Founder of Teach For America sets her sights on shaking up schools

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Dissatisfied with shaking up teacher recruitment, the founder of Teach For America has set her sights on transforming education around the world.

Rather than a narrow focus on academic achievement, schools should strive to develop skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, says Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach For America in her senior year of college.

Teach For America aims to transform teacher recruitment by targeting high-flying graduates from leading universities to work in low-income communities.

While not without critics, Teach For America has inspired similar programs in 60 other countries, including Teach First in the UK, brought together under the Teach For All umbrella.

And now, while no longer involved in leading Teach For America, Kopp has set her sights on system-wide change through an initiative called Teaching as Collective Leadership, which aims to leverage the expertise of school leaders in pursuing a transformational approach. of education around the world.

“Our systems focus so closely on academic outcomes, which are important, but sometimes academic outcomes come at the cost of developing students’ freedom of choice and self-awareness, world awareness, and critical thinking and problem-solving,” says Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For All.

“We need to move from a narrow view of what schools are working on to develop students holistically so they can lead us to a better place.”

This means students must acquire skills, including the ability to deal with uncertainty and solve the increasingly complex problems they are likely to face in the future, she adds.

This belief that education needs a complete overhaul stems, at least in part, from the realization that decades of investment have made little progress in eliminating educational inequalities.

And the transformation means letting go of the model in which efforts to improve outcomes are driven by an experimental approach, through randomized controlled trials that aim to measure the impact of different approaches.

“We need to move from that to a people-centric approach, investing in collective leadership as a path to system change,” says Kopp.

“When you look at how many decades we’ve seen massive inequalities in our system, we have to recognize that business as usual won’t get us where we want to be.”

Kopp suggests that Teach For America, along with its partner organizations in other countries, is helping to inculcate the skills needed to make this change, as well as the commitment required.

“We need to step back and ask ourselves, given our values ​​and given the state of the world and the opportunities we face, what is our fundamental purpose? What do we want to be true about our young people’, she says.

This also means moving away from a system that measures success purely in numbers and holds schools accountable according to that narrow definition of success.

“We need better and better measures of academic success,” says Kopp. “We need to rethink what we measure and how we develop people in the system.

“Measuring is so important and continuous improvement so important, but where do we put our energy? We need a balance in the system and measuring holistic outcomes for children will be one piece of that puzzle.”

And while the solutions will differ, the challenges facing education systems around the world have much in common.

“In every country there are marginalized groups who face so many additional challenges,” she says. “There are remarkable similarities about what the fundamental solutions are.”

Kopp’s proposals echo the ideas of Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most innovative thinkers in education, whose last book, completed after his daughter’s death, outlined a vision of 21st-century schools as bastions of creativity, collaboration and compassion.

What they both have in common is that they are motivated by the belief that extraordinary skills are needed to face the challenges ahead, whether it be fighting climate change or feeding a growing population.

And overcoming these challenges requires an approach that not only encourages students to become active learners, but equips them with the skills they need.

“We won’t have students who are passive recipients of education suddenly turning on a dime and proactively solving the world’s problems,” Kopp says. “What we do in our classrooms today is going to predict how we improve tomorrow.”

If this all sounds a bit theoretical, Kopp admits it’s still very much in the conceptual stage. An important task of Teaching for Collective Leadership will be to explore how this can be put into practice.

Kopp also recognizes that schools alone will not be able to achieve the transformation needed when so much of their ability to change lives is affected by what happens outside of school.

But the fact that such an influential voice in education is advocating for change is a strong argument that something radical needs to happen to the way we teach our children.