Wendy Kopp – Taking Teach for America International

LAWAC Board Member Eli Broad introducing Wendy Kopp, CEO and Co-founder of Teach For All

Wendy Kopp is passionate about improving education – that is why she has spent the past 24 years enlisting high-achieving college graduates as teachers for underprivileged schools. But now she says “I am more passionate than ever” in her mission to reduce education inequity. Kopp is taking the Teach For America model overseas – to 34 countries already – and finding that the same techniques that have been successful in the US also work in Pakistan, Chile and Lebanon. “The solutions are shareable, that’s what makes me optimistic,” she told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Wednesday. “Can you imagine what a better society we would have all around the world if our most talented folks were channeling their energy not just into banks and consulting firms, but also into schools?”

Kopp is no airy idealist. Since Teach For America started in 1990 they have enrolled some 32,000 teachers who have taught more than 3 million children around the country, mostly in low-income communities. LAWAC board member Eli Broad, who introduced Kopp, called her a “global crusader to eliminate inequity in education.” Broad said he thought Wendy Kopp has had more influence on K-12 education than anyone else in the US. “We have invested $42 million in Teach For America, and that investment is paying big dividends.”

There is still much work to be done, as shown by LAUSD’s performance problems, where just 66% of students graduate from high school. “There is so much energy and demand for systemic change, but it is tough, like pushing a boulder uphill,” said Kopp. She is optimistic about the growth of charter schools – particularly in LA, where 30% of the charter schools are in the top 10% of California’s schools overall. And seen from a broader view, there has been substantial improvement – in 2000, there was a 400 point API gap between students in Watts and students in Beverly Hills – that gap has been cut in half. “The schools in Watts are still not where we want them to be, but there has been significant progress.”

Kopp is quick to share credit with other actors seeking to improve education – “it is due to philanthropists, mayors, social entrepreneurs… but if you take out Teach For America teachers, you take out a lot of the energy.” And many of the TFA teachers do not quit after their two year commitment – LA now has 340 TFA teachers in their first two years, but a further 520 have stayed on as teachers, and 58 have become school principals. Overall more than 60% of TFA alumni are studying or working in education nationwide. “You can move the needle – this is about talent and leadership, and TFA is one source, along with others, to help ensure that all students will have access to the American Dream.”

Eight years ago Kopp was approached by social entrepreneurs from India, Chile and Lebanon who were impressed by the Teach For America model and wanted to do the same thing in their countries. This led to Kopp setting up Teach For All, now operating in 34 countries with 40 more countries applying to join. “In Pakistan we had 1,000 applicants for 40 posts, in India 13,000 competed for 500 spots – these are incredible people, deeply committed in their hearts and minds.” Most surprising, said Kopp, is that “when you go into their classrooms, the children's experience is far closer to underprivileged kids here in the US than to the privileged kids in their own country.” This is what gave her the insight that the solutions to educational inequity are universal and can be used around the world. “In other issues like the environment and global health there is real global sharing – but in education we assume all issues are local.” Kopp said she realized we will go a lot further if we accept it is all interconnected. “A world of rising education levels and decreasing inequity is a much better, more prosperous world.”

When asked about her views on the Common Core, the initiative originally sponsored by the National Governors Association to improve high school graduates’ levels of knowledge, Kopp said she was a big supporter, because it raises the bar for what students must learn. Although test scores are improving within the US, we are still falling behind internationally, she said. “We are boring our kids to death in this country. The Common Core forces kids to think.”

Kopp had a warning about over-reliance on technology in the classroom. She said tablets and computers can be a useful tool, “but we delude ourselves if we believe technology is the solution.” Learning is all about the teachers. And that is where her passion lies.