Wendy Kopp Urges Graduates to Take On Education Challenges

On May 6, 2014, Teach For All CEO Wendy Kopp delivered a commencement address in Doha, Qatar, to nearly 600 graduates of the universities of Education City. In a country that has seen tremendous development—including in higher education—over the last decade, Wendy encouraged graduates to focus on the long game and the slow, hard work of providing an excellent education for all. 

View the speech below beginning at approximately 38:00. The full transcript follows.

The Long Game Changers

Good evening, Your Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Your Excellencies, Presidents, Deans, professors, graduates, and guests.

It is an honor to be here on this day of celebration at Education City. Together, Hamad bin Khalifa University and its partner universities are doing so much to educate the future leaders of this country, region and the world.

I’m really excited to be here tonight to speak with you, the graduating class of 2014. I’m excited because of who you are—549 future leaders who have the potential and the education necessary to play vital roles in strengthening and transforming the many countries you call home. I’m excited because this is such a critical juncture in your lives.  The choices you make about where to channel your energy at the front end of your careers are particularly important, because young people have a way of asking questions that challenge the status quo, and because you have decades ahead to pursue those questions and solve even the most deeply entrenched issues.

And I’m excited to address you because of where we are right now. We’re in a country that has made the rare decision to make an outsized investment in education. While Qatar is thriving economically, your leadership made the far-sighted decision to invest now—in building up the knowledge capital here that will ultimately ensure Qatar’s strength, and in improving education for the world’s most marginalized children. It is so rare to find leaders—like Her Highness Sheikah Moza—who not only understand the power of building a generation where all children have access to education, but who act on that understanding in such a big way.

In the 33 countries where Teach For All partners are working, there are thousands of young people—recent graduates and young professionals, very much like you—who are acting on this understanding in smaller scale, but essential ways.

Just one: Sahar Machmouchi went to school for journalism, but she wanted to do more than report on the problems she saw in her country—she wanted to change the stories. So she joined Teach For Lebanon, and became an Arabic teacher in the city of Saida. On her first day teaching first grade, she discovered that only two out of 20 students could write their names. Her first and second grade students didn’t know their alphabet, much less how to begin to read. As she began to make progress in her classroom—letter by letter—she realized that it was not just her students who needed help. Her students’ families—many of them refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and all of them united by their poverty—struggled to read as well. She knew that to transform the community—both now and in the long term, she would need to work with parents on their reading skills. So she started tutoring parents. To provide a safe space for her students to express themselves and tell the often painful stories of their lives, she started a drama club. Through all of this, Sahar is giving her students and their families a sense of possibility for the future.

Sahar is so inspiring to me in my work, for her ingenuity and tenacity. But the reality is that she is one woman working on a problem that is desperate for our attention and our investment.

So, at this important juncture in your lives, I want to challenge you to focus on what I’ll call the Long Game—the long, hard work of putting the world on a different trajectory through expanding educational opportunity.  

Right now, there are 250 million children who will not get the education they deserve—the kind of education that will give them the basic skills to be contributing citizens or lift them out of poverty. More than half of those children attended school at some point, but the quality of their education means they will not even learn the basics of literacy or numeracy.

In theory we know that changing this reality is the most pressing challenge facing this generation. It is the key to the health and welfare of these children and their families. It is the key to the prosperity of their communities and countries. Unleashing the potential of these hundreds of millions of children could dramatically improve our collective welfare.

But there is a mismatch between what we know about the transformative power of education and how much we invest in it. Basic education is currently underfunded by $26 billion a year. Globally, less than nine percent of development assistance is directed at education.

And most countries channel their most precious resource—their most educated minds—into finance, technology, communications, medicine, law, but not towards education.   

Why do we have such an immense mismatch between what we know about the power of education and what we invest in it?  I believe it is because we are enthralled with the possibilities of rapid transformation. When we hold up the great successes of the 21st century, we talk about Twitter, which in just a few years changed the way the world communicates. Or Google, which in a matter of years completely changed how we seek and consume information.

When it comes to tackling the issues of poverty, we want solutions that are as quick and friction-free as possible—things like giving communities wells and water purification systems, or giving children shoes.

To be clear, the world needs people to innovate cutting-edge technology that will have quick, far-reaching impact.

But not everything can be changed so quickly. There are some things that are going to take the work of a generation, or more.

Education is one of those things. 

Providing all children with the opportunity to fulfill their true potential requires changing mindsets and developing skills and knowledge among billions of children, parents, teachers and administrators. 

Deep human change on such a massive scale in a traditionally under-resourced realm will take decades. 

Today, I challenge you to take inspiration from the leaders who built this place that has given you such a solid foundation for your future. I challenge you to be the Long Game Changers.  You can be the generation of world leaders who decide to take on one of the most persistent and arguably the most important challenge in our world. If you start now, with decades ahead of you, and you work with the creativity and urgency of the Sahars of the world, you can affect different educational outcomes on an immense scale within your lifetimes.

I fell into this pursuit back when I was sitting in seats like yours 25 years ago. At the time, the world characterized my generation as being only interested in making as much money as we could, as quickly as we could.  But I knew that if given the chance, we could begin to address this outrageous reality—that in one of the most resourced countries in the world, children’s economic conditions determined their educational prospects and in turn, life prospects.

And so, the idea of Teach For America was born. Within a year of my graduation, 500 of our nation’s top graduates had signed up to teach in urban and rural communities for two years and to become lifelong leaders for educational excellence and equity.  25 years later, 43,000 individuals have committed to this mission in my own country.

Because I started early enough—sitting in a very similar position to your own today—I’ve had the chance to see the possibility of real change. Not only in my own country but all over the world.  Over the last seven years I’ve had the great privilege of working with inspiring social entrepreneurs from India to South Africa to Lebanon to Peru who are cultivating their nations’ future leaders to effect transformational change through education. 

I am honored to have worked with Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad who launched Teach For Qatar two months ago to mobilize young leaders to improve the educational outcomes of this country.

As  you consider where to direct your invaluable energy in these  pivotal years, I hope you will decide to pursue not only the instant innovations, but the slow and challenging work of building a new world where every child has access to an excellent education.  

This is the long game.  It will take time.  It will require deep change. But it is the only way to realize the rest of our aspirations—a world that is economically prosperous, peaceful, just, healthy, and sustainable. 

Trust me, taking this on is not the path to instant gratification. But I can’t imagine anything more ultimately fulfilling than unlocking the potential of rising generations to pursue their dreams. As you go out in search of your own aspirations, I hope that you will find a way to play your part in this long game.

Congratulations on your achievements thus far, Class of 2014, and good luck!