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Co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard Discuss Challenges And Opportunities Ahead At Teach For America

Read the full speech from What's Next at Teach For America.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On March 4, we had the privilege of addressing several thousand members of our Teach For America community during our first ever “What’s Next At Teach For America” event, livestreamed from Nashville, Tennessee.  In our speeches and Q&A, we talked about where we are as an organization after 24 years, where we’re headed, announced some new initiatives to increase our impact, and reaffirmed the core commitments that unite us.  Most importantly, we celebrated the work of our corps members and alums, our staff and our broader communities. Thank you so much for your hard work.

You can see video of our speeches and read the transcript below.

 “Embracing Change”

Remarks of Matt Kramer

What’s Next At Teach For America – 2014

Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 2014

***

Nine years ago, I was facing one of those “two roads diverged in a wood” moments.  When I graduated from college, I had gone to work as a management consultant – I had wanted to work on the challenges facing big organizations.  But seven years later, I was overcome by the feeling that America wasn’t moving in the right direction, and I wasn’t holding up my end of some cosmic bargain to contribute.

When Wendy called me that year to ask if I would come work for Teach For America, it felt for a moment like the universe was speaking to me, but it didn’t take long before I was straining to hear it over the din of practical considerations.  I was scared.  This felt like a really big life decision – a move from a place of comfort and lots of options into a very serious commitment.

But as I considered the idea, I thought back to the years I spent in New York, where my wife Katie was a corps member.  She taught middle school social studies in Washington Heights for three years, and she would come home every day and collapse from physical and emotional exhaustion.  But then, every day, she’d get back up and start planning and grading.  She knew that she and her students were doing something special together, and it fueled her.

I thought back to the projects I worked on for the NYC Board of Education.  It was full of incredibly talented and hard-working people who cared about kids, and yet somehow the system normalized the academic struggles of so many children.  Somehow, the system just never seemed to change.

But then I also thought back to the pro-bono projects I did for Teach For America.  Most of the people I met through those projects and through Katie somehow resisted the urge to call their daily challenges normal.  They were angry, and they were hopeful all at once, and they inspired me.

I couldn’t get myself all the way to an unqualified yes, so I took a two year sabbatical from my job to work as Teach For America’s Chief Program Officer, and those two years were enough to make me understand my end of the cosmic bargain.  In 2007, I made the decision to jump – to make a lifelong commitment, as all of you have.  I’ve never regretted it – not once.  Today, I know I am right where I’m supposed to be – here with you – fighting alongside our many partners in this work, for our children and our communities, and for our integrity. 

***

Teach For America is now 24 years old and like any other 24-year-old looking at a changing world, we’ve got some questions, some doubts and even some fears.

Are we making an impact?  Are we on the right path?  Are we the very best we can be?  How should we change to get better? 

In our first year as co-CEOs, Elisa and I spent a lot of time thinking about and asking that last question: “How should we change to get better?”  We’ve been hearing input from critics and friends, and we’ve started to lay out a strategic direction with that feedback in mind.

But before we talk about what’s next, let’s look at where are we today. 

Today we’ve got 24 years of doing this work behind us – 24 years of listening and learning. 

Today we’re in 48 regions across 35 states, with thriving alumni communities in many more places.

Today we have 11,000 corps members, and our corps is more diverse than ever before.  39% of the 2013 corps identify as people of color. A quarter are first generation college graduates.

Our 32,000 alumni are part of the vanguard of a growing movement committed to spreading educational equity all across America.  And over the past three years, 85% have responded to our surveys, so we have a good idea of what they’re doing. 

·        Approximately 10,000 are teaching

·        Over 750 are school leaders

·        Over 1,000 are in assistant principal or Dean roles

·        Over 600 are instructional specialists or teaching coaches

·        185 are school system leaders

·        70 are elected officials, and more than 100 are elected union leaders.

All in all, nearly two thirds remain in the field of education.

Others work in social services, law, medicine and other fields.  They take with them their belief in the potential of children and the power of education, and they contribute in so many ways.  Nearly 90% of the 32,000 alumni of Teach For America are working full time for our kids.

Today, our corps members are teaching in 3,200 schools and over 400 districts, and overall demand for corps members is up 40% over the past four years.

We’re working hard to meet that demand, but many of our most promising prospects are wondering whether they should join this effort.

Some things don’t change – it has always been hard to convince people to make this choice, and today, it is particularly hard.  They are getting more job offers; they see educators under so much stress; and they are actually hearing that the world would be better off if they went to Wall Street, instead of teaching in our highest need classrooms.

Teach For America has changed though – we’re not the same organization we were in 1990.  At 24, we’re more diverse as a corps and a staff.  We invest four times as much in the training and support of every corps member.  We’re doing more than ever to teach and practice cultural responsiveness and strengthen our work in early childhood, special education and STEM.  Our Teach For America community has built meaningful and lasting relationships all across the country.

And in our first year as co-CEOs, Elisa and I have continued to embrace change to move us forward.

Coming out of our listening tour, we made five commitments for getting better. These commitments started with Elisa and me, because over the course of our tour, you, our students and our communities told us they were important, but we are excited to see the broader organization embrace them.

·        We commit to being better listeners.

·        We commit to tailoring our approach to the unique needs of each community.

·        We commit to tempering our data-driven nature with a greater appreciation for the human stories in our work that tie us all together. 

·        We commit to aligning our placements with local demand, not national plans.

·        And we commit to investing more to support our corps members.

You also told us that it was important to take stands that reflect our values, and we have – on the DREAM Act, on admitting DACA recipients into the corps, and on common sense learning standards. 

And we’ll continue to speak out on issues that affect our students – whether it’s poverty, crime or health care, or the right for all students, regardless of their race, class, gender, religion, ability or sexual orientation, to learn in a safe and affirming environment.

We’ve also been working hard this past year to give regions the flexibility they need to respond to their local context.  We want as many decisions as possible being made as close as possible to our kids and communities.  At the same time, we’ve been reshaping the role of our national staff, so our entire team is focused on learning from the 48 places we work, and supporting local efforts. When we have 48 regions fully empowered and engaged we’ll be better able to fulfill all five commitments.

We’ve come a long way - I think there’s a lot for us to be proud of.

At the same time, there is much more to do.  We need to keep our minds open to change and innovation as we continue to find new and better ways to do our work.

To encourage this kind of innovation, we’re setting aside up to $4 million in a Breakthrough Fund this year and each of the next four years to fund pilots that could lead to significant improvements in our approach. 

Today I’m excited to share two such pilot programs.

In the days ahead, Elisa and I will reach out to some of the nearly 2,000 college juniors who have already applied for the 2015 corps, inviting them to take part in a year-long preparation program during their senior year.  With this extra pre-service year, we’ll give them more time to absorb the foundational knowledge all teachers need, more space to reflect on the role they are about to step into, and more time to directly practice the skills they’ll need as educators – skills like delivering a lesson or managing a classroom.  Different paths into the classroom are right for different people, and we believe this approach will meet the needs of many future corps members.

We also want to do more to support our alumni educators. These days, most corps members teach beyond two years, and we want more people to make that choice. This summer we’re launching a series of programs to provide ongoing support to alumni teachers for their third, fourth and fifth years in the classroom.  These pilots will take place across 12 regions, and will range from teacher practice communities led by alumni, to TFA staff coaching alumni teachers. Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan – it has to be the main plan.

***

Soon after I joined staff full time, I started to work with a group of local leaders to bring Teach For America to my hometown.

At that time, the dominant narrative about education in Minnesota was that things were good – we coined the term that all the children are above average.  No one talked about the devastating inequities – the lowest graduation rates in the entire country for African-American, Latino and Native American students.  Seven years later, it’s central to the conversation. 

Back then, there was perhaps one school showing great results for low-income students, no alternative certification, no community-wide advocacy effort and no teacher voice for change.  Now, there are at least a half-dozen schools in the Twin Cities where students of all backgrounds succeed, and all of these other things are happening too.  Minneapolis isn’t such a big city, and when I look ahead, I can see so clearly the day when every child gets the education they deserve.  It’s coming.

Of course, Teach For America isn’t the only force behind all of this – but like in so many communities, if you take away the contributions of the Teach For America corps members and alumni, we wouldn’t be seeing the progress we’re seeing.

Change at the scale our students need doesn’t happen often, and never by accident.  If we’re going to see the day when every child has access to an excellent education, if we’re going to live into our national creed, it’s going to require so much leadership.  It’s going to require leadership from students, families, and community leaders facing down educational injustice.  It’s also going to take leadership from tens of thousands of people who haven’t yet joined this effort, including many who haven’t even finished high school yet.

And it’s going to take leadership from all of you, contributing in all the ways you do – in the classroom, in the field of education, in your communities, and working on staff to make Teach For America itself better – to make sure that this change we’re working toward won’t always exist in the future tense, and that we get there in our lifetimes.

“We Won’t Back Down”

Remarks of Elisa Villanueva Beard

What’s Next At Teach For America – 2014

Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 2014

Thank you Matt, for grounding us in where we are, and where we’re headed.

Tonight, I want to bring us together. I want to unite around our shared passion for this work. I want to share the experiences that have shaped me and tell you why I am personally so committed.

My mother came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 17, with an eighth-grade formal education, and my father is a first generation college graduate. I grew up in McAllen, Texas, where 85% of the population is Mexican-American and just 18% of adults have a college degree. Though our values and culture were rich, Hidalgo County is one of the poorest regions in the nation. That shaped me.

At 18 years old, I met a different America when I went to college.  DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana was nothing like home—but that wasn’t what troubled me. (Well – it was troubling that not everyone knew what tamales were and that folks thought Taco Bell was real Mexican food.)

In seriousness though, I’d been a top scholar at my high school – but I quickly realized how academically unprepared I was, compared to my peers at DePauw. I literally did not know how to take notes. I had never been asked to debate anything. It was confusing, overwhelming, and maddening  -- and it shaped me.

With a lot of hard work and support, I made it through that first semester. I ended up doing well at DePauw. I figured out that I did, in fact, belong on that campus– and so did all the kids I grew up with. But many of them hadn’t graduated from high school, much less gone to college. That realization, of that injustice—it shaped me. 

Joining Teach For America shaped me. Teaching does something to the heart that no book or lecture could ever do. I taught beautiful, talented, and incredible children for 3 years in Phoenix, Arizona, and their potential and ability was undeniable.

After that, I headed back home to the Rio Grande Valley to lead Teach For America and grew it to scale.  I saw the incredible work that staff, corps members, and alums —some at my very own high school – were doing with so many others across my community. They did good work. 

These are the things that have shaped me. That’s my truth, and I’m living it.

And it’s why I will not back down from my beliefs. I want to tell you about them, tonight—the things I won’t back down from. I know I’m not alone in what I believe.

I will not back down when folks say the education system is ‘fine’ as it is.  It simply is not.  It does not support all children to reach their full potential. It wasn’t designed to do that.  It was designed to reproduce the status quo. It was designed in willful exclusion of students of color, and it was designed to prepare kids for an economy that’s long since changed.

So when people say it’s fine as it is – I won’t back down. I know better, because I know my own story.

And I know this: according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress -

In a class of twenty-five Latino fourth graders, twenty won’t meet proficiency in English.

By eighth grade, nearly 90% of African-Americans don’t reach proficiency in Math.  

Pacific Islander students are half as likely to graduate from high school than the national average.

Native students are more likely than any group to not  have access to AP classes.

And, nationwide, fewer than one in TEN students who grow up in a low-income community will make it through college. 

The facts tell me clearly that things are not fine – so I won’t back down from that.

I will not back down when folks suggest that some kids -- (not their own, of course) -- don’t need high standards, because “they are probably not going to college anyway” or “We’re just setting them up for failure.”

No.

I’ve seen what my students Laura, Brianda, Carlos, Anayeli, and Oscar could do -- so when it comes to high standards and high expectations, I will not back down.

When folks tell you that kids of color can’t reach the same levels as white kids — do not back down.

When folks try to tell you that kids in low-income communities can’t reach the same performance as affluent kids—do not back down.

Yes, poverty is crippling. Poor healthcare is debilitating. Child hunger is all too real. We know kids need good healthcare and nutrition. We know they need safe cities. This doesn’t mean we STOP teaching with high expectations. It means we must KEEP teaching with high expectations.

It means we must advocate for our students’ basic needs being met, and unmask the violence of this inequity. But we must keep teaching. Keep our expectations high. Keep finding the systemic solutions and game-changing innovations.  We must do everything we can – within education and outside of it—to help them reach their dreams.

Our kids are not numbers. They are not statistics. They are children. And they need hope, inspiration, and unwavering belief in what they can do. Teach For America was built on that belief. We will not back down now.

We can reach educational equity in our lifetime -- it must be done. So when folks try to tell you it can’t, do not back down-- because we know better.  You know your kids. You know your truth.

But we’ve got evidence that all students can learn. We’re hearing more success stories each day, and you don’t have to take my word for it --  

Visit any of the hundreds of public schools who are putting children of color from low-income communities on a different path than the naysayers ever expected. Tell them to visit your classrooms.   When folks say it can’t be done – we will not back down.

And as for Teach for America’s role in all of this…

We are a force for good. We will not back down from that, either.

We are acknowledging our shortcomings – and are starting to work to address them. We are not perfect; far from it! The thoughtful, critical feedback we get is a gift, and it’s helping us evolve.  But I am certain of this -- we are a force for good. 

I want to be clear -- with every step, we remind ourselves that we are not saviors. We are not martyrs. We are not the solution—we are a part of a powerful movement that started long before we got here.  There is a deep history and context we have to respect, and our communities are our greatest assets—parents, families, veteran teachers, neighbors.  Teach for America must stay true to that vision.

Because we’re all pushing toward “one day.”

And so I want to tell you all, tonight, that I believe in you. I believe in us. I believe in Teach For America.

I know that Teach For America is a force for good --  because I’ve seen it in my own community, my own hometown. My own high school.

I believe in us because I believe in our teachers. I know it’s often a thankless profession – but teachers, I believe in you. We all believe in you. Thank you for what you do.

I believe in teachers like Kathy Hollowell-Makle, a 1998 DC corps members who teaches kindergarten at Simon Elementary -- and who was DC’s teacher of the year for 2013. Hopefully you all caught her as one of the First Lady’s guests at the State of the Union.

I believe in us because of Hoang Pham. Hoang is a 2011 corps members and a 1st grade teacher at KIPP Empower in South Los Angeles. He joined Teach for America because he was taught by a corps member himself—and last year, he won the Sue Lehman award.  Hoang’s students are academically strong, but they’re also--at six and seven years old--discussing critical issues of race and justice. I believe in that.

So when folks tell you that we’re not contributing, don’t back down. Kids are learning in our classrooms, and that’s important. Tell your own stories, and tell the stories of your colleagues. Point to the study by the Department of Education and Mathematica Policy research. Show them the studies, here in Tennessee.  They don’t say we’re perfect—but they do say we’re making a positive difference for kids. Parents and students will tell you the same thing – a good teacher is a good teacher, no matter how they’re trained or where they come from—and we’ve got good teachers.

When folks tell you that Teach For America is expanding without bounds, growing without regard for what communities need – explain it’s simply not true. This year, in roughly a third of our regions, we reduced the size of our corps. We get bigger where we need to grow, and we shrink where we need to be smaller. We place teachers only in positions that are already open, only when principals and districts want to hire them. And it's working: over 90% of those school leaders would recommend another principal to hire our teachers, too. 

When folks tell you Teach for America is anti-union—just give them the facts.  Remind them that thousands of our teachers are union members. Remind them that over 100 alums hold leadership positions in teachers unions nationwide. That is the truth.

And when folks tell you that Teach For America corps members all look one way, all come from the same background--don’t back down.  We’re far more diverse than the teaching profession as a whole: the majority of our first year teachers—55%--are people of color or from a low income background. 

And when folks say our teachers are temporary –introduce them to some of the great alumni spending their fifth and tenth and twentieth year in the classroom. The roughly 10,000 alumni teaching today. Remind them that our first year retention rates beat the national average. That the most common profession among alumni is teaching. That two-thirds of all our alums are still in education.

And no matter what, this is not a two year commitment.Two years are just the beginning. Alumni become life-long educators and advocates fighting for children –fighting for justice.  We’re in this for life.

Our alumni who don’t teach still educate, or they tackle the poverty, healthcare, and other challenges that the education world can’t take on alone.

Teach For America staff, corps members, and alumni may have diverse thoughts and different opinions—but we are anchored around our common belief—that all children deserve an excellent education—and we won’t back down from that.

Like so many of you, I fell in love with the kids in my classroom, and it changed me forever. No one can ever take that away from us, and for as long as we live, we will always have real skin in the game.

So we will keep fighting this fight.

We will keep working.

We will keep teaching.

We will keep learning.

We will keep improving. Committing. Questioning. Innovating.  Loving.

We will keep at this for as long as it takes.  We will not back down.

Thank you.

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