Right now, we have 9,000 teachers—each of whom has made a two-year commitment—working in 43 urban and rural regions. These teachers are going above and beyond traditional expectations to meet the extra needs of their kids—and they have the potential to have a huge and life-changing impact on them. At the same time, the experience is completely transformational for the teachers. We now have 24,000 Teach For America alumni, two-thirds of whom are working full time in education. Of those who are not working in education, half have jobs in related fields.
Why does a high-quality teacher make such a difference in high-quality education?
For kids who are growing up today and facing the extra challenges of poverty, their only hope is to meet enough teachers who are willing to go out of their way to help them attain the extra support and opportunities they really deserve.
It’s probably not conceivable to have the 1 million teachers in the U.S. who work with low-income kids—not just for two years, but year after year after year—undertake the superheroic efforts it takes to make up for all that’s wrong with the system. What we have seen, however, is that high-quality teachers go on and become school principals, system leaders, business leaders, and political leaders who advocate for policy change and actually understand this issue and have a picture of what it would take to fundamentally solve the problem. That’s our aim.
As you look across the urban-education landscape in the U.S., what key challenges have to be tackled today?
If you look at the aggregate data, we have not closed the achievement gap at all. If anything, the number of kids in poverty has grown, and therefore the achievement gaps have certainly not closed in the last 20 years.
We have some cities in the U.S., though, such as New Orleans and New York City, that have made meaningful progress against the achievement gap. Here in New York, which is a huge system with 1.1 million kids, 1,700 schools, and 80,000 teachers, fourth-graders are a full year ahead of where they were seven years ago. The graduation rate, on average, has increased 15 points in that time—and is up 20 points among the kids of color in the system. These are meaningful changes.
What’s making the difference in these communities is committed, informed leadership within the school system and the political system. With a systematic effort to develop strong leadership capacity everywhere, we can begin closing the achievement gap on an aggregate scale.
Teach For America and Teach First in the U.K. are the foundation of Teach For All, which now has partners in more than 20 countries around the world. What’s behind that movement and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Teach For All started because Brett Wigdortz in the U.K. and I started meeting very passionate and inspiring social entrepreneurs from many different countries, and operating in diverse contexts around the world. They were determined to launch this model in their own countries and were looking for help. That started us thinking about how to respond.
And that ended up generating the idea for Teach For All. As we’ve progressed, we’ve come to realize all the more the universality of this problem of educational inequity. We all know that kids who grow up in poverty have fewer educational opportunities, and we think of this as a huge issue in the world’s highest-need, least-developed countries. But we’ve discovered the same problem in virtually every country: socioeconomic backgrounds determine educational outcomes. And we’ve learned that not only is the problem universal in its existence, but it is also universal in its nature. This means that the solutions will be sharable.
Given the universal nature of the problem, a global network can significantly increase the pace of change. We imagine programs in all these different countries channeling some of their top talent against the problem. Given the diversity of cultures and contexts, these individuals prioritize and think about things differently, which leads to innovation. At Teach For All, we’re envisioning thriving movements to expand educational opportunity in dozens of countries around the world that are accelerating all the more quickly because they’re informing one another.
How can corporate leaders get involved and make a real difference in changing education?
I have seen single business leaders, philanthropists, and small groups generate transformational change in communities. One person or one group of people with influence and know-how can make an enormous difference, and a great way to start is to seek out Teach For All programs and other interventions that are getting great results and then work to grow their impact.