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Nearing 25 Years Old, Teach For America Reflects On Its Work


An important milestone in American education has been reached this year. Teach for America turns 25. And even people who don't follow education issues probably know that what started as the Princeton undergraduate thesis of founder Wendy Kopp has turned into a multimillion dollar organization in 36 states. It's involved in the education of millions of children nationwide. Last fall alone, some 4,100 new teachers signed up. But along the way, the organization has also become a lightning rod for criticism about how issues like race and class factor into educational opportunity. Elisa Villanueva Beard is Teach for America's CEO. She was in Washington, D.C. for the 25th anniversary Teach for America Summit. She's also a Teach for America alum. And I asked her how she came to Teach for America.

ELISA VILLANUEVA BEARD: I grew up in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, right on the Mexican border. I ended up going to school in rural Midwest America at DePauw University. And when I got to DePauw, I realized how actually underprepared I was for college. And when I learned about Teach for America in my sophomore year, I just thought I want to be a part of a team of people who care so deeply and are just going to do whatever it's going to take to deliver for our kids.

MARTIN: I mean, the idea of training a corps of high-achieving young people to be teachers to help close the gap between the haves and the have-nots, to try to, you know, raise educational outcomes. You know, fill the gaps in the teacher corps - extremely ambitious. So over the past 25 years, as briefly as you can, what do you think the organization has accomplished?

BEARD: We have been part of the solution without question. This is a massive systemic issue. And that's the way we see it, right? And it's going to take incredible leadership at the very least to ensure we're working in education and outside of education. That is our role, and what we do is we bring, you know, the future leaders of this country to come to understand this issue early on in their careers so they can commit to it.

MARTIN: The core of the criticism of Teach for America is that these are people who, however well-meaning, aren't really committed to teaching. These are people who are either tourists - they're going to do their two years and then leave, resume padding. And in fact, you're asking kind of the least-prepared people to take on the most challenging students and situations.

BEARD: Yeah. I mean, what I would say to that is first, I ground myself in how I view the problem at Teach for America, which is - it's a massive systemic problem. And I personally believe that if we brought in 1 million excellent teachers to the system, that we wouldn't solve this problem of educational inequity because you do need those million excellent teachers, but you also need great principals. And you need great system leaders, and you need great politicians who actually are making good policy decisions for kids. You need healthcare where our kids can access it. And so for us, our contribution is not to bring in teachers for life, although about 30 percent of our alumni have made teaching their profession. What we are doing is bringing people to this issue so that they can contribute for the rest of their life. And in fact, they do. Sixty percent of our corps members stay teaching for a third year, and we think that's incredible, and then 84 percent of the folks that have done Teach for America are working in education or in a low-income community. And so we have been part of the solution alongside many others. And we do see real progress, and we're proud of that.

MARTIN: Does the level of vitriol dishearten you? Do you feel defensive about Teach for America at this point in its history? I mean...

BEARD: ...I don't...

MARTIN: ...Is the criticism upsetting?

BEARD: I mean, I'm frustrated for our people because we have people signing up right now who are making the choice to come be part of the solution and be all in for students, students who desperately need people who are all in for them. I think it's, I would say, irresponsible that, you know, they are being told that they're not being helpful. But you know what? We focus on the positive. We focus on our story, and we have an incredible community of people who are, I think, just some of the most remarkable people in the world and are all in for kids.

MARTIN: Elisa Villanueva Beard is the CEO of Teach for America, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year. And we caught up with her in Washington, D.C. All right, thank you...

BEARD: ...Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Yeah, thanks so much for coming.

BEARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.