Teach For America Founder and CEO Urges F&M Crowd to Rally Against Educational Inequality

  • Wendy Kopp is CEO and founder of Teach For America (TFA) and Teach For All, two organizations dedicated to eliminating educational inequality in the United States (Photo courtesy of Teach For America).

By Danielle Weiner '13

What will it take to effectively reverse educational inequality in the United States?

The answer is powerfully simple, said Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America (TFA) and Teach For All.

"The core of the solution is leadership," Kopp told a crowd of approximately 450 Franklin & Marshall students, faculty, staff and Lancaster residents at Mayser Gymnasium Oct. 4. "There is absolutely nothing elusive about this."

During a lecture titled "Building a Movement for Educational Opportunity for All," Kopp urged the audience to recognize how critical the issue of educational inequality has become, noting that 60 million fourth-graders in low-income communities across the United States are reading at a first-grade level. A mere 8 percent of children in the country's poorest communities will go to College, compared to an estimated 80 percent of students from selective schools such as F&M, Kopp said.

She then pointed to innovative charter schools such as those run by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) as evidence that a small group of passionate innovators --rejecting the idea that educational equality is unattainable -- can make a huge difference in the lives of young people.

"They said, 'you know what, let's reinvent schools. Let's create a new kind of school to make it more feasible for talented and dedicated teachers to achieve life-changing results for kids," Kopp said. "Now there are 300 to 400 transformational schools within low-income communities, and they are truly showing us what is possible, that we do not need to wait to affect change at this level."

The driver, she said, is the leadership of dedicated educators, including F&M's Aaron Bass, a 2001 graduate who is principal of KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy in Philadelphia. Bass is an energized alumnus of TFA, which every year launches a national corps of top college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years in public schools to expand opportunity for children in low-income communities.

These individuals have established a vision (getting students on a track toward college readiness and success), convinced the students and their parents to buy into the vision, and committed themselves personally to fulfilling the vision.

"There is a constellation of leaders in these communities working inside the school system, inside the political system … ensuring we one day live up to the ideal of educational equality," Kopp said, stressing that there is still much work to be done. "Today, we know we can do this. The question now is, 'How do we do more of it, and how do we do it on the scale of whole communities?'"

Kopp's talk was part of Common Hour, a weekly series held each Thursday during the academic year at midday, when no classes are in session. The series is intended to bring the entire College community together for culturally and academically enriching events and to promote dialogue on vital international, national, local and institutional issues.

In introducing Kopp, F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield noted that TFA has 30,000 alumni: "Two-thirds of those alumni are active in some way in fostering educational equity and the other third, in whatever they are doing, are passionate advocates of education for all," he said, lauding Kopp for her vision.

Kopp proposed creating TFA in her undergraduate thesis while a senior at Princeton University in 1989. Today, 10,000 Teach For America corps members teach in 46 regions across the country.

F&M is listed this year among the top 20 small colleges and universities contributing the greatest number of graduating seniors to TFA's teaching corps, with 13 corps members. Additionally, 13 percent of F&M's graduating seniors applied to TFA in the 2011-12 academic year. In TFA's 22-year history, approximately four dozen F&M alumni have taught as corps members.

Isabel Trifero '13, an F&M anthropology major who attended Kopp's talk, said she found fostering leadership to solve a pressing social issue to be profound.

“Individuals never believe that one person can make a serious impact," Trifero said. "But this talk proved that they can.”

Nana Kwame Sakyi Owusu '15 said he was encouraged by Kopp's optimism.

"What I find most interesting is her initiative in pioneering this project, and from what I gathered, there was nothing like this before TFA," he said. "It is amazing how it evolved from being a thesis in a paper to Kopp becoming the CEO of a company. That's very inspiring to me."

Writer Jason Klinger contributed to this report.

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