To end inequity in education

Interview with Wendy Kopp, co-founder of Teach For All.

Published : Mar 15, 2017 12:30 IST

Wendy Kopp.

Wendy Kopp.

TEACH For All is a unique global programme that addresses the issue of inequity in education across the world. It is spread across 41 countries, employs 81,000 teachers and reaches 9.7 million students. Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach For America in 1989, co-founded this programme. The programme defines itself as “a global network of independent organisations that are cultivating their nations’ promising future leaders to ensure their most marginalised children have the chance to fulfil their true potential”.

The programme’s website says: “Education inequity is a systemic problem in rich and poor countries alike. The world’s most disadvantaged kids have the least access to quality education. When they do attend school, they often don’t receive the extra support and high expectations they need to beat the odds. Millions of children leave school every day without the skills they need to attain financial security and be informed, contributing citizens with real prospects for the future.”

Wendy Kopp, the chief executive officer of Teach For All, was in Mumbai recently to work with the Teach For India team, the Indian chapter of the programme that was launched in 2009. Teach For India, with 1,250 fellows teaching and working towards achieving the larger goal of spreading quality education, has helped 353 schools in 2016.

Teach for All, a rigorous programme that seeks leadership and vision from its fellows, essentially encourages college graduates and professionals of all academic disciplines to make a two-year commitment to educate children belonging to marginalised sections in urban and rural regions. The programme works closely with governments. The fellows are placed in schools that are deeply neglected. Wendy Kopp spoke to Frontline about the concept of Teach for All and issues in education across the globe. She hopes that more countries will adopt Teach For All’s approach and improve the overall educational standards. Excerpts:

What led you to conceptualise Teach For America and later Teach For All?

The original inspiration for Teach For America was when I was in college, 28 years ago. I came to believe that we could marshal the energy of my generation towards improving education in our countries’ most marginalised communities. Teach For America called upon highly educated graduates to commit themselves to two years of teaching in these communities. I believed that those who successfully taught would be inspired to a lifetime of leadership and advocacy on behalf of children. Through teaching, they could come to understand the complex challenges that face their students and their schools, see first hand the incredible potential of all children to succeed when met with high expectations and provided with necessary support—and develop a sense of urgency and conviction for fighting the range of inequities they see holding their students back.

Today, Teach For America has more than 50,000 alumni, many of whom are working to improve the welfare of children and low-income communities all around the country in a variety of ways: as teachers, as school leaders, as advocates, as policymakers, and from many other vantage points. Although so many people have played a part in improving equity and educational quality in many communities over the last three decades, much of that progress would not have been possible had Teach For America alumni been taken out of the equation.

In 2007, I met with many extremely inspiring social entrepreneurs from all over the world who were interested in exploring whether the Teach For America approach could work in their countries. Shaheen Mistri was one of them. She was passionate about the importance of doing something similar in India. She and other social entrepreneurs in other countries were looking for help and support, and we launched Teach For All as a response to this. Teach For All is a network of independent, locally led organisations in 41 countries, and growing, which share a core purpose and certain unifying principles and values. Our global organisation works to increase and accelerate progress by helping the network partners learn from each other.

Teach For All is a unique concept, one that has made a difference in education in the 41 participating countries. What are the common challenges in education in these countries?

We have seen that all over the world, in the least developed countries and the most developed, the circumstances of a child’s birth generally predict their education and life outcomes. We have also seen that the roots of this problem are similar from place to place—including the extra challenges facing whole segments of children depending on their economic background or their gender or race or religion, the inadequacy of capacity within our current schools to address these challenges, and certain mindsets, policies, and practices. For example, at the first school I ever visited in India, the school’s principal told us that given the extra challenges facing the children, it just was not reasonable to expect them to achieve as much as more privileged children. I had seen this as a common mindset in the United States, too, and one that plays a big part in holding children back from exploring their full potential.

As I saw many striking patterns in the roots of the problem, I began fearing that we were fighting the forces of gravity. But ultimately I realise that there is a silver lining; that solutions are sharable and that we can increase the pace of change if we can learn from each other across borders. This is what we are working to achieve at Teach For All—to create a network of organisations that foster locally rooted, globally informed leadership to ensure that all children fulfil their potential.

Educational inequity is prevalent even in the most developed countries. Your comment on this.

The issue of educational inequ ity—the gaps in educational outcomes that persist along socio-economic lines—is global and all pervasive. You see it in the global North, the global South.

Teach For All network partners share a commitment to provide an equitable, excellent education for their nations’ most underserved children. This challenge is so urgent —today’s children will need to have the skills, abilities and values to navigate rapidly changing economies, the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, and conflict resulting from intolerance and extremism. It is my greatest hope that we will be able to provide them with the type of education that can equip them not just to navigate these challenges but to lead the world in overcoming them, to shape a better future for themselves and for all of us.

This will require fostering not just academic skills, but critical thinking and problem-solving skills, a sense of empathy and agency.

Teach For India’s leadership/fellowship programme is sought after. It is interesting to find graduates from top universities opting for a less lucrative option such as this programme.

The response has been encouraging, in India and all over the world. I think graduates and young professionals are responding to an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, something that will strengthen their nations. Through Teach For India, fellows can see a huge impact of their contributions right away by undertaking one of the most significant leadership responsibilities—the responsibility to put a class of kids on a path to meaningfully different options. And in so doing, they become part of a movement for fundamental transformation and lasting change.

Although the programme requires participants to commit to two years in the classroom, they never leave the work. Many find ways to assume leadership roles within education, policy and other related sectors, while others move into business or law but with a commitment to leveraging resources in those sectors to benefit the larger cause.

Education is a state responsibility in most countries. Yet non-profit organisations are increasingly assuming the role of providing quality education.

We have seen that civil society can play an important role in fostering innovation and bringing much-needed additional resources to bear. But we also believe we must work in deep partnership with government. On this visit, I was so excited to spend time with Teach For India in Chennai, where the government invited its engagement and supports the programme financially and in other ways.

In most countries, the gap or divide between those who have access to good education and those who do not is wide. Teach For All has been addressing this. What are the efforts taken to close this gap?

This is a huge challenge all over the world. The challenges that hold children back are complex. No one thing by itself will solve the problem. Fundamental changes have to be made in many areas. The question we are asking at Teach For All is, who is going to do all this, in a world where many of the most promising future leaders channel their energy everywhere but towards this issue? This is what we are working to change—to develop collective leadership in order to ensure that all children fulfil their potential.

India has been working hard to improve its education indicators. Yet the numbers are not encouraging. Around 70 per cent of the students do not make it to higher education. What must change?

The solution is to enlist more people to exert their leadership towards developing and implementing ideas that will enable all children to have the opportunity to explore their talents and pursue their full potential.

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