Two decades after launching Teach for America, the social entrepreneur is taking her disruptive education model abroad.
One Thursday evening last August at an Alpine castle in Salzburg, Austria, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp met Tatjana Oppitz, the head of IBM in Austria. Oppitz told Kopp that after 25 years at IBM IBM , she is more worried than ever that Austria’s grammar and secondary schools are failing to groom the quality talent her company needs to grow. More than a quarter of 16-year-olds in Austria can’t read, the dropout rate is rising, and Austria’s educational standards, studies show, have slipped. While it may surprise people that Austria, with its wealthy population and relatively low unemployment rate, may be facing an education crisis, it doesn’t surprise Kopp, who hears such concern all over the world.
It’s this kind of feedback that inspired Kopp to create Teach for All, a global version of Teach for America, the educational-reform program she founded 24 years ago as a student at Princeton University. The U.S. program, which recruits college grads and restless career switchers to teach in public schools for two-year stints, currently has 11,000 teachers working in poor schools across America. Turns out, the same challenges Kopp identified in the U.S. education system — underfunded schools, poorly trained teachers, a disconnect between private sector needs and public school performance — plague education around the world. Meanwhile, globalization has pushed companies to recruit worldwide and has raised the stakes for education. It’s only natural that Kopp, too, would go global.
Teach for All began as her response to the beckoning call of like-minded education advocates from India to Chile to Lebanon. Starting around 2006, these people contacted her to help them create TFA-like programs in their countries. Simultaneously, Brett Wigdortz, the founder of an education-reform program in England called Teach First (the No. 1 recruiter of university grads in England this year), was fielding requests from Europeans. Kopp and Wigdortz met, and enlisted the pro bono help of McKinsey to plot a global strategy.
“Wendy thinks big,” says Wigdortz, who is now Teach for All’s chief strategy adviser. Kopp is CEO. With programs in 30 countries across six continents, Teach for All shares Teach for America’s grounding principle: that placing dedicated future leaders in classrooms can transform education. But unlike Teach for America, which deploys its $350 million annual budget to recruit, train, and place teachers in at-risk classrooms across the U.S., Teach for All, with a $20 million budget, is a network of independent operators. Kopp’s organization helps these social entrepreneurs adapt the model locally, share ideas, and scale their startups.
In India, where 58% of children don’t finish primary school, Shaheen Mistri, founder of the Akanksha Foundation (focusing on childhood education), launched Teach for India in 2008. She has 700 recruits teaching in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai. In China, where only 5% of poor rural students attend college, Princeton grad Andrea Pasinetti has 300 teachers in 87 schools in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces.
Quiet, shy, and never one to toot her own horn, Kopp, 46, is an unlikely global crusader. But she is one of the most powerful women in education, having overcome the wrath of teachers’ unions and education experts. In the U.S., Teach for America has achieved credibility (a recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Education shows that its teachers significantly help kids improve math skills) and popularity: 20% of New Orleans’ public school teachers are TFA members. Moreover, TFA offers an option to young people in a lousy job market: 9% of Harvard’s and 12% of Princeton’s 2013 graduating seniors applied to the U.S. program. With a 14% acceptance rate, Teach for America is more difficult to get into than Cornell and Georgetown.
Teach for All has gained similar popularity abroad. A dozen Teach for All partner organizations (including ones in India, Israel, Argentina, Australia, and Spain) accept 10% or less of their applicants. Despite the initial success, raising money for Teach for All “has been a real struggle,” Kopp admits. Retired hedge fund manager Julian Robertson, the global program’s largest individual supporter, explains her challenge: “So many Americans believe that they should keep their money in America.” Robertson, a longtime supporter of Teach for America, does not share this view: He has given $5.5 million to Teach for All and pledged another $5 million through a challenge grant.
Teach for All’s corporate backers include Credit Suisse CS , Google GOOG , Visa V , and the Bezos Family Foundation. The biggest supporter is Deutsche Post DHL, which has given $6 million to Teach for All and $7 million to programs within the network. Its CEO, Frank Appel, takes education personally. “I became CEO of a large company because I got a good education,” says Appel, the son of a German shampoo salesman; today he oversees 475,000 employees in 220 countries.
Kopp has had a tough time defining her own leadership role. To assuage Teach for America board members who fretted that going global would distract Kopp from her U.S. mission, she said she would spend just 30% of her time on Teach for All. “That 30% wasn’t realistic,” she admits. This year the board appointed president Matt Kramer and chief operating officer Elisa Villanueva Beard as co-CEOs to succeed her at Teach for America and moved Kopp to chairman.
As passionate as Kopp is about Teach for All, she doesn’t set targets for numbers of countries served; her mission simply is “to see rising education levels and narrowing educational disparities around the world.” She recalls an initial McKinsey analysis that suggested 60 countries in which Teach for All could be viable. “A year in, half the countries we were in were not even on that list,” she says. The social entrepreneurs, more than country attributes, affect the programs’ viability. She says, “When that person is determined enough to make this work, it works.” Spoken from experience.
This story is from the October 28, 2013 issue of Fortune.