Why cultivating the next generation of education leaders is the key to social progress

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Tuesday, 9 December 2014 15:57 GMT

The 2014 World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar.

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“The rising generation is searching for a chance to help solve the world’s significant problems, and everything rests on realizing rising educational levels and decreasing educational disparities,” explained Wendy Kopp, CEO and Co-Founder of Teach For All, and CEO and Founder of Teach for America. In an in-depth interview tied to the 2014 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), we discussed the founding of Teach for America, nearly 25 years of impact, elevating the original mission to a global mission, and much more. 

What was the moment of inspiration that led to the creation of Teach for America?

During my senior year at Princeton, I watched as my classmates were being recruited for jobs in finance and consulting, being wooed to commit just two years to work  on Wall Street. At the same time, I helped organize a conference about educational inequity in our country, and listened as these same classmates talked about wanting to help solve this problem. It struck me at this conference: Why weren’t we being recruited as aggressively to teach in our most marginalized communities as we were to work on Wall Street?  I became obsessed with this idea, and when it came time to write my senior thesis, I proposed the creation of a national teacher corps that would recruit promising graduates of all academic majors to commit two years to teach in urban and rural areas.  I thought this would have important impacts for children and schools in under-resourced communities, and also that these two-year commitments would end up shaping the priorities and career paths of the teachers themselves, which would change the very conscience and the policies of the nation.   

Almost 25 years later, what kind of impact has Teach for America had on the U.S. educational system, and how are you measuring success?

The best way to see the impact of Teach For America is to look at the communities where we’ve been doing this work the longest. In those places, Teach For America alumni are contributing so much energy and leadership to the effort to transform communities and children’s lives.

One example: 12 years ago, schools in Washington DC were performing at the bottom of the big urban districts. Today, they’re the fastest-improving urban district. Many things went into that transformation, but if you took out the alumni of Teach For America, you’d be without the current school chancellor Kaya Henderson, much of her cabinet, the state superintendent, and hundreds of principals and teachers and nonprofit leaders working to support schools.

How did Teach for All come about, and what is your ambition and vision for this global network?

Teach For All was a response to people all over the world who were reaching out to Teach For America and to the UK’s Teach First, seeking help as they endeavored to do something similar in their countries.  Today Teach For All is a global network of independent organizations in more than 30 countries around the world that are calling upon their nations’ most promising future leaders to commit two years to teach in high-need communities and become lifelong leaders for expanding opportunity for children. 

All over the world, we send our top talent into finance, technology, medicine, and law – everywhere but towards expanding opportunity for our most marginalized children.  Our ambition is that one day, we’ll have organizations in virtually every country in the world that have changed that.  And that the leaders they develop will learn from each other across the world, thus accelerating progress towards our vision of educational opportunity for all. 

Recently, at the 2014 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), you led a session on innovation across borders and teacher creativity. What are some of the key lessons you've learned about how to cultivate a new kind of leader in education?

First, we need a concerted effort to channel our most educated, capable, promising future leaders towards education.  When talented young people are recruited as aggressively and effectively into classrooms in high-need communities as they are to work in investment banks, they respond.  The rising generation is searching for a chance to help solve the world’s significant problems, and everything rests on realizing rising educational levels and decreasing educational disparities. 

Second, we need to cultivate the innovation of these teachers and their capacity to drive change.  The first priority is to help them succeed with their students, for the sake of the students and of the lessons that come from success. Then we need to help them reflect on their experiences, understand the root causes of the problem they’re confronting, and determine how best to utilize their greatest strengths to have the greatest possible impact.

Third, we need to create avenues for these innovators to learn from one another across borders. I’ve been amazed to see remarkable similarities in the nature of the challenges facing disadvantaged children all over the world, and equally, inspired to see the power of diverse cultural contexts for inspiring different ways of thinking.  This means we can significantly increase the pace of change by helping innovators and leaders around the world share solutions.

Finally, what were some of your key takeaways from the WISE Summit? 

WISE illustrates the power of taking a global approach to addressing education.  There are global constituencies for improving the environment and addressing public health because we know that in these areas, our fates are linked and the solutions are shareable. The same is true in education, but historically we’ve thought of education as a primarily local issue. WISE is helping to change this. Its program highlighted the fact that in our interconnected world, our collective welfare rests on rising educational levels and decreasing disparities around the world. And every session revealed how much we can accelerate progress by learning from each other’s experiences.

Wendy Kopp is CEO and Co-Funder of Teach For All. She is also the CEO and Founder of Teach For America. 

Wendy Kopp proposed the creation of Teach For America in her undergraduate senior thesis in 1989 and has spent more than 20 years working to grow the organization’s impact. A record 48,000 individuals applied to Teach For America’s  2011 corps, and in the 2011-2012 school year more than 9,200 corps members are in the midst of two-year teaching commitments in 43 regions across the country, reaching over 600,000 students. Teach For America’s alumni force, now numbering nearly 24,000 individuals working inside and outside the field of education, is deeply engaged in the effort to effect the fundamental changes necessary to ensure educational excellence and equity. 

In 2007, Wendy Kopp worked together with the CEO of Teach First, the adaptation of Teach For America in the UK, to develop a plan for Teach For All in order to be responsive to requests for support from social entrepreneurs around the world who are passionate about adapting the model to their contexts. Today, Teach For All is a growing global network of independent organizations pursuing this mission in 22 countries, from India and China to Brazil and Lebanon.  Wendy is leading the organization’s efforts to expand educational opportunity internationally by increasing and accelerating the impact of the growing number of social enterprises in the network.