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Teaching For America

Elisa Villanueva, chief operating officer for Teach for America
Elisa Villanueva Beard, chief operating officer for Teach For America.

Elisa Villanueva Beard is the chief operating officer for Teach For America, a non-profit organization which addresses teacher shortages by sending graduates from elite colleges, most of whom do not have a background in education, to teach in low-income rural and urban schools. The organization's influence is expanding as a player in education and politics as the Obama administration calls for education reform, but TFA is not without controversy, as some have questioned its methods and effectiveness.

Q: Can you describe how you came to the organization and became Chief Operating Officer of Teach for America?

Beard: In 1998, as a new college graduate, I was accepted to and joined Teach For America's teacher corps. My group of 600 recent graduates set out to teach in rural and urban public schools in low-income communities across the country. I was placed in Phoenix. My experience teaching for two years affirmed what my life experiences had led me to believe so early on in my professional career, which was not only how big this problem of educational inequity really is, but how solvable it is as well.

After fulfilling my two-year commitment to Teach For America, it was not a hard decision for me to stay and teach for an additional year. After my third year of teaching, Teach For America asked me to head up its Rio Grande Valley region in South Texas, which is where I grew up and now live. For four years, I served as the region's executive director, and during that time, I worked to maximize our impact by doubling the number of new teachers we brought to the area. In 2005, Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach For America, asked me to head up our regional operations team, which basically means leading and managing the executive directors who run all of our regions across the country.

Q: Teach For America's 2010 incoming corps is the largest and most selective to date, with a record 46,000 applicants. How are you able to sort out the people who are truly committed to education?

Beard: Our acceptance rate was at about 12 percent this year, and we attribute much of this growth to our belief that many young people believe educational inequity is really our country's greatest civil rights issue and that they see Teach For America as a high-impact way to help tackle this pressing problem. We have a rigorous selection model that we've studied over the past 20 years, and we've really been able to sort out the characteristics such as leadership, achievement and perseverance, that we're looking for as we think about who we're accepting to the corps. Based on rigorous research showing that corps members are effective classroom teachers, we believe that our selection and training models are working.

Q: Many Teach For America corps members go into schools without any previous education classes or real experience. I've heard complaints that Teach For America does not really teach corps members to teach. Your thoughts?

Beard: We invest heavily in making sure our teachers are prepared to teach. We know our approach works because rigorous research shows that our teachers are making a significant impact in the classroom. There are five components to our training and support. First, corps members are required to complete reading assignments and classroom observation hours. Second, corps members attend Regional Induction; they travel to the region where they will be teaching and spend time learning about the region and Teach For America. Third, corps members attend an intensive five-week training program called Institute. During Institute, corps members spend time attending sessions and workshops on a wide variety of instructional topics, as well as teaching summer school. Fourth, corps members attend Regional Orientation, where they spend time preparing for the school year with the support of our staff. This involves setting goals for their students and developing unit plans and assessments. Finally, we provide ongoing support to every single corps member. While teaching, our corps members receive continuous support and professional development from members of our staff and our university partners.

Simultaneously, Teach For America corps members work to obtain necessary certifications. These requirements vary from state to state, but they range from coursework and exams for state certification to enrollment in master's degree programs. Our focus is to ensure that we're having a significant and positive impact on students. Earlier this year the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a study that found that students taught by Teach For America corps members in North Carolina outperformed students taught by traditionally trained teachers in high school science, math and English. And according to an internal survey, 94 percent of the principals who work with our teachers report that they've made a positive impact in their schools.

We have a strong approach of really rigorous selection, rigorous training, and rigorous ongoing support of our teachers. We see that independent studies show that we are having a positive impact on student achievement, and for us, that's a good indicator that we're on the right path.

Q: What is your perception of how traditional teachers and teachers unions feel about Teach For America corps members coming into the school districts?

Beard: Teach For America shares the same goals as teacher unions across the country, which is to provide all students with the very best education possible. Our corps members teach side-by-side with many union members, and many are union members themselves.

Teach For America corps member Jovan Moore teaching high school science in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Each year we work very closely with district leaders to determine what their hiring needs are, and we bring in teachers accordingly. We have found that even in tough economic times, many school districts have open teaching positions in high-need schools and subject areas. In these cases, Teach For America corps members are considered alongside other new teacher candidates for available positions. We are one of multiple sources of high-quality teachers for low-income students in the districts where the organization places teachers.

We work hard to build partnerships with the unions, with the districts and all parties to ensure that we are all working collaboratively toward our goal of providing every child with a great education.

Q: In the long term, what effect does Teach For America have on education? I understand that many corps members eventually become leaders. What percentage stay in education?

Beard: We have 20,000 alumni now, and about two-thirds of them continue to work in education. Ninety percent of alumni working in schools serve in low-income communities. We believe that one of the most important aspects of our work is to ensure that our alumni stay within education. And what's especially interesting about this is that while only 1 in 6 corps members say that they're interested in the teaching profession before doing Teach For America, nearly two-thirds of our alumni stay in the field of education after fulfilling their two-year commitment to Teach For America.

Q: How would you say Teach For America's mission aligns with the Obama administration's aggressive school reform model?

Beard: By the time kids are in fourth grade in low-income communities, they're already three grade levels behind their peers in more affluent communities, and only 1 in 10 will end up graduating from college. The achievement gap is a massive problem, and it impacts the academic and life prospects of 14 million children in the U.S. that are living in poverty. We believe that by increasing the number of high-quality teachers and leaders in the nation's public schools, we can alter the education landscape and close our nation's achievement gap for good. Our corps members have a strong commitment to and impatience about the achievement gap, and they fi gure out how to best fuel their energy in their future careers. Some are fueled by staying in education, others are fueled by working in policy or law—whatever their calling is to impact children in low-income communities.

We believe that the name of the game is recruiting talented people and fueling that talent pipeline to be able to then have this perspective to take on major leadership roles and ultimately change the system.

The Obama administration has taken a number of bold steps, all with the same end goal: eliminating educational inequity. We align with the administration in a number of key ways, including looking for ways to bring outstanding teachers into the classroom, and using data to help identify and support eff ective practices.

Q: Last thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

Beard: Closing the education gap is my life passion. Twenty years ago, when Teach For America was founded, the national education debate was centered on whether it was possible for children in low-income communities to achieve at the same levels as their wealthier peers. Today, highly effective teachers in low-income communities across the country are proving every day that the achievement gap can be closed. e question our country faces now is how to scale these successes. It will take all of us to effectively answer this question, and I challenge each of us to remain impatient about the problem we are working to solve and determine how we can each contribute to ensuring that one day all children in this country will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.