The Transformation of Teach For America
A Message from Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America.
January 23, 2023
At Teach For America, we have a deep admiration and appreciation for every person in our network - our staff, corps members, alumni and Ignite Fellows. Each one of us is driven by a commitment to education, equity, and the same fierce accountability to the kids and communities we serve.
The big challenge we are tackling right now, over thirty years since our founding, is thinking differently about how we do this work to ensure kids have access to the education they want and deserve, and to evolve and be responsive to the rapidly changing world in which we operate.
The anchoring point for TFA is improving outcomes for kids. That is what drives all our choices. So much so that a few years ago we set a big goal: that by 2030 we would double the number of kids who are on a path to economic mobility and success in life. That’s still our goal even as the world around us has changed dramatically. We’re also recruiting a very different generation of young people - incredible leaders who want to change the world. So, as we think about what it will take to be accountable to the kids we serve and responsive to the needs and contexts of the communities where we work, we know it requires us to evolve and live into the strengths we have 30+ years into the work.
Our organization-wide transformation has been in motion over the last few years. As one example, we knew that a new approach to delivering our program to corps members and alumni would be critical—leveraging a digital approach. The pandemic accelerated that evolution of our program when we developed a virtual summer teacher training program for the summer of 2020. We’re now moving in a direction that scales the impact that we found was possible when we digitized elements of our program.
To continue on our path, it will require Teach For America to organize itself so we can absorb and thrive in the face of external uncertainty. While this is an incredibly hard part of any evolution, we do anticipate that TFA will have a smaller and more agile staff team by this summer. This is the reality that many organizations are contending with, and we are not immune to it.
It’s within this context that we are committed to leading with 3 big principles: accountability to our students and being responsive to our communities; with an expansive lens on the external landscape; with humanity.
To lead with accountability to our students and being responsive to our communities requires rooting always in our purpose, which is an outsized impact alongside our students and communities.
To lead with an expansive lens on the external landscape is to have an eye towards the both/and of being grounded in difficult truths and realities and still choosing to lead from a place of hope. This helps to maximize opportunities even while being clear eyed about potential risks and challenges that lie ahead.
To lead with humanity means centering the fact that this work is all about people having the agency to make their greatest contribution to their family, community, country, and world. It is about connection, belonging, engagement, and honoring the deep worth of every individual.
And as we look to the future, these 3 principles help us see a TFA that will do more of what we are uniquely positioned to deliver—our core capabilities of finding exceptional, equity-oriented talent; matching that talent; and developing that talent. This is what we have done especially well over three decades, and this is what this moment and our bold 2030 goal call on us to do with even greater resolve today, and in the years to come.
The demand for TFA corps members remains high because of the positive impact they continue to have in schools: 94% of principals who employ corps members say that TFA corps members have a positive impact on students. And in the 2023 recruitment season thus far, we have an ambitious goal to increase our incoming corps by as much as 25% to bring in an exceptional and diverse cohort of about 2,000 new corps members for the next school year. Despite teacher recruitment and retention challenges that are being experienced across the country, TFA is seeing significant recruiting momentum so far this season.
One indicator of this momentum is the interest we are seeing from undergrad students in our Ignite Fellowship. This is the second year we’ve run the program across the country. The Ignite Fellowship has grown 100% over last year, bringing 1,500 new undergraduate tutors into partnership with 4,500 students in 74 schools in 19 different communities this year. The Ignite Fellowship provides effective and critically needed individual and small-group tutoring opportunities for students in literacy and math. It also helps us develop a pipeline of new educators and applicants to our corps. We’ve had so much interest in the program that we’ll have a waitlist for it this spring.
While we continue to provide thousands of new teachers to under-served schools in communities across the country, TFA is also prioritizing catalyzing and connecting our network of more than 60,000 alumni. Our aim is to help support and accelerate their leadership so they are learning from each other and accelerating their impact individually and collectively. In recent years, TFA has developed new programs that offer alumni professional development opportunities, career services, and talent matching that support their leadership in classroom, school, district and other systems impact roles. We are continuing to invest in our alumni across the country, with some regions exclusively focused on alumni programming.
Those critical investments in our alumni, the Ignite Fellowship, and new digitized elements of our program are possible because Teach For America remains a financially strong and healthy organization. Publicly available data shows that on January 1, 2023, our endowment balance was approximately $200 million and we have ample cash and operating reserves. The industry practice of nonprofits is to hold 25% of their operating budget in reserves. At TFA we have an even higher standard, which is a 35% reserve balance. We are grateful for the many partners, investors, and supporters of our work who have enabled us to have a meaningful impact in schools and communities.
This is a historic and decisive moment for children. We’ve all seen the data. We’re clear-eyed about the unfinished learning, the growing gaps impacting students in low-income communities, the trauma they are suffering and the support that is desperately needed in our schools.
A new paper published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University finds that TFA teachers who choose to keep teaching as TFA alumni in NYC improve at double the rate of non-TFA teachers over the first five years of their careers. It also shows that after accounting for differences in turnover rates for TFA and non-TFA teachers it is estimated that a long-run strategy of TFA hiring increases steady-state student achievement by 0.05 standard deviations (approximately 23 days of additional learning per year).
We also need to continue to recruit, develop and support a network of changemakers who will play an outsized role in more large-scale, systemic change—like in Denver Public Schools, where TFA has worked for decades with corps members and alumni at every level of the system, we recently learned that reforms from 2008 to 2019 were among the most effective by size, scale and duration in American history.
Teach For America is uniquely positioned to lean into this moment because of the scale and reach of our network - corps members, tutors, alumni leaders - our relationships, our skills and our ability to understand and center on what students and communities are asking us to deliver.
We know the needs of our children are as vast and great as their brilliance, and our commitment to systems change and student impact has to guide our work ahead.
About Teach For America
Teach For America works in partnership with 300 urban and rural communities across the country to expand educational opportunity for children. Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits and develops a diverse corps of outstanding leaders who make an initial two-year commitment to teach in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity. Today, Teach For America is a force of nearly 70,000 alumni and corps members working in more than 9,000 schools nationwide in pursuit of profound systemic change. From classrooms to districts to state houses across America, they are reimagining education to realize the day when every child has an equal opportunity to learn, lead, thrive, and co-create a future filled with possibility. Teach For America is a proud member of the AmeriCorps national service network. For more information, visit www.teachforamerica.org and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.