5 Questions With: Wendy Kopp

February 1, 2019
by Taylor Chapman
5 Questions With: Wendy Kopp


What problem are you solving today, and why is solving this problem personal for you?


First, the problem: today, all over the world, the circumstances of children’s births predict their educational outcomes – and, in turn, life outcomes. It’s a big, complex problem. It doesn’t start in classrooms or schools; it starts far outside of them.

What brings us together across the Teach For All network is a belief that real, sustained, meaningful progress against that problem requires taking it on in its full complexity. The big question we ask ourselves is: “Where will the leadership come from in order to do that?” We need leadership at every level of the education system, at every level of policy, and in the whole ecosystem around kids.

The reason it’s personal for me is – honestly – when I was a senior in college, I was in a total funk because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But one insight emerged: I felt like the whole world was open to me – like I could do anything – and I knew that that was because I happened to have the chance to have a good education.

My parents bought a house on the fringe of a community that had strong public schools, and there – and then in college – I was able to have access to an excellent education. I then found out, through rooming with a first generation college student and through my public policy major, that this just wasn’t the case for everyone.

I didn’t realize growing up how inequitable this country is. In a place that aspires to be a land of equal opportunity, we just aren’t one. That’s what made this personal and led to my life’s work.


What statistic or piece of impact are you most proud of?


Across the Teach For All network, there are more than 64,000 alumni, people who’ve finished their initial two-year commitment to teach. 75% of them are still working in education and more are in other mission-related pursuits. I think some people perceive these organizations to be only about two years of teaching – and they are about two years of teaching, but they’re also about every year after the two years and what these people go on to do, shaped by the foundation of having taught in our most marginalized communities.

To cite one concrete example of true collective impact: Pune, India, where Teach For India has placed 500 teachers over the last 10 years. Today, their alumni are running 10 transformational schools. They’re running organizations that are redeveloping 1,500 government teachers a year; training and developing a new generation of school principals; and fostering collective action among the business leaders, governmental leaders, and civil society leaders so that there’s one coherent, strategic plan for improving the system. They’re now launching a Pune Children’s Zone to connect early education services and career services to the schools. There’s much more, including a vision for 100 reimagined schools in Pune in the next decade.


What role has the NationSwell Council played in your own life or work?


We consider our ultimate purpose across the network of the Teach For All network to be developing collective leadership. The idea is that we need leadership around a whole ecosystem who will take a collective approach – meaning, we have to step beyond our individual pursuits to build relationships, have difficult discussions, and develop a shared vision so that ultimately we’re rowing in the same direction towards the ends we seek.

It’s actually really elusive, we’ve found, to develop those spaces that enable a collective approach, that enable the building of relationships, the difficult discussions. I think NationSwell is fascinating as a new way to develop those spaces and foster cross-sector collaboration.

As a specific example, there was the “Education Ecosystems” lunch early this year, with fellow members Charles Best (DonorsChoose) and Talia Milgrom-Elcott (100Kin10). It’s so funny, because Talia has an office in this building, but we rarely catch up. Then we saw each other at that NationSwell event, decided to have lunch, and I’m now bringing her in to talk with our global organization staff to bring her insights from the last 10 years of building the 100Kin10 network. It’s super relevant to some of the things that we’re trying to tackle.

I think it’s just a testament to what NationSwell is doing. We are all so busy. We’re all so focused on the big, massive challenges we’re each tackling, and it is so important to have a space that pulls people up and out of their day-to-day and fosters cross-sector insights.


If you could pick another NationSwell Council member and say, "I wish more people knew about the great work they're doing," who might it be?


I’d highlight Aaron Walker’s work at Camelback Ventures. He’s doing amazing work to support social entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds.

We’ve seen in this country dozens and dozens of social entrepreneurs taking on the interlinked issues that create inequity in our country, and they’ve done so much to drive progress. But too often, the systems and structures that support social entrepreneurs have themselves not been fully inclusive of the folks who have themselves experienced the inequity. These are the people who really need to be driving and leading the change that we seek, so that we’re not perpetuating the inequities we’re addressing.

For example, look at the work of Jonathan Johnson. He is a Teach For America alum and Camelback Fellow in New Orleans who started Rooted School. It’s a new model, focused on getting kids on a path to either a high-paying job in the tech sector, or college.

It’s all about addressing challenges he experienced himself, either in his own life or via the students he taught. He grew up fighting all the challenges of poverty in his own life, and saw that some kids literally could not wait to get through college to begin drawing a paycheck because their economic realities were so pressing.

I think Jonathan has the potential to really push our understanding about what it’s going to take to put all of our kids on a path to shaping a better future for themselves and all of us – and he may lead us to rethink some of our conceptions about higher education along the way.


What's the biggest lesson you've learned in the last 10 years?


The most striking thing we’ve learned in the Teach For All journey is how similar the roots of the problem are across countries. We started out on the global journey constantly reminding ourselves how different everything would be from place to place, reminding ourselves that there’s no cookie-cutter solution. While that is true, what we’ve seen is that the roots of the issues we’re addressing are eerily similar.

At first that seemed very depressing, like we were fighting the forces of gravity everywhere. Some of those issues play themselves out differently, but the first visit I made to India – which was the first country I visited in this whole process – I sat on a plane thinking, “I really don’t know what I’m going to have to say to these folks because the conditions in India are so different than they are in the US.” But the first thing we did was go into classrooms, and I realized that the circumstances of the kids in these classrooms were more similar to the circumstances of the kids in the South Bronx than to the more privileged kids in India.

They’re facing all the challenges of poverty – as well as low expectations, discrimination of one kind or another – and then they’re in schools that were never set up to meet their extra needs.

The silver lining in it is that you start realizing: Wow, the solutions are so much more shareable than we’ve ever assumed in education. We started with the conviction that the only path to transformational change is deeply, locally-rooted leadership. That remains true, but what we have also learned is that locally-rooted leaders can move a lot more quickly when they’re globally informed, when they’re exposed to what’s working and what’s possible in other places. That lesson has had a huge influence on our approach.

In other sectors like health and the environment, we all know our fates are interconnected. The solutions are shareable, so we’d better be working together across borders. It turns out the same is true in education, but we’re really working a lot less together across borders than we have the potential to. We’re realizing that we have such an opportunity: we’re working with this rising generation of young people everywhere who assume they should be globally connected, so we have a real opportunity to grow this force of locally-rooted, globally-informed leaders who are working for change for children.