Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matthew Kramer

Read about Teach For America's Leadership Team.

All Posts by Elisa Villanueva Beard

Tatiana Soto grew up in the Dominican Republic and the Bronx, became President of the Caribbean Student Association at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, worked in Harlem as an advocate for literacy, and just made the decision to teach in Houston as a 2015 Teach For America corps member. During his time at Yale, Seth Kolker supervised community development projects in four rural communities in Nicaragua. In a few months, he’ll be leading a classroom in Rhode Island. Cesar Nije is a senior at UCLA, where he leads an organization charged with cultivating and mentoring students of color. He’ll be teaching this fall as well.  With the close of our final application window last week, these three are among the more than 44,100 people who applied to join our 2015 corps. 

Erica Swanson’s (GNO ’14) ninth graders know exactly how they’re doing in her class. Her students’ lives are full of uncertainty—but they know that if they bring in their homework each day, it gets noticed. When they show good work on an end-of-class exit ticket, it gets noticed. When they stay focused and avoid distraction—it’s noticed. Erica’s classroom at Bonnabel High School in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, is full of all types of information, feedback and data. This helps her kids feel affirmation and see where they need to grow—but it also helps Erica make the greatest impact for every single one of them.

At Teach For America, we do the same thing. As the largest preparer of teachers for low-income communities nationwide, it’s important that we understand both our strengths and the areas in which we need to get better. Much of that comes from listening to our students, families and partners in communities, and turning their feedback into action. But hard data and formal evaluation are also essential.

We recently got the results of an independent study on our pre-K and elementary teachers, and the data confirm other evidence we’ve seen so far—Teach For America is having a positive impact on kids. 

Today, the New York Times published an article on a trend we’re seeing this year across the education field at large—a dip in interest in entering teaching. We addressed this trend in a recent piece for the Huffington Post—looking into some of the reasons behind it, and also the ways we’re feeling that dip here at Teach For America.

While our partners’ needs for corps members and alumni are at an all-time high, persuading young Americans to choose this work is tougher than ever. In the shadow of the recession, college graduates are moving away from public and service-oriented work and gravitating towards professions they perceive as more stable and financially sustainable. The polarized conversation around education isn’t helping, either.

Overall, we’re confident that the current dip we and others are seeing will pass. And while the decrease in interest we’re seeing this season will be painful for our school partners and their students who are counting on us for 6,000 teachers, it’s critical to keep the macro trend of the last 15 years in mind. Over that longer period, we’ve seen significantly more interest from our next generation of leaders in teaching in low-income communities, be it through TFA, TNTP, or other pathways.

For the last 15 years, Teach For America has grown rapidly, driven by strong demand from schools for more corps members and the knowledge that it would take many, many people for the broader movement to operate at the scale of the problem we’re working to address. Since 2000, we’ve grown from nearly 1,500 corps members teaching in 15 regions, to 10,600 corps members teaching in 50 regions. In that same period, our alumni base has increased from 3,600 alumni to 37,000. This period of sustained growth set much of the groundwork for the work we’re doing now, and as we approach our 25th anniversary year, we thought it made sense to get some help drawing out the lessons of the last era.

Eight months ago we enlisted the Bellwether group to do just that. Bellwether is a nonprofit that works with schools, districts, and organizations across the education sector to help them have the strongest impact for kids. In our case, Bellwether conducted an independent study of our data and history to help us understand how we can improve for the future. The resulting report which was released today is an independent, transparent, and comprehensive look at our growth era. Over the course of 90 pages, the report covers almost every aspect of our organizational evolution through that period—from our finances and structure, to our culture and core values. Bellwether wrote a good synopsis of the report for RealClearEducation

After nearly 25 years in this work, we’re the first ones to say that we’re still learning every day.  That’s why we were glad that NPR gave us the opportunity to share some of what we’re learning and some of the ways we’ve evolved.

Opening up the doors is important. Not only does it allow us to give an inside look at how we’re trying to fulfill our potential as an organization, but it lets us shine a light on the efforts of our Teach For America community. The programs covered in the article are a result of the hard work of hundreds of Teach For America staff, corps members, and alumni—all committed to helping us do our part in the fight for educational equity.

Like many of our Teach For America colleagues, we were watching television and following social media as St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

The entire situation in Ferguson that led up to Michael Brown’s untimely death and the face-offs between protesters and police in recent months have been tragic, and watching the reactions to the announcement last night brought that into stark relief. It also shined a powerful spotlight on the ways in which we are deeply divided as a nation.

At Teach For America, we work alongside our many partners to grow and strengthen the movement to end educational inequity, and we believe deeply in the power of people coming together from all walks of life to contribute to building the society that we hope for. We know the power that people who share the racial and economic background of our students can bring to this effort, as role models for students and as leaders in the effort leveraging the perspectives and credibility that grow out of their life experiences. We also know that people who have benefited from racial and economic privilege are critical to the effort. Because we need everyone, we have to be a community where people can work effectively with each other despite differences in background and perspective.

Yesterday, we had the chance to sit down with five college students, along with a staff member for United Students Against Sweatshops. Those of you who follow this blog closely know we’ve been engaging with this group for a few months now, and may have read about it here and here. The conversation offered a welcome chance to connect face to face, and to share more about the difficult, inspiring, essential work of our corps members, alumni, their students, and communities.

We first heard from USAS last spring, when they issued a press release to announce their “TFA Truth Tour” – an effort to dissuade students at their colleges from joining our work. This fall, it re-emerged with an administrator-facing twist, making the case to college and university presidents that cutting ties with our organization would do the most good for low-income students in underserved schools. As our 10,000+ corps members and 11,000 alumni teachers went back to school, the campaign stood in strange contrast to their tremendous grit, humility, diversity, and commitment to equity. And so, we were eager to talk.

Last night, we got to spend some time together to try to bridge this gap. Our conversation confirmed that our two organizations have a lot of common beliefs. All of us feel that as long as skin color and family income continue to determine a child’s access to a high quality public education, our nation isn’t living into its promise. We agree that the burdens of poverty make the work of public education much, much more difficult. We share the conviction that standing up for what you believe in matters a great deal.

Yesterday we received the following letter from the group United Students Against Sweatshops via email. The letter raised important issues and concerns and so we felt it was critical to share both their letter and our email back for all of those interested.

Our email response to USAS:

Last week, we read Dana Goldstein’s piece in Vox about the evolution of Teach For America. We’ve posted some reflections below, and would love to continue the dialogue here on Pass The Chalk. Please share your own thoughts and reactions—your voice helps us get better.

Yesterday, we gathered with nearly 1,000 members of our community in Las Vegas, Nevada at our annual Educators Conference for a special town hall event. Joining us were many others across the country who tuned into the broadcast online. We spoke about the current moment in our movement for educational equity, and the role our broad community of corps members, alumni, staff, and partners can play in moving it forward. 

We also had the opportunity to answer questions from the audience. Each of us came away from the event feeling truly energized by the dedicated educators around us, and we were reminded just how powerful this movement is.
 
Below is a video of the livestream, as well as the text of our speeches.

 

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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