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Kopp says education gap solvable

Published: September 26, 2008
Section: News


“Where you’re born in this country does affect your educational prospects,” Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp told a crowded room of students Monday night. Kopp, throughout her keynote address for Brandeis Citizenship Week, insisted that despite the dire reality of educational inequity in the United States, it is a problem that can be solved.

Kopp, who hails from a privileged Dallas community, explained that when she was an undergraduate in the 1980s, the only recruiters she saw on campus were investment bankers. “Why aren’t we being recruited to teach?” she thought. Teaching, Kopp thought as an undergraduate, “would change the consciousness of the country.”

Shortly thereafter, Kopp founded Teach for America in 1990. Eighteen years ago, TFA boasted 500 teachers. That number has grown to 20,000. “Everything we do today,” Kopp said, “is grounded in what we’ve learned from [teachers] who’ve attained significant success.”

Kopp told the story of a young woman teaching fourth grade in the South Bronx. The students in the class were only reading at a first grade level. In one year, Kopp explained, the TFA corps member was able to advance her students a full two grade levels in reading. After convincing the school principal to allow her to keep the same class a second year, “she worked to help the kids apply to the best magnet schools” in the city.

Kopp shared the story of another New York teacher. This young man taught tenth grade in Brooklyn. He was faced with preparing 58 students, a fifth of whom read on a fifth grade level, for the New York State Regency Exam in Global Studies. While the curriculum is usually taught over two years, this teacher had but one. “He went to great lengths to fire these kids up,” Kopp said, “and at the end of the year, 55 of the 58 students passed the exam.”

From the example of Teach for America teachers, Kopp drew three fundamental lessons. First, educational inequity “is a massive but solvable problem,” second, teaching is leadership, and third, TFA “is not sufficient.”

“We have to step back as a society” to find a solution to the problem of educational inequity, she commented. “You can’t believe any one thing will solve the problem.”

Nonetheless, Kopp said, “I have such optimism that the leadership force coming out of Teach for America can effect these changes” in the classroom, the school system, and in politics.

To close her speech, Kopp shared a story of a TFA teacher in Houston who has since opened his own public school catering to disadvantaged students. In order to help his students with math and science, he started a robotics program in the school. Recently, he called Kopp to tell her that his students won the state robotics competition. The mostly minority students from his Houston school had beaten Kopp’s majority white privileged Dallas high school.

“It takes a school leader who is on an absolute mission” to help children achieve success, Kopp said referring to the Houston school leader. “That’s the good new. There’s nothing illusive about how to do this.”