Wendy Kopp’s 2009 commencement address
Transcript of Teach For America founder's address at Washington University's commencement ceremony
Good morning all. It is a real privilege to be here with you. I jumped at the chance to speak at Washington University because this has become such an important place for Teach For America — you have produced some of the most inspiring and impactful leaders in our corps, alumni force and organization. I think there’s something in the water here, no doubt thanks to your own intentional practice, and I hope that the faculty and administration can reflect this morning on the difference you are making through your work.
It is also an honor to share in the accomplishment that today represents for you graduates and your families. I can only imagine the different stories of your lives, the different sorts of opportunities and challenges you have each had and faced. You should feel an incredible sense of collective accomplishment for what you have learned and what you have achieved. And as a mother of four little ones, I can only imagine how proud your parents must be. So, congratulations to all of you.
Finally, a special salute to the 25 of you who have signed up for Teach For America! We are so excited about what you will bring to our work.
I wanted to talk with you this morning about your choices at this stage of your lives — about where you decide to channel your energy as you progress over the coming two or three or five years. Because I feel like I lucked into my life path, and I wish someone had told me before what I know now since things of such consequence are not best left to chance.
When I was sitting in your seats at another good school now 20 years ago, I was about to embark on a real adventure. I had become obsessed with the idea that our country should be recruiting our most talented and driven among us to teach in our nation’s highest poverty communities just as aggressively as we were being recruited at the time to work on Wall Street. I believed that the inequity in educational outcomes that persisted along socioeconomic and racial lines in our country was among our greatest injustices, that the leaders in our generation were searching for something they weren’t finding and would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural public schools, that our energy and idealism would make a difference in the lives of the nation’s most disadvantaged kids, and that ultimately our nation would be a different place if as many of its leaders had taught in low-income communities straight out of college as had worked on Wall Street straight out of college.
Well, because my letter to the President of the United States suggesting that he create a national teacher corps for all of those reasons got in the wrong stack and resulted in a job rejection letter from the White House, and because I possessed at the time an uncommon share of naïveté, I decided to create Teach For America myself. Thankfully, it was an idea that would quickly magnetize hundreds of people who were drawn to the core beliefs and values it represented. So one year after I graduated from college, I was looking out on an auditorium full of 500 recent college graduates who were about to embark on their training and on their two-year commitment to Teach For America.
If someone had asked me at the time if this was going to be my life’s work, I would have shuddered at the question. Not because I had anything else in mind, but because, to me, life consisted entirely of the next two years. It was inconceivable that one day I would be 40-something — that only happened to other people. Yet, 20 years later, I am still here. And I am not alone. Most of the Teach For America corps members who sign up for two years are still in this work in one way or another. Why?
There’s a second-year Teach For America corps member here in St. Louis named Colleen Dunn, who has started her school years by talking with her first graders about their favorite gifts. Everyone in the class goes around in a circle and shares the favorite gift that they have ever received, and then she asks them to close their eyes and imagine what would happen and how they would feel if they lost their favorite gift. And then she shares with her students her favorite gift. She tells them that it is her education because no one can ever take that from her since it is kept safe inside her head.
In America, in this country that aspires so admirably to be a land of equal opportunity, we don’t give all of our nation’s children this gift. Here in St. Louis Public Schools, where 80 percent of students are living below the poverty line and 84 percent are kids of color, would you believe that 16 percent of our children are meeting state standards in math, 19 percent in reading and writing? That means that out of 26,000 kids in Wash. U.’s backyard, about 4,000 have the math skills the state thinks are critical for kids of their age.
And, yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. When Colleen’s first graders arrived in her classroom in her first year, her students didn’t know their letters, didn’t know corresponding sounds, they didn’t possess basic concepts about print such as the ability to differentiate a letter from a word. At the end of the school year, after nine months of days that began for Colleen at 4:30 in the morning and ended with her falling asleep over grading papers, lesson planning, writing parent newsletters, her students had made two years of progress in reading and math. The students who had started out so far behind were ready to enter second grade ahead of average second graders.
Judging from Colleen’s example, the achievement gap doesn’t need to exist — it wasn’t that the kids couldn’t do the work, but rather that they simply needed access to the opportunities they deserved. Perhaps, we might wonder, it was because they were first graders.
Well, at the other end of the educational spectrum we have Anna McNulty, another Teach For America corps member here in St. Louis who is now in her third year of teaching English in high school. In St. Louis, about 10 percent of students will enter college from the communities that we’re working in; 80 percent of those who do will need remediation when they get there. Anna created an Advanced Placement class for her students and set out to ensure that the seniors she taught would go to college and wouldn’t need remediation when they got there. While she selected students who were most prepared to tackle AP work, her students were nonetheless performing on average at a high sophomore/early junior year level when they entered her room their senior year. After a year of extraordinarily hard work, of reading the likes of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Kafka, working harder in school than they ever had before, her students had made two years of progress and were ready to enter college, on average, reading at a college freshman year level. Most would need no remediation.
Anna describes entering Teach For America as a philosophy major with an intention to teach for two years before entering a career in academia. But, as she says, “This wound up being my future.” Why are so many of us making this our life’s work? Because we’ve seen the magnitude of the problem and the consequences of it, yes, but mostly because we’ve learned that it doesn’t need to exist. This is a solvable problem.
I was struck a couple of year ago to hear Muhammad Yunus’ message when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work pioneering and spreading the idea of microcredit — giving loans to poor people without any financial security. His message, after three decades of using this approach to address poverty, was that he firmly believes we can eliminate poverty. “I strongly believe,” he said, “that we can create a poverty-free world, if we want to. In that kind of world, [the] only place you can see poverty is in the museum. …”
Now, most of us view poverty as a massive and daunting problem — a problem we are unlikely to solve in our lifetimes. But Muhammad Yunus deeply believes, based on his work in understanding its causes and solutions, that we can in fact eliminate poverty in our lifetimes.
The reason his message struck me so powerfully is that it’s so consistent with what we have learned and seen firsthand about educational inequity. We can solve it.
For all of us who have attained the gift of excellent educations and the opportunities that result, it is so easy to isolate ourselves from the inequities that persist in our nation and our world. We cannot let this happen because of their magnitude and the consequence for individuals and communities and society and all of us, and especially because of the evidence that these are solvable problems. Because if we can solve them, we must. If educational inequity, or poverty, is solvable, it is the moral responsibility of those of us who have been given so much to do everything in our power to realize that change.
Now, I imagine that for many there is a temptation to assume that you will address the world’s problems later — after you have families or make millions or gain skills and experience. But there are two big reasons to dive in early — now — which I hope you will consider.
The first is that the world needs your inexperience. There is something about the fresh perspective, the naïveté, the limitless energy that comes along with youth and inexperience that enables recent graduates to solve problems that many more experienced people have given up on.
People want to know how I started Teach For America straight out of college, and honestly, my greatest asset was my inexperience. It proved absolutely critical at many junctures. When I declared in my thesis that I would try to create this corps myself, my thesis adviser pronounced me “deranged.” When he looked at my budget of $2.5 million for the first year, he asked me if I knew how hard it was to raise $2,500, let alone two and a half million dollars. But aided by my inexperience, I was unfazed by these reactions. When school district officials literally laughed at the notion that the Me Generation — this was the label for my generation — would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural communities, their concerns, too, went unheard. My very greatest asset was that I simply did not understand what was impossible.
I see this same phenomenon every day as I watch 22-year-olds walking into classrooms and setting goals for themselves and their students that most believe to be entirely unrealistic. Despite the conventional wisdom that there is only so much that schools can do to overcome the challenges of poverty, individuals like Alicia Herald, who graduated from Wash. U. in 2005, have naively aspired to put their students on a level playing field.
When Alicia left here to teach fourth grade in South Central Los Angeles, she spent her summer reading Harry Potter because her fourth grade teacher told her that was what fourth graders read. But when she met her fourth graders, they were reading Dr. Seuss. They were reading on a first-grade level. Alicia set out to change that. When the school principal saw her goals posted in her room — for example, a goal that the kids would master fourth-grade math standards by the end of the year — she took Alicia aside and counseled her to take down the goals, for fear that her students might be disappointed if they didn’t reach them. But Alicia naively thought it would be fine. When the principal set a school-wide goal that 50 percent of the parents would sign their students’ report cards as a sign of their engagement in their children’s education, Alicia asked, why not 100 percent? Well, at the end of the year, with 100 percent of her students’ parents signing report cards and after extraordinary effort — including bringing her students together on Saturdays and for after-school tutoring — her students achieved their goal of mastering fourth-grade math standards and they made two years of progress in reading. One year later, 100 percent of parents were signing those report cards not only in her class but in 17 of the school’s 22 classrooms.
Over and over, I see young, inexperienced teachers making a huge difference by setting big goals for themselves that others would deem crazy. So one reason not to wait to address the world’s biggest problems is that they need your attention before you accept the status quo, before you are plagued by the knowledge of what is “impossible.”
The second reason to engage in addressing the world’s biggest problems early is because solving them takes time.
Ed Chang, who graduated from here in 1997, entered teaching and education unsuspecting that it would be his life’s work. Twelve years ago, he was pre-med, graduating with a double major in biology and psychology. Having grown up in a middle class background, unaware of the disparities in education, he described the complete shock of his initial days in the classroom in Atlanta, when he realized that he had one microscope and one scale to teach life sciences to 150 seventh graders, the majority of whom were reading on a fourth- or fifth-grade level and who apparently had never had exposure to science before at all. Ed set out to change things for his kids — he applied for and received a $17,000 grant at the end of his first year in order to build a curriculum based on hands-on field study and laboratory research (again we see the power of naïveté and inexperience). But as Ed turned his kids onto science and built their skills, it became harder and harder to leave even after his two-year commitment was up because students kept coming back and over time there were more and more students who needed his support. And then, when he saw his original group of students — his 150 students — graduate from high school, he actually saw only 15 of them walk across the stage and graduate, and he realized at that point that he would have to do more. At that moment, he knew he would need to run a whole school. And so this coming July, he will open the doors of KIPP Strive Academy in Atlanta to his first class of 95 fifth graders. With time and the foundation that working successfully with students has given him, Ed is now going to have the chance to literally solve the problem of educational inequity for the students in his community.
Similarly, Glenn Davis graduated from Wash. U. in 2003 with a double major in social thought and analysis and international business. After teaching seventh grade in the South Bronx, fellow Teach For America alums recruited him back to the Midwest to be part of an effort to change things for kids in one of the highest-poverty, most crime-ridden areas in the U.S., in Gary, Indiana. He works at a KIPP school there created by fellow alumni. Last year, the school’s fifth graders entered the year at the 25th percentile against the national norm. They entered the school last year. In reading, they were at the 19th percentile. At the end of the year, they had moved from the 25th to the 44th percentile in math, from the 19th to 39th percentile in reading. Three more middle school years like that and his school’s students will literally have different life prospects. Now Glenn is training to start the high school these middle schoolers will enter. I asked him if he ever would have thought when he was graduating seven years ago that he would be starting a high school today and he laughed as if it would be entirely inconceivable. But thank heavens that he dove in early because now he’s going to have years and years to change what’s possible for kids in Gary, Indiana, and maybe beyond.
I said earlier that Teach For America wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my inexperience, and at the same time, it wouldn’t fulfill its potential without time and experience. Two decades ago, as I was getting started in this, there was a hit movie — maybe some of you remember it — called “Stand and Deliver.” You remember that movie? It made a hero out of a teacher, Jaime Escalante, who coached a class in South Central Los Angeles to pass the Advanced Placement calculus exam. At that time, it seemed so stunning that a teacher could get kids in a high-poverty community to excel at that level that we made a movie out of that teacher. At that time, I don’t think we could have found a school in a high-poverty community that was putting a whole building full of kids on a track to graduating from college at the same rate as kids in high-income communities.
Today, we know of thousands of teachers in urban and rural communities all over the country who are proving that their students can excel academically — teachers like Colleen, Anna, Alicia, Ed and Glenn — and there are thought to be 200-such schools, schools like those in the KIPP Network, and others such as YES College Prep in Houston and IDEA Academy in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley — schools started by our alumni that are literally among the top 100 high schools in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. In the two decades I’ve been at this, it is true that we have still not yet narrowed the achievement gap in an aggregate sense. And, yet, things are so very different today. The question we’re asking has changed. It is no longer “Can we do this?” but rather now it is “Can we do this at scale?”
And even to that question, some communities are giving us real evidence of the possibility of system-wide change. From Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to New York City, school systems are closing achievement gaps in significant, measurable ways. If you go to these communities, it is impossible to miss the fact that a big part of what is moving the needle is a bunch of talented, committed teachers, school leaders, district administrators, and community leaders who learned through their experiences teaching in Teach For America that it is possible to solve this problem and what it will take to solve it.
So while I may have shuddered at the thought of spending 20 years in any one endeavor when I was graduating, now I feel incredibly lucky to have happened upon this so early that we stand the chance to actually solve the problem we’re addressing. This year, more of our nation’s future leaders will join Teach For America than came into this effort in the entire first decade of our work. Five years from now, we will have around 50,000 corps members and alumni across the country. Ten years from now, we will have more than 80,000. At this scale, with a critical mass of leaders in communities across the country — working at every level of the education system and supporting the work at every level of policy and from every professional sector — we will be moving the needle against the achievement gap in an aggregate sense.
A couple of years ago, Bill Gates gave a commencement speech in which he shared his regret with his professors at Harvard — which he attended for one year — that he hadn’t been exposed to societal inequities earlier so that he would have had time to truly solve them. Colleen, Anna, Alicia, Ed and Glenn, and all of you, have that chance.
So as you head out today I hope you will reflect on the extent of disparities in our world, on the fact that those who have spent their lives addressing them inevitably come to see their solvability, on the enormous assets that you possess due to your youth and inexperience, and on the kind of long-term, sustained commitment necessary to see through the complexity of the problems and have a chance at actually solving them. If you’ve already matriculated to grad school or signed up with another pursuit, seize the opportunity of those learning experiences but remember one or two or three years down the line the contribution you can make by channeling your energy against the disparities in our world.
As I said earlier, I feel so lucky to have landed in this pursuit. I have spent not one minute of my last 20 years searching for what I really wanted to be doing, because I happened into something that, while exhausting and challenging, is unbelievably fulfilling. I wish you the same good fortune. Thank you.