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#TFA25: Wendy Kopp on Teach For America's Progress

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp spoke to an audience of 15,000 corps members, alumni, and partners at the 25th Anniversary Summit. The text of her speech is below. 

In 1990, during the first summer institute, our charter corps members gathered each morning at 6 am in USC’s parking lot for bagels and Mexican pastries.

Few of us imagined then that 25 years later we’d be here today, celebrating our community of 50,000 alumni and corps members.

Tonight is for the 50,000 people who have committed themselves to our nation’s most vulnerable children—almost all of you still working to ensure that they have the opportunities they deserve.

We come from many different backgrounds and bring different experiences and different perspectives. This is such a strength—by disagreeing, struggling and wrestling with how to do better by our children, we become stronger. 

Twenty-five years in, though, there are many questions within our community and outside of it about whether we’re really making any progress.

A couple of years ago, Elisa and I visited Oakland and brought together a group of corps members to learn about their experience. We went around the circle and each of them told us about their schools and classes. Many shared that they were optimistic—they felt their students had a shot at making it through college and doing well. A few though were teaching at Fremont High School, a school with low achievement levels and a 53 percent graduation rate. These corps members spent much of their time outside the school managing trauma from so much violence in their community and fighting persistent truancy issues.

They were incredibly dispirited, naturally, and they asked us why we thought that Teach For America was working – hadn’t we been placing teachers in Oakland for more than 20 years?? 

It was a really good question from where they were sitting. But I was thinking—if I had done a similar roundtable back in 1991 when we started placing teachers in Oakland, all of the corps members would have sounded like those at Fremont High. 

Until a couple of years ago, California ranked schools based on the Academic Performance Index – failing schools were red, struggling schools were orange and yellow, and as they got better they moved to green and then blue. This was the map of Oakland in 1999.

Oakland in 1999

And this was the map in 2013.

Oakland in 2013

This is just one measure, and there’s a long way to go, but nonetheless that’s real progress.               

And Teach For America has contributed a lot to this progress. Many, many people helped produce these gains. But if you took all the Teach For America alumni out of the picture, you would take away so much of the energy and leadership that is driving the change in deep partnership with others in the community.

There are more than 200 current alumni teachers in Oakland and 70 who are in leadership roles across Oakland’s 118 schools, including 21 school principals.  

Alumni were among the first in Oakland to show that we could create whole schools that provide kids in low-income communities with a truly transformational education—through schools like Think College Now, the Lighthouse Community Charter School, and Life Academy.

Alumni are innovators and advocates from inside and outside the District —managing networks of schools; playing key roles in departments across the district; reinventing the way principals are recruited and developed; organizing the community to advocate for policy change;  marshaling resources to ensure college is a real option for Oakland’s students; demonstrating the power of culturally responsive pedagogy; advocating for children in the juvenile justice system; and much more. 

I could share the stories of other communities all across the country that are so similar to this one—from Los Angeles to Chicago to my own New York City, from communities in the Mississippi Delta to those in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In dozens and dozens of places, Teach For America people are contributing to substantial progress, even as so much remains to be done.

At the same time, we’re learning…a lot. 

We’re learning more about the kind of education that truly empowers our children—one that goes far beyond academic skills.

We’re learning just how complex it is to meet the needs of our students and about the nature of the changes necessary both inside and outside of schools.

We’re learning, perhaps most importantly, about what it looks like to partner with the parents, students, educators,  and advocates in our communities so that change is big and sustainable.

And now, we have the potential to learn so much more quickly because we have not only a national platform for learning and sharing…but a global platform. Incredibly, today there are 39 organizations in the Teach For All network. 

These organizations are channeling the energy of their nation’s most promising leaders towards expanding opportunity for their countries’ marginalized children and we’re going to move so much faster now that all of us can learn from each other!

We live in an era that values quick fixes—an era where a technological innovation can change the way we communicate overnight.

But unfortunately this problem we’re addressing doesn’t lend itself to quick fixes. 

Many were working on the systemic racial and economic injustices that hold our nation’s children back long before Teach For America came to be; there was never a chance that we would “solve” them overnight. 

Success will require bold and sustained efforts, mistakes and steps backwards, and a whole lot of learning.  I have come to think of this work of ours as the long game.

Given how long it will take, we are so privileged to have found our ways to it so early in our lives. With all of us in this work—treating ourselves and each other with generosity so that we have strength for the long game—we can make real progress in our lifetimes.

I can’t wait to see where the next 25 years take us!

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