school hall with college banners

Inspired by the Next Generation

CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard outlines the progress of our recruiting efforts and her thoughts on a new external study about Teach For America’s impact.
Monday, May 1, 2017

This time last year, I shared the work ahead of us to strengthen Teach For America’s efforts to attract the best and most diverse pool of leaders our country has to offer. As the 2017 application closes, I want to update you on the results of this work and the findings of a new external research study about Teach For America’s impact.

After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have. Nearly 49,000 individuals, representing more than 1,900 colleges and universities, have applied to the 2017 corps, and nearly 4,000 applied for early admission to the 2018 corps.

The talented group of 2017 applicants includes more than 17 percent of the senior class at Emory University, more than 11 percent at Spelman College, and about 8 percent at Yale University, Amherst College, Howard University, and my alma mater, DePauw University. Slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color, and nearly half identify as white. More than a third are the first in their families to attend college.     

It’s encouraging that we continue to see leaders from all backgrounds taking on this charge, because we know that the diversity of our community supports innovation and creative thinking and leads us to the best results. Successful efforts at systemic change throughout history have shown us that we need a broad and diverse coalition—a coalition that reaches every dinner table in America—working toward change together. Inspiring a diverse applicant pool ensures that we’re welcoming this nation’s extraordinary talent into our community.

We’re seeing the impact of changes in our recruitment approach and application process and assessing the lessons from this year as we head into the 2018 recruiting season. There’s much to learn from our success with those who applied for early admission and the strong early deadline we had this spring that resulted in growth at the most selective schools.

While the road ahead is long, and the recruitment landscape remains as competitive as ever, we’re up to the challenge. Making the choice to do this work matters—for students, schools, communities, and for each of us. In fact, a new study from researchers at Vanderbilt and Columbia affirms what we all know: building relationships with students and their families changes the way we see the world and our role in it, no matter where we come from.

One of the study’s coauthors, Cecilia Mo, is a 2002 Los Angeles alumna and former staff member. She and her coauthors focused on the specific question of how participation in Teach For America affects the lens in which relatively advantaged individuals (defined as those with a four-year college degree) perceive individuals from low-income communities and issues they face. They found that teaching as a corps member has a powerful influence on understanding the political and social forces that contribute to educational inequity, reduces prejudice, and increases connectedness to marginalized communities.

Of course, research studies can be used to support many claims and shift the focus away from the researchers’ intended questions to reinforce notions tangential to their work. I’m seeing that possibility with this new study because it’s framed around the “advantaged,” which connotes a monolithic bloc of universal privilege, while our actual network and the study participants are a diverse group. At the same time, no matter our background, it is important to recognize that we are a privileged group compared with our students and their families, given that we’re among the minority of all Americans with a college education.

Detractors may use the study’s framing to suggest that our network is not fully committed and working with everything we have alongside our students and their families in the fight for educational equity and excellence. Yet we all understand deeply that this effort is not about theories or statistics on a page but real relationships and real stories that move us to keep at it.  

The big message I take from the study’s findings is affirmation of how essential it is that we bring the next generation of leaders into this work. The research points to important common understandings among our diverse community of 53,000: the immense potential in every child and the inadequacies of a system that was not designed to provide an excellent, equitable education to all. We need more leaders in our country who understand this deeply and stay close to it, who will keep fighting with all they have to pursue equity from every sector of society.

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