Elisa Villanueva Beard, Teach For America’s renowned chief, is taking over RHSU this week. Elisa started her time with TFA as a 1998 corps member in Phoenix. After joining the staff in 2001 to lead the organization’s work in her hometown in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, she went on to become chief operating officer, and in 2015, she was named CEO. Elisa will spend the week reflecting on what’s at stake for students in low-income communities as they head back to school amid the pandemic, sharing what she’s hearing from TFA’s network of alumni and corps members as they address this forced disruption and describing TFA’s response to COVID-19.
We can’t just “go back to normal.” When it comes to education, “normal” was not serving the needs of our kids.
The hard truth is our education system is not yet preparing all students to succeed. Long before this pandemic, too many children were being left out and left behind. Unequal access along the lines of race and class has deep roots in American history. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) children and children growing up in low-income communities are often denied an excellent education—and with it the opportunity for economic mobility and the chance to thrive. Because systemic racism and inequity impact every facet of life in America, an excellent education alone is insufficient to secure for our children a future filled with possibility—but it is essential.
It is not acceptable that in America today your ZIP code still determines your opportunities in life.
We’ve made progress for students in the past 30 years, but it isn’t enough. This is a moment where we have to imagine something different. Even as we begin a historically challenging school year, we can’t wait any longer to take on the big systemic problems that hold kids back. We need a fundamentally different approach to education—one that puts equity at the center of all we do and is anchored in the needs of our students. One that addresses the inequity and racial injustice we are grappling with as a country. We will have failed our children if this next decade is not transformational, if we don’t radically change what’s possible for all students.
At Teach For America, we have committed our next decade to ensuring students achieve progress on key educational outcomes that increase their pathway to economic mobility and a future filled with possibility.
Reaching that goal will only be possible if we stay grounded in the aspirations students have for themselves. “What do students want?” is the question that has guided me since I first led my own classroom more than 20 years ago. I’ve learned so much from asking that question. Students want to excel and be challenged. They want great teachers who see them, love them, and push them. They want school to be relevant to their lives, to be a place where they grapple with problems in their world and in their communities. They want school to prepare them to imagine, co-create, and lead.
I draw so much hope from this generation of students. They are systems thinkers, they are courageous, they are figuring out how to organize to fight for things bigger than themselves. As educators and advocates, we need to find ways to get behind them, to learn from them, to be led by them, because they are exactly the leaders our world needs right now.
Our education system was never set up to serve students in this way. To make this kind of change in the world, all of us in education must work in different ways. We are doing that at Teach For America. We will recruit, prepare, and support a diverse generation of corps members to be aspiring anti-racist educators in service to our mission of changing systems and advancing educational equity for kids. We are developing new models for teacher preparation, including virtual training centered on instruction, learning environment, and diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. And we will focus on the outcomes that research shows put students on paths to economic mobility. We know some academic markers—like 3rd grade reading—are essential milestones predictive of economic mobility later in life, as are other indicators of whole-child success, such as social-emotional learning and mental health.
We will engage our alumni differently, too. Our network, now more than 60,000 strong, includes educators on the leading edge of the future of teaching and learning, some reimagining school altogether. We will be learning alongside our network, growing our expertise and knowledge about the conditions that lead to systems change for kids in a community, and investing in innovation and reinvention so we can help accelerate community change efforts.
We are in a defining moment for our kids and our country. We must choose in this moment to change what is possible for kids and create a fundamentally different experience for our students to achieve equity and excellence. I believe so strongly that we have not only an opportunity but an obligation to act now and reimagine a different future for education in partnership with our students. It is time to build a world where all students can lead, learn, and thrive. Let’s get to work.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.