Wendy Kopp to Graduates: Think Globally

During remarks at the University of Oklahoma’s 2014 commencement on May 9, Teach For All CEO Wendy Kopp charged this generation of young leaders to look beyond U.S. borders for new perspectives and innovations, in order to advance solutions to global problems like educational inequity. The following is a transcript of the commencement address:

Good evening, President Boren, Deans, faculty, distinguished guests, family and loved ones, and most especially, the University of Oklahoma Class of 2014!


I know that you’ll take time today to celebrate with the family that has supported you, with the comrades and colleagues who have braved all-nighters and grueling finals with you, and with the friends who have been there for you through victory and defeat—both here in Memorial Stadium and out. You deserve to celebrate, because today is the culmination of years of hard work and learning.

After the celebration dies down and you walk off this campus, I want to encourage you today to keep walking, walk far past the borders of this state and this country, cross the lines of your comfort zones, and allow your choices to be informed by the rest of the world.

At the Heart

You have been studying and researching and learning in the heart of America. I grew up in Texas, and I know there’s a certain perception of insularity in this part of the country. Oklahoma is perhaps not generally thought of as cosmopolitan, or as a place for meaningful cultural exchange.  Unless, of course, the culture is football.

But the truth behind the perception is that OU is leading the way in showing young people the rest of the world, by sending a full quarter of your students to study abroad, and by nurturing a growing College of International Studies that is setting a high bar for institutions all over the country. With programs in over 50 countries and 100 cities on six continents, and international students from 120 countries enrolled here—400 of whom graduate today—it turns out that here in the heartland you are reaching out far beyond our borders.

I’ve had the chance to get to know one of your young alumni, Ta Pholpoke, who was born and raised in Bangkok but came to OU to study political science.   He graduated two years ago and went back to his country to found Teach For Thailand—in part, he's told me, because he saw that the most accomplished students here at OU wanted to go teach in urban and rural communities across the U.S. with Teach For America. He became convinced that his peers back home would do the same to tackle the vast inequities that Thai students face. Teach For Thailand will place its first 30 teachers in some of the highest need schools in Bangkok this year. In five years, he envisions fielding hundreds of teachers all over the country, ultimately growing a force of advocates for equity in education.  He’s doing this because he knows—in fact, he learned here in his International Activism class—that none of our social change efforts will work unless we improve education.  

Ta’s story shows how powerful it can be when the rest of the world exposes their young people to the culture and innovations of the United States.  Our country, unfortunately, doesn’t do nearly as good a job as we should when it comes to exposing our own young people to the culture and innovations of the rest of the world. 

Challenging U.S. Parochialism

Our nation was built by many people from all over the world—people with many different perspectives and ideas who wove the tapestry that became the United States.  Perhaps because of this history and an engrained sense of self-reliance, we learned to look inward for solutions, and our mindset became parochial. 

Take our approach to language instruction.  While the rest of the world works hard to increase multilingualism, we’ve cut public elementary and middle school language offerings by more than 10 percent in the last 15 years. Eighteen percent of Americans speak a language other than English, while 53 percent of Europeans do.  A full quarter of the population in a country as underdeveloped as India speaks more than one language.   The rest of the world is learning English so quickly that we may well be able to communicate with others even if we don’t learn their languages—but we won’t be able to achieve the connectedness and understanding that comes from being able to speak in another’s first language. 

My fear is that we’re fine with that, that we don’t recognize how much we can learn from others, how much better off we’d be if we could collaborate with colleagues around the world as we undertake to solve our toughest challenges—challenges that, I’ve learned, are remarkably similar the world over.  

As Sooners, you know the value of being one step ahead and we need you to lead the way in pushing back the frontiers of our thinking.  I want to call on you today to forge a new American mindset—one that recognizes the power and importance of taking a global approach. 

My Story

This may sound strange coming from someone who has spent a good portion of her last 25 years building an organization called Teach For America.

For almost 20 years, I was exclusively focused on addressing the massive inequities in this country.  I knew that our nation, which aspires so admirably to be The Land of Opportunity, doesn’t live up to its promise.   Millions of our nation’s children face extraordinary challenges of poverty and attend schools that don’t meet them with the extra supports and high expectations they need to fulfill their potential. Without that kind of education, they cannot access the kinds of jobs that would enable them to break the cycle of poverty, to become the civic leaders who can shape a stronger and more just nation.  So for nearly 20 years, I had my head down, working to cultivate a force of leaders who go all out, both during initial two-year teaching commitments and in what become lifelong commitments, to solve this problem. 

I believe deeply in the power of this work and in the importance of Teach For America getting bigger and better.  OU has been a wonderful source of graduates for this mission—including 25 2014 grads who will enter our corps this year!

About eight years ago, though, I was jolted out of my head-down focus on our own challenges because there was something in the water in the rest of the world.  I started hearing from committed, passionate people from India to Lebanon to Chile who were determined to adapt the model of Teach For America to their countries. 

Shaheen Mistri, a social entrepreneur about my age, was already well known in India for founding and growing transformational afterschool programs that put children in the slums of Mumbai and Pune on a path to a better education and better life.  Shaheen had met alumni of Teach For America who were volunteering in her program, and she became enamored with the possibilities of what a Teach For India could do by engaging India’s future leaders in this work.  So she found her way to my office in New York and asked if I’d come to India.

Shaheen was very persuasive about the immense need in India, the home of 20 percent of the world’s young people, more than 40 percent of whom won’t get a primary education and 90 percent of whom won’t get through high school.  And so I went.  As I sat on the plane, though, I wondered whether it really made sense.  India would be so different.  What did I know that would be helpful to them?

When I got to India we started visiting schools.  The classrooms we visited in Mumbai were filled with children from “slums” where children are essentially growing up on the streets, without access to early education, health care, or adequate nutrition, let alone the enrichment that more resourced environments provide.  Their schools didn’t have extra supports and resources to meet the students' needs, and so they were way behind in basic skills, let alone critical thinking skills. I was struck by the realization that these circumstances were so similar to those facing the children in the classrooms I would visit in the South Bronx or the Mississippi Delta, or would find in the inner cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.  In fact, the most marginalized children in India probably had more in common with the most marginalized children in the U.S. than with the more privileged kids in their own country.

In the first school we visited in Mumbai, the school’s principal articulated to us that given the extra challenges facing the children, it just wasn’t reasonable to meet students with the same expectations as more privileged children.  This is a common mindset in the United States, and I’ve come to see it as one of the root causes of the issue we're addressing here.  

Over time, I would see many more striking patterns in the mindsets, policies, and practices that fuel this issue.  At first, this just seemed so depressing.  We were clearly fighting the forces of gravity when it comes to addressing the opportunity gap for children born into poverty.  But ultimately I realized that there’s a silver lining.  It means the solutions are shareable.

Shareable Solutions

As someone who had spent her first four decades in the United States, I have a deep appreciation for the brilliance and conscience of the people of this country. But over the last eight years in this work I've met similarly committed hearts, brilliant minds and compassionate souls all around the world.  And I’ve seen firsthand that diverse cultures and contexts inspire innovation.

When it came time for Shaheen to develop the framework for preparing Teach For India’s teachers, she looked carefully at Teach For America’s approach.  And she found that the conclusions we’d reached here about how to work with the most marginalized children were extremely similar to her own conclusions after years working in India. But she took what we had done here in the United States and innovated on it. In creating Teach For India’s curriculum, she drew from her own experience and decided to further emphasize the development of teachers’ passion and conviction.  The first class of Teach For India fellows spent a day doing the jobs of the laboring families whose children they would teach; I’ve heard their fellows talk about how sorting trash for just a day fueled their commitment to giving their students more options.  A couple of years later, Teach For America sent its training staff to India to understand their adaptations, and in part because of this, incoming Teach For America corps members spend more time in communities, gaining experiences that are designed to cultivate the mindsets that we’ve seen in the most successful teachers in our context.

Of course we’re not the first to find solutions across borders.

Microcredit lending as we know it today began in Bangladesh and is now used in dozens of countries to give impoverished families an opportunity to be entrepreneurs. After the financial crisis, families in the U.S. started using these tiny loans to start home businesses, supplementing part time jobs or making up for income lost after layoffs.

Japanese automakers took the genius of Henry Ford’s assembly lines and made them leaner, more efficient, and more responsive to the market. Now, American automakers are studying those innovations, and adapting them to work here.

A game that had been played in one form or another for centuries in the British Isles came to America and was shaped into the football of today. And then Oklahoma perfected it.

And yet, as much as there obviously is to learn from the rest of the world, it’s not our instinct to look abroad for solutions.  I’ve seen how true this is in the realm I know well: education.

A couple of decades ago, Shanghai had a school system that was plagued by the same problems we’re facing here. There were significant disparities between the achievement levels of native children and the children of migrant families, and overall educational levels were low. Today, the best international measures we have show that Shanghai has the highest levels of educational excellence and equity in the world—to the point where their 15 year olds are now on average 3 grade levels ahead of kids in Massachusetts, our highest performing state.  Imagine that. What could be more important than getting ourselves to Shanghai and finding out how they've done this?  

And yet I’ve heard so many people assume that there’s nothing to learn from this—that their outcomes can’t possibly truly be stronger than ours, or that if they are, it must be a function of cultural factors, or government efficiency we could never replicate. What I’ve learned from travelling there and from talking to their principals and teachers and education policy makers, however, is that they are doing things that we can learn so much from, things that we can adapt here. They’ve invested in their teachers through freeing up 30 percent of their time for ongoing professional development. They’ve embraced rigorous curriculum standards that challenge students to think critically. They’ve fostered a belief that achieving equity is important for the welfare of all children, even the most advantaged, and have pursued policies that integrate the most disadvantaged children and provide them with extra support. 

This past fall, I had a chance to meet Minxuan Zhang, who has been at the center of this transformation in Shanghai for the last 20 years. He said, “The number one reason for our success is our open door policy,” explaining that Shanghai had sent its educators around the world to learn from other systems, and that what they learned drove a revolution in their approach.

If we’re not doing the same—if we’re not sending people out to learn all they possibly can from places like Shanghai—we are shortchanging our future.

Our Fates are Interconnected

Over the past eight years, as I’ve had the privilege of working with deeply committed social entrepreneurs from Pakistan to South Africa to Mexico, I’ve reflected a lot not only on how much we can all learn from each other but also on the degree to which our collective welfare depends on our helping each other.

Globally, 250 million children aren't on track to learning even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills, despite most of them being in school. This reality limits lives and possibilities with tragic consequences for children, families, and communities. We must remain committed to tackling this situation in our own country. But we cannot afford to ignore its global dimensions.   It matters for kids and families and communities in India if their children get a better education—and it also matters to us and to the rest of world whether the 20 percent of the world’s youth who are in India have a shot at doing more than sorting trash.

Today everything is interconnected—our economic prosperity, our environmental sustainability, our public safety and health.  When one economy topples, we all feel the effects. When educational disparities widen in one corner of the world, hopelessness festers and the whole world grows less safe. 

A Global Approach

So now you, this most connected of generations, have a chance to reshape our connections with the rest of the world. 

You Sooners can shift our collective mindset from one where we think we have all the answers to one where we know the best answers can be found if we put ourselves in foreign contexts, if we seek out collaborations with colleagues around the world, if we change our perspective from parochial to global. 

We should dive deeply to solve the challenges that rage in our own nation. We must.  And I’ve seen firsthand how invaluable it is, even when seeking to have a global impact, to have the deep understanding and insight that comes from grounding ourselves in our own communities.

But at the same time we are well served to put our heads together with the brilliant minds and committed souls around the world to think together about how to tackle the greatest needs and advance our collective well-being.  

Given your place in the history of our world, and your education here at the heart of it all, you are more than equal to the challenge.

Congratulations on all that you have accomplished so far, and best wishes as you continue the journey!