Summiting the mountain

Yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to introduce Teach for America founder, Wendy Kopp, at the White House Fellows Annual Leadership Conference.

Though I had to excise some of the material below to meet a pre-ordained time limit, the following is the original text of my comments.

Good morning, everyone. It is an honor and pleasure to introduce our next speaker.

It has been a terrific morning, but it’s also been a bit long, I know. So with that and the conference’s theme of “Creativity and Leadership,” in mind, I thought I’d start off somewhat differently to spice things up a little.

By talking about football.

It’s not just what we do but what we build.

Legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh won four Super Bowls—a coaching record. But he left a far greater legacy than just those Lombardi Trophies.

He was such a great teacher and mentor that six of his assistant coaches went on to become NFL head coaches. And then their assistants became NFL head coaches. And their assistants, too.

His influence continues to this very day. Contemporary NFL head coaches Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, John Harbaugh of the Ravens, Andy Reid of the Eagles, Mike Shanahan of the Redskins, Lovie Smith of the Bears, and many others trace their pedigree directly back to Bill Walsh.

Now that’s a legacy. It’s not just what we do but what we build.

Walsh retired in 1988, at the pinnacle of his career, but also, tragically, possibly among the darkest eras in the history of American urban public education. Systems in disarray, violence in schools, deplorable academic achievement.

After an appalling tour, U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett called Chicago schools the worst in the United States. Two movies released at that time were instructive.

The hero of one—Lean on Me—was a principal who walked the halls of a violent high school with a baseball bat; the hero of the other—Stand and Deliver—successfully taught calculus to a handful of poor kids.

Imagine the depths of our expectations when we define success as assault-free hallways.

Imagine the poverty of our sense of the possible when we define success as a fraction of a city’s kids learning higher-level math skills.

To many, urban education appeared hopeless.

But in the very same year as Walsh’s retirement, a Princeton student proposed in her senior thesis—against all good sense—encouraging the best recent college graduates to become inner-city educators. For at least two years, they would teach kids in our most troubled neighborhoods.

Twenty years later, that creation, Teach For America, is our nation’s most valuable social enterprise, and its founder, Wendy Kopp, the most important social entrepreneur of my generation, is our next speaker.

Ms. Kopp launched a revolution with an idea: that the achievement gap was man-made and could be man- (and woman-) un-made.

After TFA’s founding we soon saw the emergence of amazing gap-closing charter schools like KIPP, YES Prep, IDEA, and later Rocketship—schools that improved the achievement of disadvantaged kids in ways once widely thought impossible.

Then amazing support organizations like The New Teachers Project and New Leaders for New Schools materialized. Then in cities once with little hope, like New Orleans and Washington D.C., remarkable things occurred.

We’re witnessing an urban schools renaissance, and TFA is leading the way.

We’re witnessing an urban schools renaissance, and TFA is leading the way. This year TFA had 48,000 applicants, including 18 percent of Harvard’s seniors; it currently has 10,000 corps members teaching 750,000 low-income kids.

But Ms. Kopp is far more than TFA’s founder; she’s more than an inspiring figure.

She’s the Bill Walsh of our field.

Every single one of the success stories I just mentioned traces its pedigree back to Teach For America and Wendy Kopp.

The founders of KIPP, YES Prep, and IDEA, were all early TFA corps members. Today, multiple KIPP regions encompassing cities such as Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. are led by TFA alum.

TNTP’s and Rocketships’s presidents were TFA teachers. The co-founder of New Leaders is a former TFA corps member.

Today, when big things happen in New Orleans, at the table sit State Superintendent John White, school board member Kira Orange-Jones, New Schools for New Orleans board chair Sarah Usdin. All of them: TFA alum.

Michelle Rhee launched D.C.’s recent massive reform efforts; she was succeeded by Kaya Henderson, who relies on top deputy Jason Kamras. Yes, all three were Teach For America corps members.

This list goes on and on and on.

You see, it’s not just what Wendy Kopp has done, it’s what she’s built—an education reform army. Nearly 30,000 people have now gone through TFA, the boot camp for many of those fighting for equal opportunity for needy kids.

America is finally on the brink of summiting a mountain that in 1988 appeared insurmountable. And for this we largely have Wendy Kopp to thank. Today we have the great fortune of having the chance to show our gratitude in person.

So please join me in welcoming Teach For America’s founder, Wendy Kopp.

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