Why We Are the Diverse Learner Initiative

Our name change reflects an evolution of mindsets and beliefs.

By

By
Monday, April 27, 2015

I’m so excited to share that what was formerly known as Teach For America’s Special Education and Ability Initiative is now officially the Diverse Learner Initiative. This change is so much more than a language nuance—it reflects an evolution of mindsets and beliefs that have been making their way through the broader education community around how our expectations influence potential. 

The enormity of the problem is undeniable. Currently, 19 percent of students with learning disabilities drop out of high school. According to the Department of Education, students with disabilities comprise 25 percent of students who've received multiple out-of-school suspensions—despite constituting just 12 percent of the overall student population. These statistics do not reflect the potential of the learners they represent. They instead are a startling reflection of what can happen when we don’t meet learners where they are; when students feel alone, unheard, and unsure of where they belong. 

 

People learn differently—visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically (to name a few). Our challenge is to meet individual needs.
People learn differently—visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically (to name a few). Our challenge is to meet individual needs.

 

In this high-need field, in which 46 states have a teacher shortage—specifically in low-income communities, issues such as overrepresentation of minority students in special education require a collaborative effort. We will continue to support endeavors to ensure that every child counts, to end bullying of students with differences, and to empower parents and students through information, as well as others we believe support our broader work.

We changed our name after talking to partners, collaborators, and mentors in our diverse learner and special education work. Organizations like Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic), Understood.org (a collaboration of organizations—including the National Center for Learning Disabilities and CAST among other influential organizations, The Center for Individual Opportunity, ResearchILD, Eye to Eye,  and the Friday Institute’s MOOC-Ed on Learning Differences pushed our thinking on what it means to embrace the full scope of our work, and how simple word changes can lead to widespread awareness changes. TED talks like The Myth of Average, by Todd Rose, influenced us to think deeply about how we are “teaching to the edges” in all of our classrooms, and the importance of all of our educators having a firm grasp on individual learner profiles.  And initiatives like #ReimagineLearning showed us what could happen when partners band together.

 

We believe that if we can better support complex learners, we will better be able to support all kids.
We believe that if we can better support complex learners, we will better be able to support all kids.

 

We continue to learn together within our community at Teach For America and Teach For All, as well.  Folks like Elizabeth Terry (Colorado Region ’10) and Michael Ramos (Teach For the Philippines) push us to reflect on individually responsive teaching, student-first language, and the social justice components of our work.  Our Chief Knowledge Officer Steven Farr sparks our thinking around the context of learning differences and Ryan Mick (Greater New Orleans ’09), our Designer for Diverse Learner work, deeply influences our thinking around silence as a privilege and the importance of recognizing how special education can be a tool of empowerment or oppression. The collaboration amongst 12 Teach For All partner countries via the Oak Foundation Learning Differences Fellowship has supported us in gaining a wide variety of global perspectives and growing together as a network.

We believe that if we can better support complex learners, we will better be able to support all kids. Moreover, we are excited to deepen collaborations with students, teachers, communities, and organizations to continue to work toward this vision together toward unlocking human potential.

Rachel Brody is the managing director of Teach For America’s Diverse Learner Initiative. Follow the DLI on Twitter @TFAbility, and if you're a corps member, join the TFAbility Facebook community.

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