‘Teach for America’ founder Wendy Kopp reinforces racial inequality through Israeli education program

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Wendy Kopp, the Founder and CEO of Teach for America and its global arm, Teach for All, has been promoting education reform in Israel. The question is, where is she directing her efforts?

This June, Kopp joined a panel on the future of education at the Israeli Presidential Conference, moderated by Einat Wilf, a former Knesset Member. In her comments to the panel, Kopp described the potential impact of Teach for All, a global network of education reform organizations modeled after Teach for America. Her vision is ambitious:

“We can provide countries’ most marginalized kids with an education that is truly transformational.”

She also spoke to educational challenges in Israel in particular:

“Here in Israel, kids in higher-income backgrounds are on average two grade levels ahead of kids in lower-income backgrounds…that’s the problem we most need to address.”

Kopp’s identification of income-driven achievement gaps as Israel’s biggest education challenge is problematic for multiple reasons. First, it’s inaccurate. There is some validity to the it’s-not-race-it’s-class argument in some places, but achievement data in Israel tells a different story. A recent Haaretz piece highlighted the dramatic geographic and ethnic differences in the percentage of students passing matriculation exams.

“[The] percentage [who pass] is higher in the greater Tel Aviv area and central Israel – 73.68 percent in Tel Aviv, about 80 percent in Ramat Hasharon, and 86 percent in Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut – while in Beit Shemesh the figure drops to 50 percent, as it does in the Negev towns of Ofakim, Netivot and the southern coastal plains town of Kiryat Malakhi. In the Arab towns, the matriculation pass rate is even lower – in Kafr Qasem, 26.82 percent of students have passed their matriculation exams, while in Jisr al-Zarqa the figure is 37.65 percent, and in Kalansua, about 35 percent. In the Druze town of Yarka, 39 percent of students have passed the exams.”

While pass rates Tel Aviv are 50% higher than rates than in more rural Beit Shemesh, students in Tel Aviv pass the exam at almost three times the rate of students in Palestinian communities like Kafr Qasem. And it’s not the outcomes that are unequal–resources are also distributed on a highly inequitable basis. Here’s a sample of some statistics compiled by Human Rights Watch based on data from Israel’s Ministry of Education:

Jewish education Arab education
Enrolled students (2000-2001) 77.8%(1,250,000) 22.2%(356,000)
Average class size (1998-1999) 26 30
Pupil-teacher ratio (1999-2000) 15.5 18.7
Schools with libraries (1994-1996) 80.7% 64.4%
Schools with educational counseling (1994-1996) 78.7% 36.2%
Schools with psychological counseling (1994-1996) 83.2% 40.0%
Teachers with an academic degree (1997-1998) 59.5% 39.7%
Pupil-teacher ratio in government kindergartens (1999-2000) 19.8 39.3
Drop-out rates by age seventeen (1998-1999) 10.4% 31.7%
Bagrut pass rate among all seventeen-year-olds (1999-2000) 45.6% 27.5%
Qualification rate for university admission among all seventeen-year-olds (1999-2000) 40.4% 18.4%
University first degree recipients (1998-1999) 94.3% 5.7%

Highlighting income-based achievement gaps while ignoring racial achievement gaps is particularly irresponsible in Israel given the high degree of racial discrimination in the education system:

Teach First Israel

Kopp has expressed optimism about the potential impact of Teach for All’s partner organization, Teach First Israel. Here’s a video message Kopp produced for Teach First Israel:

Kopp says,

“Thinking back to some of the classrooms we visited, where teachers were putting kids on a very meaningfully different trajectory…led me to think I could see the future in Israel.”

In a state that explicitly provides separate and unequal services to children based on their racial and religious background, Kopp’s famous optimism raise an important question: does Teach First Israel truly serve “the most marginalized students”?

Consistent with Kopp’s panel comments, Teach First Israel materials make no mention of the enormous educational disparities based on race, ethnicity and religion, and instead highlight “socioeconomic class.” Is this language sanitized for tactical reasons, or does Teach First Israel only aim to reduce inequities within the Jewish segment of the population? The organization doesn’t appear to publish the demographic composition of the students it serves, but according to an April 2011 article in Jewish Philanthropy, 

“While most of the students taught by Teach First instructors are Jewish, the program currently serves one school of mostly Arab students in Haifa, as well as the Druze school in Hurfeish.”

When the article was published, Teach First Israel was working in 23 schools, which means 4% of its resources went to Palestinian children in that year. These children not only make up more than 25% of the student population, they are arguably the most underserved children in Israel.  If this estimate is correct, it’s a surprising one for an education reform organization affiliated with Teach for America.

But in her video message, Wendy Kopp says Teach First Israel is right on track, a model for other Teach for All affiliates around the world.

Teach For America Trips to Israel

For several years, TFA has been sending corps members who are Jewish or “have an affinity to Judaism” on free 12-day trips to Israel. An article in The Jewish Daily Forward about “The Reality Israel Experience” gives the impression that participants do engage with social justice issues in Israel:

“Israel is a classroom for people who want to learn about leadership in the face of extreme challenges,” said Andrew Mandel, Teach For America’s vice president of special projects. “Many of the social justice challenges Israel faces mirror those in the U.S., and our participants get the opportunity to grapple with how best to address those complex issues.”

But are the TFA-ers on these trips exposed to the real complex issues—those of Palestinian students in Israel? The same article includes the following line: “On Tuesday, the [TFA] group met Arab teachers and high school students in Deir Al-Asad to talk about their educational challenges.”

This YouTube clip may provide some sense of these conversations, but it’s hard to tell whether these TFA trips address the scale of the challenges faced by Palestinian students or the discriminatory policies driving them:

Questions for Wendy Kopp

Does Kopp’s optimism about Teach First Israel stem from a genuine vision to remedy the unequal treatment of Palestinian children, a lack of awareness about the discrimination they face, or a dismissal of their right to equal access to education? Does she condone an education reform agenda in Israel that ignores the extreme under-provision of educational services to Palestinian children? If not, Kopp should use her influence as a global education leader to make a difference in those children’s lives by speaking up now.

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where’s the real ‘teach for Palestine’?

in Palestine.