Dhruv Aggarwal speaks to Rachel Wasser about social entrepreneurship in China.
Rachel Wasser, co-founder and former co-CEO of Teach For China, likes to get straight to the point. When she learned as an undergraduate at Yale that there existed no program that would allow her to teach at rural Chinese schools, it sparked a passion that would result in the fast-growing organization that now sends more than 200 college graduates each year from China and the United States to teach at Chinese schools.
"I consider educational inequity the greatest form of inequity in the world today," she says. "Eighty percent of the urban children in China attend college, and less than three percent do in rural areas -- this is a tremendous inequity." Wasser was attending the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing when a Princeton alumnus and a woman from rural China started discussing a program for U.S. teachers to go teach at low-income Chinese schools. These three IUP participants, Andrea Pasinetti, Hu Tingting and Wasser would be the co-founders of Teach For China.
"Teach For China was a bold, audacious idea to eliminate educational inequality in China," Wasser says, as we sit in the room where she would soon lead a Yale-China Association fireside chat session. "The program sought to recruit outstanding graduates from both China and the U.S., place them in low-income schools, support them and see them place the children on different academic trajectories. After two years, the hope was that the alumni would go onto leadership roles in the educational and governmental sectors, contributing toward reducing educational disparities."
Teach For China has met these goals. Wasser points to the fact that two-thirds of the program's alumni continue working in the field of reducing educational inequalities. "[The alumni] have worked on other educational non-profits in China, raised funds for students in classes in different schools and even started a program for Chinese students with poor vision," she says.
I ask Wasser how she would respond to a common criticism of the American Teach For America program -- that it is for the welfare of the participants, and not necessarily for the children. Is Teach For America (and maybe even Teach For China) just another way for graduates to pave the way to graduate school, regardless of what happened to the underprivileged children they had to teach? Wasser is prepared for the question, and disagrees with its premise, contending that Teach For America is itself a success. "The people who started charter schools were TFA alum. The people advising on educational reform in the White House are TFA alum," Wasser stresses. "The statistics show that of 200,000 TFA alum, seventy percent continued in the educational reform sector."
Teach For China has made a difference in the opportunities available to the students it serves. Wasser says exposure to English for students living in cities versus rural areas was shockingly different. "Rural areas have never had any English exposure, while even second-tier cities have had exposure to English." The biggest change for Teach For China fellows has been one of attitude. "Until 1998, the idea was that if the child wasn't able to learn, it was their fault. Now it is accepted that all children have the capacity to learn -- the question is that of providing support."
Teach For China does significant data analysis on the culture of achievement instilled in its classrooms, giving great importance to standardized tests. Wasser believes that ingraining a spirit of "I can, and I want to" in children is the main thrust of the program. She proudly tells me how the program has had huge successes in cutting dropout rates, and how principals of schools have been keen to retain Teach For China teachers.
I ask Wasser how she and her team managed to build local support for the program. "When we started, everyone thought it was a great idea, but that all these things were not possible," she says. That is why Teach For China started in just one county with twenty fellows in five schools. They worked closely with the government, in order to legitimize the organization. "Something that gives us hope is that the government. When it gets excited about a model, it wants to support it through funding." She was also surprised by the students she recruited. "People said Chinese kids wouldn't want to do this, that they only cared about a house, car and spouse," Wasser recollects. However, Teach For China reported impressive recruitment efforts on and off Chinese campuses. Wasser believes the legitimacy of the program was what drew the students to participate.
As Teach For China's legitimacy has been established, Chinese contributions to the program have also increased. "When we first started, the first grant was from the Ford Foundation, and almost all the funding would be from the U.S. and Hong Kong," Wasser says. "Now, funding for the program streams in from mainland China, with the local government paying a part of fellows' salaries." Teach For China has successfully solicited funding from Chinese companies and high net-worth Chinese individuals. This has been helped by the presence of Zhang Xin, real estate tycoon, and other board members drawn from organizations like Goldman Sachs and Christie's. "We want to show that this is a Chinese program for China," Wasser emphasizes.
Finally, I ask Wasser what Teach For China looks for when selecting fellows. Wasser responds, "The most important thing is to have a strong sense of possibility. There is an incredible amount of opportunity, and this is an exciting time." She refers to relations between the two countries, and says "openness to working with other cultures means there is no limit to what you can do together." As I conclude the interview, I ask Wasser about advice she has for young college students. She responds, "See China after graduating. After all, when else in your career are you going to go to rural China?"
This article also appears in China Hands.