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MANILA, Philippines – Wendy Kopp could have easily climbed the corporate ladder after graduating from Princeton University. Instead she chose a different pathway and started a non-profit organization that would have an impact on millions of young lives.
Kopp, 46, is the co-founder of Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits top university graduates across the United States to teach for two years in urban and rural schools.
During a talk in Makati City on Thursday, May 2, Kopp narrated how TFA was born out of her deep concern for education inequality in the US and a disdain for the more conventional career paths available to her as a college graduate.
“All these investment banks and management consulting firms were banging on our doors trying to get us to commit just two years to work in their firms,” said Kopp. She was puzzled about why other professions weren’t marketed as strongly – “why (weren’t) we being recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teach in our highest-need communities?”
In 1989, she turned her undergraduate thesis into an idea for a nationwide corps of teachers and leaders for education. With a lot of bravado and a little help from oil magnate Ross Perot, Kopp got the initial US$2.5 million funding she needed to get TFA off the ground.
More than two decades later, TFA now has over 28,000 alumni – 63% of whom are working full time in the education sector as teachers, principals, and school system administrators.
Since 2007, Kopp has focused her attention on expanding the program to other countries as the CEO of Teach for All. She is in Manila for two days to meet with the fellows of Teach for the Philippines (TFP) – one of only two global partners in Southeast Asia – and to talk to business leaders.
The dearth of quality education for millions of Filipino youth has had a significant impact on the country’s economy and the overall welfare of society, according to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).
The government estimates that there are close to 10 million Filipinos who are unemployed or are looking for additional jobs to meet their needs. A mismatch between skills taught to students and the jobs available is a major reason behind the numbers.
Ramon del Rosario Jr, chairman of the Makati Business Club (MBC), believes the government’s K to 12 program, which adds two additional years of high school to the curriculum, will help address the mismatch. More important, however, is the improvement in the teaching quality. And this is where the private sector can contribute the most.
“(We need) to address the declining quality of our graduates,” del Rosario said at the May 2 talk organized by the MBC, the Management Association of the Philippines, and the non-profit Philippine Business for Education (PBeD). “It is in the interest of business to advance the quality of education (in the country).”
For Kopp, investing in education isn’t just about good business sense. “It’s a moral injustice we’re not providing our kids with the opportunities to fulfill their potential,” she told the CEOs gathered at the talk. “It’s a life threatening issue.”
She challenged the private sector to encourage graduates to teach by promising them employment and quicker career advancement after they serve as teachers. This way, businesses are able to train the country’s future leaders. Kopp added that some American companies hire graduates first and then allow them to join the Teach for America program before starting work.
This June, Teach for the Philippines will deploy 54 teaching “fellows” to 10 public elementary schools in Quezon City. The members of the inaugural cohort are graduates of the country’s top schools. Some are Filipino-Americans who have decided to return to the country. Many of them have never had formal training in education prior to entering the program.
It is the hope of Wendy Kopp, together with TFP co-founders Lizzie Zobel, Margarita Delgado, and Clarissa Delgado, that these young, idealistic fellows will stay involved in education reform even after their two-year tenure ends.
“Ultimately, we want each of the teachers to ask themselves what they personally are going to do to address the problem that they saw first-hand in their classrooms. And for some of them, they’ll decide to stay in the classroom, others will say ‘I want to become a school principal,’ ‘I want to get on the track to running a school system.’ So that’s the idea that each of them can ask how they can make the greatest possible impact on the problem,” said Kopp.
Critics of Teach for All – some of them alumni of the program – argue that putting fresh graduates into high-need schools can potentially do more damage than good. Others question whether two years is enough to make an impact in an overburdened school system.
But Kopp is not easily daunted. She is the first to admit that there are no silver bullets to the problem.
In her travels across the different countries where Teach For All is making headway, she has found that, though each country’s education situation is different, there are many “remarkable similarities” in the nature of the solutions; and these solutions are shareable and scalable.
“Leadership is at the core of the solution to ensure one day children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” she said. “The only question is whether enough of our future leaders can ensure this vision is reached.” – Rappler.com
Watch this video of TFA CEO Wendy Kopp talking to the staff of Teach for the Philippines about bringing the program to different countries (video courtesy of TFP):