‘We can and we will’ solve the problem of educational inequality, said Wendy Kopp, recipient of the 2010 Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership
4/9/2010 - As an undergraduate student at Princeton University, Wendy Kopp was grateful for her education — but also troubled by it.
Kopp didn’t understand why so many others couldn’t have the same educational opportunities that she had, growing up in a well-to-do community in Dallas and attending one of the best high schools in the nation. She realized that where you were born played a major role in the quality of your education and opportunities in life — and that wasn’t right.
“One day I thought, ‘You know what? Why aren’t we [at Princeton] being recruited more aggressively to teach in these impoverished areas?’” Kopp said on April 5, addressing a crowd of Kellogg and Northwestern students in the Owen L. Coon Forum. “Why not channel this talent to help those communities?”
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To make that vision a reality, Kopp founded Teach for America in 1990 with the goal of eliminating educational inequality by enlisting top college graduates to teach in urban and rural public schools. This year, Teach for America is managing more than 7,300 of these teachers, called “corps members,” and reaching more than 450,000 students nationwide.
For these reasons, the Kellogg School recognized Kopp with the 2010 Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership on April 5. The award is granted by Kellogg’s Business Leadership Club and Office of the Dean and honors those who have exhibited the highest caliber of leadership.
Previous recipients include Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO; Warren Buffet, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.; Fred Smith, chairman, president and CEO of the FedEx Corporation; and Sam Zell, chairman and president of Equity Group Investments LLC and chairman of the Tribune Company. Kopp is the first woman to receive the award.
“One of my favorite definitions of leadership is helping others contribute to making something extraordinary happen,” said Interim Dean Sunil Chopra in his introductory remarks at the award ceremony. “Wendy Kopp represents this definition.
“Your contribution as a leader depends on what you do when times get tough — because no matter what you are doing, times will get tough,” he continued. “That’s where perseverance and putting the cause above yourself becomes important, which Wendy has demonstrated.”
As she accepted the award, Kopp reminded the audience that educational inequality is a problem that is far from being solved. Currently, there are more than 14 million children living in poverty, she said. About 50 percent of students from these low-income communities will not graduate from high school by the age of 18. Those who do graduate perform on average at the level of eighth-graders in higher-income communities.
“It’s certainly possible to look at where we are in public education and be pessimistic,” Kopp said. “If you look at the aggregate data, we have not moved the needle. And yet, things have changed and give me optimism that we are going to move the needle soon.”
One of Kopp’s greatest sources of hope comes from the Teach for America corps members, who have exhibited “extraordinary leadership” in the classroom and made measurable differences in students’ academic performance, she said. Kopp acknowledged that many Kellogg students won’t enter the teaching profession, but encouraged them to think about the impact they can make as business leaders.
Fixing the problem of educational inequality is “going to take a different kind of leadership at every level of the education system and in other sectors,” she said. “We at Teach for America envision a world of many leaders who know what we know after teaching successfully in this context.”
“We can realize the vision that unites everyone at TFA: That one day all children will have the ability to obtain a quality education,” she concluded. “When the stakes are so real and so enormous, we have to make it happen. We can and we will.”