Teach For America founder speaks to UC Berkeley students about educational inequity

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At a symposium Thursday evening, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp spoke to UC Berkeley students about educational inequity and ways to tackle what she called society’s greatest and most fundamental injustice.

Kopp was joined on the speaker panel by Karen Hemphill, a member of the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education, and Alexander Coward, a UC Berkeley math lecturer, who spoke together on the disparity of educational opportunities that puts children of low-income families at a disadvantage.

The symposium was hosted by the ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President and Teach For America at Cal, UC Berkeley’s branch of the nonprofit organization that sends recent college graduates and professionals to teach at K-12 public schools in low-income communities.

According to Kopp, 9-year-old children growing up below the poverty line are already two or three years behind in reading levels and math performance, and only 8 percent of low-income children earn college degrees.

Hemphill called for more robust government funding for education, while Kopp said federal policies on education rarely translate into real differences because most leaders do not understand the type of policies most effective on a local level.

“Educational inequity is such a deeply systemic problem, and to really get at the roots of it, we are going to need determined leadership working not only from within classrooms but also from outside the system and policy,” Kopp said.

Hemphill also advocated action over a lackadaisical discussion of the problems.

“Equity is not something that is intellectualized,” Hemphill said at the symposium. “You’re really not someone who is for equity unless it becomes a moral imperative.”

The panelists encouraged students to consider teaching as a profession, particularly in low-income communities, to help tackle educational inequity.

Coward, who drew attention last semester after his email to his students on the value of a university education went viral, said teaching was “the best decision” that he has ever made.

The speakers also discussed the strengths that make teachers particularly adept at motivating students highest in need — such as the ability to build relationships with students and their families. Through these relationships, students become more inspired to work hard and are given the confidence to overcome disparities of opportunity, Kopp said.

UC Berkeley junior Anne Bercilla, who attended the event with about 300 others, said she was impressed by the speakers’ experiences and found their messages encouraging.

“You can get so jaded learning about all these daunting problems that you don’t think can be fixed in our lifetime,” Bercilla said. “It was really inspiring to hear all of them talk about the progress that has been made and their experiences of witnessing the transformation in the classroom — it again inspired me to get into education and make a difference.”

Somin Park is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_sominpark.