2007 Commencement

Sunday, May 27, 2007 - 16:16
Commencement Address
By Wendy Kopp
May 27, 2007

It is a real privilege to be here with you this morning. First, because I have a great appreciation for Mount Holyoke. I have seen firsthand through the Mount Holyoke alums at Teach For America that you produce committed, inspired leaders, and I hope the faculty and administration here can reflect this morning on the difference you are making for individuals and communities through your work.

And, it is inspiring to reflect on the accomplishment that today represents for you graduates and your families. I grew up surrounded by the expectation that attending and graduating from college was a given. But in the communities where Teach for America works, a small fraction of the children will ultimately graduate from college, and now that my life's work is about tackling this inequity in opportunity, I have a greater appreciation than I used to have for the achievement of graduation. I can only imagine the different stories of your lives, the different sorts of opportunities you have each had, and the challenges you have each faced. You should feel an incredible collective sense of accomplishment--for yourselves and for each other--for what you have learned and what you have achieved. And as a mother of three little ones, I can only imagine how proud you parents must be. Congratulations to all of you.

It is an honor to have the opportunity to share with you graduates a few reflections at this pivotal point in your lives. I thought I would spend my time talking with you about the possibility of change and about a couple of things to keep in mind as you personally endeavor to make a difference in the world.

I was struck recently to hear Muhammad Yunus's message when he received the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his work pioneering and spreading the idea of microcredit--giving loans to poor people without any financial security. His message, after more than three decades in using this approach to address poverty, was that he firmly believes we can eliminate poverty. "I strongly believe that we can create a poverty-free world, if we want to.... In that kind of world, [the] only place you can see poverty is in the museum," he said. "Poverty in the world is an artificial creation; it does not belong to human civilization. We can change it."

Wow. Most of us view poverty as a massive and daunting problem--a problem we are unlikely to solve in our lifetimes. We think that because we know that almost half the world's population--three billion people--live on less than $2 per day, that approximately 790 million people in the developing world are chronically undernourished, which is the equivalent of every single person in both North and South America going hungry every day. But Muhammad Yunus deeply believes, based on his work in understanding the causes and solutions to poverty, that we can in fact eliminate poverty in our lifetime.

The reason his message struck me so powerfully is that it's so consistent with what I've seen firsthand about educational inequity. We can solve it.

The inequity in educational opportunity here in the United States is also a massive and daunting problem. Thirteen million children live below the poverty line in our nation today. By the time they are in fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind their peers in privileged communities. Only half will graduate from high school by the time they are 18, and those who do will have on average an eighth grade skill level. Fewer than 10 percent will graduate from college.

When I started out in this, I was driven by idealism--by a belief that things should be different--that we should be a nation in which all children, regardless of where they are born, have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Yet what has kept me and my colleagues in this work is not only the magnitude of the problem and the consequences for individuals, communities, and our country and society, but what we have learned about its solvability.

I talked recently with Sehba Ali, who graduated from college in 1998 and taught sixth and eighth grades in a school in Houston through Teach for America. I talked with her because I had heard that she had started and runs a school that serves students from low-income families that is now one of the very highest performing schools in California--based on California's standards, it is among the top 3 percent of schools in the state.

Sehba was originally pre-med, had ultimately majored in psychology, and was drawn to teach for two years to address the inequities that exist in our education system. In her first year, she taught sixth and eighth graders. A group of her students had been labeled the "heaven help us" group by other teachers in the school. Yet Sehba realized that these students, who had been all but given up on, had tremendous potential. She felt that they were essentially the same kids as the students in the private school she attended growing up, but were just not being given the same opportunities. A month into her first year, she knew she would never leave this--that she wouldn't feel easy going to sleep at night if she wasn't doing her part to address this situation.

After teaching in Houston and getting a graduate degree, Sehba returned to her hometown of San Jose to start a school serving its most disadvantaged students. About 80 percent of her students, who are selected by lottery, qualify for federal free and reduced-price meals, over 60 percent are designated as English Language Learners when they arrive, and 99 percent are students of color, 90 percent of whom will be the first in their families to go to college.

The school Sehba founded and runs is part of a national network of high performing public schools called the Knowledge Is Power Program. Her objective is to build a community of students who have the academic skills and strength of character to be successful in college and to make positive change throughout their lives. She named her school KIPP Heartwood, which is the term for the living tissue of redwood trees. Redwood trees are a symbol of strength in the Bay Area--if something happens to a redwood tree, it rebuilds from the heartwood. She builds the culture of her school around the idea of having HEART--honor, excellence, absolute determination, responsibility, and team.

At KIPP Heartwood, the students, their parents, and the teachers all sign a contract committing to a great deal of hard work. Kids attend school from 7:30 in the morning until 5 at night, on Saturdays and during the summer. The students commit to work hard, the parents to ensure they're at school and that they finish their homework, the teachers to do whatever it takes to ensure their students excel.

When Sehba's students first arrive at her school, they are at around the thirtieth percentile in reading and at the fiftieth percentile in math compared with other students across the country. Two years later, the school's sixth graders are at the ninety-fifth percentile in math and at the seventy-eighth percentile in reading. When the San Jose Mercury News rated schools based on sixth grade math scores, her school's students tied for first place, as the highest performing students in math in the entire county, outscoring students in the plush communities of Palo Alto, Los Gatos, and Los Altos. Sehba's students entered her school far behind, but in two years she has put them on a level playing field with students in some of our country's very most privileged communities. She is changing her student's lives and showing the rest of us what is possible.

Most Americans view educational inequity as an intractable problem. Every year, Gallup surveys the public, asking why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities. Out of 20 options, the public responds "lack of student motivation," "lack of parental involvement," and "home-life issues." In other words, most Americans believe this is an entrenched societal problem rather than a problem that our schools can change. Of course, if you ask Sehba Ali why we have this problem, her answers will be very different. She knows kids are motivated and that parents help when they're given good opportunities. She believes that this problem is within our control to solve.

In classrooms across the country, and now in whole schools--not only in Sehba's, but in a new generation of similarly high performing schools in communities across the country--we see evidence that change is possible, that not only should the world be different, but it could be.

It is interesting to reflect on the implications of this most salient lesson of our work, and on Muhammad Yunus's analysis of poverty. For me and my colleagues at Teach for America, recognizing the possibility of change has fueled an immense sense of responsibility, a tremendous sense of urgency. If educational inequity, or poverty, is solvable, it is the moral responsibility of those of us who have been given so much to do everything in our power to realize that change.

As I have engaged in this challenge over the years, I have reflected on what it takes to effect the kind of change we are working to see and have become convinced of two things that may be worth thinking about as you head out into the world seeking to make a difference in the field of your choice. First is the power of inexperience, and second is the importance of time. At first, these two things seem to be in direct contradiction, but I have come to believe that embracing them both simultaneously may hold the key to solving the most entrenched social problems in our world.

First, about an asset that you uniquely hold at this particular juncture in your lives. There's something about the fresh perspective, the naiveté, the limitless energy that comes along with inexperience that enables recent graduates to solve problems that many more experienced people have given up on.

Teach for America is in many ways a story about the power of inexperience. It began when I was a senior in college, as part of a generation dubbed the "Me Generation" because people thought all we wanted to do was focus on ourselves and make a lot of money. That label didn't strike me as right. My peers and I were generally struggling in our search for what we wanted to do. At the same time that we applied to two-year corporate training programs and sought out political internships, many of us were searching for a way to make a social impact that we simply weren't finding. One day my sense about our generation and my concern about educational inequity led to an inspiration: Why doesn't our country have a national teacher corps that recruits us to teach in low-income communities the same way we're being recruited to work on Wall Street? I needed a thesis topic and decided that this idea would be it.

People thought this was a little crazy. When I wrote a long and passionate letter to the President of the United States suggesting he start this corps, I received a job rejection letter in response. When I declared in my thesis that I would try to create such a corps myself, my thesis advisor pronounced me "deranged." When he looked at the budget I had included in the thesis, which showed that to recruit and train 500 new teachers into this corps during the first year would cost two and a half million dollars, he asked me if I knew how hard it was to raise $2,500, let alone two and a half million dollars. But aided by my inexperience, I was unfazed by these reactions. When school district officials literally laughed at the notion that the Me Generation would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural communities, their concerns too went unheard.

That year 2,500 graduating seniors competed to enter Teach for America in response to a grassroots recruitment campaign--flyers under doors since there was no email back then. And one year after I graduated, with two and a half million dollars in hand from the corporate and foundation community, I was looking out on an auditorium full of 489 recent college graduates who had joined Teach for America's first corps.

My very greatest asset in reaching this point was that I simply did not understand what was impossible. Teach for America would not exist today were it not for my naiveté.

I see this same phenomenon every day as I watch 22-year-olds walking into classrooms and setting goals for themselves and their students that most believe to be entirely unrealistic. Despite the conventional wisdom that there is only so much schools can do to overcome the challenges of poverty, individuals like Sarah White, who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2004, have naively aspired to put their students on a level playing field.

Sarah taught seventh grade special education in Philadelphia, which is one of the most challenged school systems in the nation. At beginning of the year, her seventh graders were performing on average at the third and fourth grade levels. Many would have resigned themselves to the inevitability of the achievement gap for Sarah's students.

But Sarah resolved to change things. She was straightforward with her kids about where they were performing and about the fact that if they worked hard enough they would excel in math. She taught them about their particular disabilities and the different ways they learned so that they would know what they had to do to learn. Few teachers would have been so bold--to share with students how far behind they are, to tell them that despite the differences in their learning styles, they could attain not just a year's worth of progress in a year's time but could make enough progress to catch up with students in regular education. Yet Sarah did exactly that--she and her students set out to attain several years of progress in a year's time.

Her students tracked their own progress. They did lots of homework, called at night for homework help, and came to school on Saturday. Sarah even pulled them out of other classes for more math instruction, which she felt badly about since she knew her students deserved exposure to all sorts of enriching activities and classes, but she felt an urgency to get them on track to having the skills they would need to have real choices in life. At the end of her year, Sarah's students--students who had not made one year's progress in a year's time in the seven years until they reached her class, made more than five years of growth on average in math. She is here this morning, along with one of the students she is teaching now at a school in New Haven.

Sarah's ambition to change her students' academic trajectory, which many more experienced people might have thought crazy, had unleashed enormous amounts of energy and produced significant academic gains that have the potential to literally change the lives of her students.

The world needs you before you accept the status quo, before you are plagued by the knowledge of what is impossible. I hope you will put your inexperience to good use. Ask your naïve questions. Set your audacious goals.

The second thing I have learned in this pursuit of solving a massive and entrenched problem is about the importance of time--about the rewards of perseverance, of gaining the hard-won insights that come from sticking with sizeable challenges and embracing steep learning curves.

The real story of Teach for America came after that first year, when I saw how much I had to learn and what it would actually take to fulfill our mission. As our corps members began teaching, we realized how incredibly hard it would be to recruit individuals straight out of college and train and support them so that they would not just survive, but rather would succeed as teachers in our country's most under-resourced communities, so that they would leave their experience with a deeper commitment to change and not more disillusioned about its possibility. And there were many other hard-learned lessons--about how to manage an enterprise at this scale, and how to keep it afloat. There were many times when I wasn't sure I was going to make it. There was a lot of failure and there were many mistakes, just as there were successes. Even today, we are still pushing ourselves as hard as we ever have, to build Teach for America into a fundamental force in the movement to eliminate educational inequity by building a force of leaders capable of changing the educational and life prospects of their students and who go on, beyond their initial two-year commitment, to address the disparities in our nation in fundamental, lasting ways.

As the momentum around our efforts has grown--to the point where this year, despite the strongest job market in five years, 18,000 graduating seniors applied to Teach for America--people have asked me whether I envisioned this--whether I ever dreamed we would reach this point. The thing is, I did envision it--I thought we'd reach this point in year two or three! What I didn't envision was how long it would take.

What I have come to appreciate is that things that matter take time. We live in an era when it is rare to meet people in their 20s and 30s who have stayed with something for more than a few years. And certainly, in some cases the right thing is to experiment and move on. But in many cases, the right thing is to stay with something, internalize tough lessons, and push yourself to new levels of knowledge and responsibility. Deep and widespread change comes from sticking with things.

As you head off from Mount Holyoke, my greatest hope for you is that you will find a purpose greater than yourself, in pursuit of which you will be brave enough to ask your naïve questions and to persevere past failures that are an inevitable part of tackling massive problems.

No doubt, Muhammed Yunus has discovered the solvability of poverty because he proposed an idea widely thought to be crazy three decades ago and then determined enough to devote his life to perfecting it and spreading it, to the point that he has loaned $5 billion to the poor, lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty. What led him to challenge prevailing notions initially and then, as the work became more and more challenging, to keep going? No doubt it was the passion he gained for helping people out of poverty. For me, on a smaller scale, it was also a deep belief in this cause--a cause so much greater than myself--that enabled me to take the sometimes terrifying leaps outside of my comfort zone during the years after I graduated and that then, even as things got much tougher, have left me feeling no option but to keep at it.

When I asked Sarah why she stepped out into the unknown and challenged expectations about what students in her class could accomplish, she said she cared so much about her kids that she just had to. When I asked Sehba how she can work so incredibly hard, she too spoke as if she couldn't imagine any other choice given the impact she sees happening for her kids and their families.

It is exhausting to have true passions, but it is hard to imagine anything more fulfilling. My very deepest hope for you is that you find your way to a pursuit that is so important to you that you will approach it with the boldness and the perfectionist zeal necessary to effect meaningful change and to gain the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from that. Good luck.

Related Links:

Commencement Address - Audio (QuickTime: 15.9 MB, Time: 23 minutes)
By Wendy Kopp

Honorary Degree Citation

2007 Commencement Home Page