Teach For America dispatches young university graduates to schools in poor communities across the United States to help teach children who have difficulties learning according to the standard curriculum. Since its launch more than 20 years ago, the NGO has seen a sharp increase in the number of supporters and schools taking part in the program. It has now built a global network that also includes Teach For Japan.
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I first came up with the idea of starting the NGO Teach for America around 20 years ago, when I was a senior at Princeton University. As a public policy major, I was very focused on the issue of educational inequity. Though the United States aspires to be a place of equal opportunity, in actual fact, the level of education children receive depends on their economic circumstances. Where kids are born really determines their life outcomes.
I was part of what was then called the "Me Generation." Supposedly, all we wanted to do was make a lot of money and work on Wall Street. I just thought--if people were being recruited to work for two years in investment banks, couldn't this same energy be recruited for educational purposes?
I came up with a model whereby new graduates would teach for two years in poor communities, at junior high schools and high schools where students have difficulty concentrating on studying. After writing my graduation thesis on the issue, I began working toward realizing the idea of "ensuring all kids have access to an excellent education."
Using funds solicited from the private sector and individuals, we recruit new graduates, train them and research which schools to send them to. Though most of our recruits don't have any traditional teaching qualifications, they do receive some educational training that enables them to teach in a capacity similar to that of a substitute teacher, a position recognized in every state.
50,000 SENIORS RECRUITED EACH YEAR
Around 50,000 graduating seniors applied to the Teach For America program this year, with 15 percent of my alma mater Princeton University's senior class also applying to join. Right now there are 9,000 members teaching in 43 regions across the United States. Many of our recruits have turned down job offers from investment banks and IT firms in order to join the program. We also have 24,000 alumni in the United States, two-thirds of whom have stayed in education, while our activities are supported by up to 1,600 staff members.
These people have displayed leadership skills at many schools and have relentlessly worked to motivate, encourage and guide their students. The kids have also seen their grades improving. By teaching for two years, our recruits can have a transformational impact--not only on the children's lives--but also on their own.
One of our teachers was sent to teach at a high school in the run-down Bronx district of New York. She walked into her first class and told her students, "OK, guys, this is your chance to make history." She worked very hard with the students, and every last child ended up passing a very rigorous state college preparation exam. This was a test that hardly any student had taken before, with the few who had taken it all failing.
So why are so many talented graduates signing up for our program? They are doing so because they want to effect transformational change in the United States and make the country stronger. They are driven to tackle a fundamental social problem with people who share the same convictions. Our recruits are also searching for a way to live a life of meaning.
FACING "THE IMPOSSIBLE" WITH ENTHUSIASM
A question must be asked about why these young people with no teaching experience have been able to motivate and inspire their students to flourish and achieve better results, a task beyond many veteran teachers. The fact is, these young people are full of enthusiasm and have not yet learned what is impossible. It is precisely because they are inexperienced that they can channel their energy so resolutely into issues that many veteran teachers have given up on. They can establish and achieve goals that may seem impossible to older people who may feel a little more cynical about the way the world works.
This description also applies to me. When I first came up with the idea of launching Teach For America, I was told that I was crazy, that I couldn't do it and wouldn't be able to inspire talented graduates to join, but I just thought I needed to explain to people why my ideas made sense. In order to solicit funding, I sent my graduation thesis randomly to 30 CEOs from some of the United States' biggest companies. Only two people agreed to meet with me, but they listened to what I had to say and then introduced me to many other people, with our NGO expanding as a result.
However, managing an organization of this scale and sustaining it financially was very challenging. One magazine even published an article saying that Teach For America would be closing its doors due to bankruptcy. There are always forces in the educational world that defend the status quo and resist change, but we found a few champions in the private and public sector and, by leveraging these allies, we managed to widen our support base and gain more allies. Our donations have increased by 30 percent each year for the last 10 years, and we now receive $250 million (19.84 billion yen) annually.
We launched the global "Teach For All" network five years ago and there are now similar organizations in 23 countries around the world, including India and Britain. "Teach For Japan" is the 23rd organization to join our network. Even in developed nations such as Japan, some students don't have a chance to fulfill their true potential.
The problem of educational inequity exists everywhere, regardless of whether a country is developed or not. I started out thinking there were massive cultural differences and wondered whether the U.S. model would make sense anywhere else. However, after talking to people in each country, I realized we can also share solutions together. Our educational program gives talented young people the chance to show leadership. I hope Japan's promising future leaders will also stand up and make this their cause.
(This article was compiled by Noriko Akiyama from Asahi Shimbun's GLOBE.)
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Wendy Kopp, CEO, Teach for America
Born in 1967, Wendy Kopp launched Teach For America in 1990. In 2008, she was chosen by Time magazine as one of its "100 most influential people in the world."
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