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Teach for America Answers Obama's Education Call

Feb 11, 2011 – 9:30 AM
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President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address called for more young people to join the effort to close the vast achievement gap that exists in the United States.

It turns out that Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach for America, had been ready for the president's call for 20 years.

For two decades, Teach for America has been recruiting elite college graduates to work as teachers in low-income communities that face educational challenges.

Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach for America.
Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images
Teach for America CEO Wendy Kopp, seen here in 2008, says, "We need transformational change" in education.
"When kids facing the challenges of poverty are given the chances they deserve, they excel," Kopp said. "The [Teach for America] vision is that one day all kids in America will have the chance to attain an excellent education."

Kopp -- whose recently published book, "A Chance to Make History," details her campaign to bring educational equity to America -- says she's witnessed real change during her organization's existence when problems are tackled aggressively.

"Incremental change does not change lives," she said. "We need transformational change. Fifteen years ago we would not have been able to take you to one school in New York City facing challenges of poverty [that was also] putting kids in a trajectory where they would have the same educational outcomes as kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

"Today, we can show you 40. They are changing the trajectory of kids. In our high-poverty communities, only half of our kids are attaining high school degrees. Without a high school degree, there is no future. [But] we can solve this problem."

Teach for America -- think of it as a Peace Corps for teachers -- has been a two-way success.

The nonprofit organization has been successful in luring graduates from Harvard, Princeton and Yale away from budding careers on Wall Street to instead invest two years teaching disadvantaged children for comparatively low pay.

According to Kopp, each year about 47,000 graduates from around the country apply to join the organization to fill the roughly 8,000 open positions.

"[Graduates] are doing this because they want to make a difference, and they view this as our generation's civil rights issue," Kopp said.

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"They are not doing it for money. They are hired on basic teacher salaries, but clearly they could make a lot more money in other pursuits."

This weekend, the organization will host a 20th anniversary "summit" in Washington, D.C., where more than 10,000 alumni are expected to attend.

Speakers at the event will include U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Grammy Award winner and Teach for America board member John Legend, and writer and activist Gloria Steinem.

"Just two years channeling your energy in this direction can make a lifetime of difference for kids," Kopp said.

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