Wendy Kopp - Thomas Jefferson Citizen Leadership Medal Keynote
April 12, 2013
Thank you, Don, for that introduction. And thank you trustees and staff of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the University of Virginia, and honored guests. It is a delight to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 270th birthday with you all and to share this opportunity to reflect on his life and legacy.
It’s humbling and a little daunting to receive an award named after a revered writer, statesman, and diplomat who spoke 5 languages and dabbled in science, architecture and philosophy in his free time. I was frankly relieved to learn that public speaking was the one thing Jefferson did not excel at….
It is a particular privilege to be here so warmly welcomed by institutions so closely linked to Teach For America’s mission and success. The University of Virginia has educated some of the greatest leaders among our alumni and we’re so grateful for that. And, Jefferson and Monticello are deeply connected to the work that I and so many others at Teach For America and Teach For All have dedicated ourselves to.
Jefferson believed that a free society could not exist without an educated citizenry, and that providing for the education of rich and poor alike was the best means to preserve our freedom. He once wrote, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of liberty.”
Or more famously, “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free…it expects what never was & never will be."
But Jefferson as much as any figure in our history -- and Virginia as much as any place -- embodies a defining American contradiction that engendered the injustices and inequities we grapple with to this day. It is that paradox that inspired me to start Teach For America and more recently, Teach For All. And it is that paradox that I want to reflect on today.
For centuries now, Americans, including myself, have been fascinated by the two Jeffersons:
The author of our national creed that “all men are created equal” was a lifelong buyer and seller of human beings. At the time he wrote those words he owned some 175 slaves, 80 of them here at Monticello.
How do we reconcile the Jefferson historians hail as the embodiment of the American Enlightenment with the Jefferson who routinely sold slaves for art, wine and other luxury items?
…the Jefferson who championed the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” with the Jefferson who considered blacks “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind” ….
…the Jefferson who wrote that “nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them” with the Jefferson who failed to free all but 5 of his slaves when he died and condemned 200 of them to the auction block…
We are a nation dedicated to the landmark proposition Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence – an idea that has lit the world for two centuries. Yet like Jefferson, throughout American history our reality has fallen far short of our rhetoric.
We hear so much these days about America’s achievement gap. It’s a term traditionally used to describe the gap in academic performance between students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. But I’ve increasingly come to believe that America’s real achievement gap is the chasm between our ideals as a nation – so beautifully articulated by Jefferson – and our reality.
We cannot write off these uncomfortable truths about Jefferson’s life as an unfortunate footnote or an historical quirk because a legacy of racial oppression and disenfranchisement persists to this day.
A black child born in America in 2013 is twice as likely as a white child to die in infancy. When he grows up he is twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be imprisoned.
When I was a senior in college, I became obsessed with the unjust truth that in a country that aspires to be a land of equal opportunity, the neighborhood where children are born still largely predicts the quality of education they’ll receive and as a result, their opportunities and outcomes in life.
When I started Teach For America, I envisioned the brightest leaders of our generation rallying to rectify this injustice, just as past generations had rallied to right the wrongs of their times. The idea was simple: we would recruit top college graduates who would commit two years to teach in low-income schools and become lifelong leaders for change because they would see what their students were capable of and become outraged by the obstacles that held them back.
LAST BATTLE OF A LONG CIVIL WAR
I’ve come to understand that education is the last battle of the civil war between the better and worse angels of our nature that had been simmering for a hundred years before a shot was fired at Fort Sumter.
Yesterday marked 153 years since the start of the Civil War — a war that claimed 750,000 lives before it officially ended at a courthouse at Appomattox 70 miles from here.
But of course it didn’t really end there.
Systematic degradation and disenfranchisement persisted for a century afterwards in the guise of Jim Crow.
When the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” education in 1954, Virginia’s white establishment shut down black schools rather than desegregate them. Thousands of African-American children were left without formal instruction for five years.
In 1962 President Kennedy observed that there were only four places in the world where children are denied the right to attend school: North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia…and Prince Edward County, Virginia.
And while the civil rights movement secured equality under the law and ended Jim Crow’s most egregious practices, glaring disparities persist to this day.
In fact, the gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. The U.S. has less equality of opportunity than any other advanced industrial country. Schools are as segregated today as they were when Brown v. Board was handed down.
Every day in our classrooms at Teach For America we see pervasive racial and socioeconomic inequities.
African American, Latino and Native children are 3-4 times more likely to be growing up in poverty. Children in low-income communities are, on average, two to three years behind in reading by the time they reach fourth grade. Fifty percent of them won’t graduate from high school. Those who do graduate perform on average at an eighth grade level.
In the richest country on earth in 2013, only 8% of low-income students graduate from college.
These disparities have devastating consequences for our children, our communities, and our collective welfare. High school dropouts have three times the unemployment rate of college graduates. Young male high school dropouts are 47 times more likely than college graduates to be incarcerated.
Inequality between students of different backgrounds costs our nation hundreds of billions of dollars each year. It puts true racial equity and diversity of our college campuses, workplaces and ranks of political and economic leadership out of reach.
And if Jefferson were alive tomorrow for his 270th birthday, he’d be distressed that we are failing to equip such a large swath of our population with the basic skills they need to be fully engaged voters and contributing citizens.
A HOPEFUL MOMENT
Despite these persistent inequities, I’m more optimistic about our prospects as a country than I’ve ever been.
When I began this journey 24 years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that there was no way to break the link between socioeconomic circumstances and outcomes. There would always be a few disadvantaged students who managed to beat the odds, but few thought that we could meaningfully change the outlook for most low-income students.
Today we know better. We know that demographics need not be destiny. Over the past 24 years I’ve seen hard evidence that education can be a powerful tool to enable whole generations of children to break the cycle of poverty.
I’ve seen exceptional teachers put their students on a different trajectory. I’ve seen growing numbers of entire schools that ensure that all their students go to college. I’ve seen that major change is possible at the level of whole communities, from the most remote towns in the Mississippi Delta to New York City.
And over and over again, I’ve seen that leadership is the heart of the solution. Behind every successful classroom, school and community where children are beating the odds, there are leaders who deeply understand the obstacles and are on a personal mission to empower all students to realize their full potential.
Mikara Davis joined Teach For America after graduating from UVA in 1994. As principal of Bunch Elementary in Compton, she turned one of California’s lowest-performing schools into one of the state’s best. [She says her success was guided by a simple philosophy, “Love your kids, first and foremost. If you love your kids and you put that first, you will always do the right thing.” Then, as Chief Academic Officer of KIPP Los Angeles, Mikara helped build a network of 7 exceptional schools that are proving that academic success can be the expectation, not the aberration, for disadvantaged students.
John White found his passion for this cause when he was researching an English paper as a UVA student. He came across a quote by onetime UVA professor William Faulkner about the difference between people who know about the world's problems but fail to act and those who work to solve them. He applied to Teach For America the next day and he’s been fighting to expand educational opportunity ever since – first as a teacher in Jersey City who inspired his students with his passion and creativity, then as one of the key figures carrying out Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious reform efforts in New York City. As superintendent of New Orleans’s school system, he contributed to the remarkable turnaround of schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; the percentage of students meeting state standards in New Orleans has doubled in the past four years and the graduation rate has skyrocketed. Today John is responsible for providing all Louisiana students with an excellent education as state superintendent of schools in one of the fast-improving states in the country.
Most recently by the way, John was instrumental in bringing Teach For America to Virginia, an initiative that received unanimous support from the Virginia legislature. Starting next fall we expect to place some 50 corps members in some of Virginia’s neediest schools.
Mikara and John are just two of tens of thousands of dedicated leaders who are at the forefront of a now fully-fledged movement for educational equity.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” I couldn’t agree more.
In the course of my research, I discovered that students in Virginia and at UVA in particular have a long and proud history of demonstrating for what they believe in.
In 1951, black students in Farmville, Virginia went on strike to protest the overcrowded, leaky, badly heated school buildings that were permitted under “separate but equal” laws. The walkout ultimately became one of the five cases that the Supreme Court considered under Brown v. Board of Education, and it was the only one initiated by students.
In 1961, UVA students boycotted the University Theater for its segregationist policies.
In 1963, students brought Dr. Martin Luther King to campus, where he spoke about the importance of educational opportunity to the aims of the civil rights movement. When he was assassinated a few years later, the same Rotunda where students in 1861 raised a confederate flag to affirm their support for secession flew at half-mast to honor King.
For more than 170 years, Cavaliers have made their voices heard, whether it be in protest of apartheid in South Africa or sexual violence on campus
Now more than ever, we need that spirit of protest. We need young leaders who are indignant about the injustices around them and who, like Jefferson, feel a responsibility to use their talents for causes greater than themselves.
Every new generation has fought to expand opportunity to more Americans and narrow the gap between our rhetoric and our reality. Guided by Jefferson’s assertion of human equality, we’ve torn down barriers of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and other artificial differences that divide us from one another.
Today young leaders are stepping up, driven by their conviction that education is this generation’s revolution.
When I started Teach For America, people told me that top college graduates would never pass up lucrative offers on Wall Street to teach in the country’s most difficult schools. This year, 57,000 college seniors and recent graduates from all backgrounds – including nearly 1 out of every 10 4th years at UVA -- applied to Teach For America. Last year, 55 UVA students signed up for Teach For America.
I’m sure that as our first Secretary of State and global scholar, Thomas Jefferson would have applauded the fact that now thousands of young leaders in countries around the world are stepping up to join similar programs in 27 countries and counting as part of the global Teach For All network. From Boston to Beijing and Buenos Aires, globally-minded graduates are embracing the chance to learn from each other in order to accelerate progress in their own countries and internationally. They understand that our collective welfare is linked, and that nothing is more global in impact than education. We are all better off in a world where rising educational levels and declining disparities increase prosperity and foster healthier, more tolerant, and more sustainable societies.
Today, students at UVA and their peers across the globe are my greatest source of optimism that we can solve this problem in our lifetimes.
In a letter to John Adams, an aging Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Today the kind of thriving, equitable society Jefferson could only dream of is within our grasp. He might not have fully lived up to the ideals he espoused in his lifetime, but if we recommit ourselves to those principles and invest in the leadership of our rising generation, we can.