Teach For America’s longtime chief executive officer, Elisa Villanueva Beard, will depart the organization in 2025.
The announcement comes amid a period of change for the nearly 35-year-old organization, which recruits and prepares high-achieving college graduates and others to teach for at least two years and ultimately become civically minded leaders with a passion for education.
During the pandemic, Teach For America saw its corps size shrink three years in a row. It reduced its staff by about 400 positions. Given the smaller corps size, the nonprofit stopped placing new teachers in about a dozen of the communities it serves, focusing instead on developing the alumni there.
But there are signs of recovery: Last fall, TFA’s incoming teacher corps grew by nearly 40 percent from the previous year’s low—from 1,616 to 2,220. (Even so, 2019’s incoming class had more than 3,000 members, and the incoming class had about 6,000 members at TFA’s peak a decade ago.)
The organization is also focused on its new tutoring program, designed to address pandemic-related learning gaps and build a pipeline into the corps.
In an exclusive interview, Villanueva Beard said Teach For America is now in a position of strength and is ready for new leadership.
Villanueva Beard got her start in Teach For America as a corps member in 1998, when she taught 1st and 2nd grade bilingual education in Phoenix. After three years in the classroom, she joined TFA’s staff, working her way up to co-CEO in 2013. She became TFA’s sole CEO in 2015.
Villanueva Beard spoke with Education Week ahead of her Monday announcement. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been Teach For America’s CEO for about a decade. Tell me about your decision to step away.
I love Teach For America. I love my job. And it’s just time—you just sort of know when it’s time. The organization is in an incredible position of strength.
We grew our corps by almost 40 percent last year. That trajectory is continuing. We grew our tutoring program by 125 percent. We’re on track to grow that by another 50 percent this year. And our alumni continue to take on these incredibly vital roles to drive change. Given the moment we’re living in, it matters so much.
And what’s important here is, I’m not leaving tomorrow. This is an 18- to 24-month transition, and that’s by design. As I work with the board, we really want to make sure that we are taking—or they are taking—a deliberate, transparent, inclusive process that allows us to do this well and not miss a beat. My goal and commitment is to have this be a seamless transition.
TFA is operating within a broader shrinking of the teacher pipeline. Many young people are not interested in going into teaching, and teachers are not recommending it to their children. What needs to happen to reverse this trend?
It’s such a good question, and one that we reflect on all the time at Teach For America. Our teachers are operating within an outmoded system—the system was designed at a different time, in a different place, with never the intention of ensuring every child could learn, lead, and thrive.
We live in a 21st century global society. What the workforce is demanding is just different from what we’ve been up to [in schools]. And of course we’re seeing some innovation. But I think we need to come to terms with that. What is the purpose of an education? What are the objectives? And then how do you organize yourself to ensure that we’re able to deliver that for our kids?
And I think that we need to make it easy for this generation to say yes [to teaching]. Right now we’ve created a role which is easy to say no [to]. Over 50 percent of teachers have to work a second job [both within and outside of the school system] to make ends meet. They honestly have to be a jack-of-all-trades, and this makes it a role that makes it very difficult to say yes to.
We’ve got to be innovating. We’ve got to really center the student and what they need, and then design the structures that are going to enable us to meet the moment. There are good things happening, and people trying different things. I think we need to keep at it.
One of the initiatives in your tenure has been the Ignite tutoring program. Why has that become so important to TFA’s mission?
We brought Ignite to life during COVID. This was born from my executive director at the time in Arizona, who was really listening and asking what is needed. People were saying, “We just need more. We need more teachers. We need more adults helping us here.”
Teach For America’s core capabilities are finding exceptional talent, matching that talent to the greatest need, and developing it. And tutoring is just that.
We have grounded ourselves in high-dosage tutoring, which is one of the most effective interventions to accelerate learning. We’re focused on undergrads [as the tutors], and of course we’re trying to recruit undergrads into the corps. It made sense for us. We have a built-in infrastructure.
We’ve seen incredible success. We have focused on early literacy and middle school math. The demand is growing. The supply—I don’t think it has limits at the moment. People are excited about this.
Our intention with Ignite is first and foremost impact for kids, ensuring that we are helping them accelerate learning, which we are seeing. And then, secondly, it’s become a really authentic pipeline into the corps.
This generation wants to change the world. They just also want to know that they can do it—they’ll have the support, they’ll have community. So they get a taste of that with Ignite.
We have a goal of getting to 10,000 tutors by 2030. And we think that we could be generating up to a third of the corps from our Ignite fellows.
A persistent criticism of TFA has been that the teachers don’t tend to stay in the classroom for long. How does retention fit into TFA’s long-term strategy?
What I would say is that our leaders stay forever. The whole point of Teach For America is to bring in incredible leaders who are all in for kids, who have a direct, immediate positive impact for kids, and who commit to working toward solving this problem in the way that they can most contribute. The point is that we know we need leaders who believe in every child, who believe this problem is solvable working in classrooms.
Obviously, we need incredible teachers, many of them. We also need great principals—a big lever to teacher retention and ensuring that teachers are inspired and excited about their jobs is their principal. You also need system leaders who are running the whole [school] system. You need social entrepreneurs who are filling in gaps for needs for kids. And you need policymakers and elected officials. You need everybody at every ecosystem. That’s the point of Teach For America.
We love it when people decide to stay for as long as they want in the classroom, and we also know that it is a good thing when they are deciding to go on to contribute working toward educational excellence and equity from a different level.
TFA has faced criticism from both the left and the right. How have you navigated politics in your tenure, and where do you see TFA’s place in an increasingly partisan world?
When you do our work, we’re in the field, we are in classrooms every day. I’m obviously very self-aware of the politics around me. But at the end of the day, the the way I navigate this and the way Teach For America will continue to navigate this is, we focus on our kids.
We serve children all over the United States—middle America, the coast, the South—and that’s our focus and what those communities and our partners expect of us.
We will continue to do that. If we get distracted and are focusing on other things, we are not focused on the fact that kids need to know how to read. And right now, post-pandemic, our communities in urban and rural America got hit the hardest. They’re recovering the slowest. We’ve got to teach kids how to read. It is the greatest act of leadership. And if we’re working toward educational equity and excellence, that’s the way to do it.
We have a racially, ethnically, socioeconomically diverse organization and corps members. The research shows that really matters. We’re looking at, what are the levers that ensure that we are responsibly teaching kids and using all the evidence base out there and integrating it into our training and support. The “science of reading” is something that we do.
We’re really working to stay focused and clear on our accountability to community, and that being ultimately what drives our decisions. I think part of the problem in our country today is that we’re caught up in things that actually aren’t the things driving what’s most important for kids.
We have to stay focused on what’s in front of us because our kids, they have one shot at 3rd grade. They have one shot at 7th grade math. We can’t get distracted from the implications of that, and our responsibility in it.
What are you most proud of in your tenure at Teach For America?
I’m really proud of the millions of students that we have impacted over the last few decades, and that we’ve done well by them. What excites me the most about it is, this last incoming corps, nearly 10 percent of our corps members were what we call second-generation corps members. They were students who were themselves taught by corps members. I think that speaks volume to the power of what TFA does in classrooms.
I think it’s incredible that our network is now 70,000 folks who have said yes across generations. How powerful to have Gen Xers—which is what I am; TFA was founded by and built by Gen Xers—then our millennials have said yes to this, and now we have Gen Z. We’ve all had to continue to adapt to meet the generation we’re working with. They want to change the world, and they’re incredible. We’ve got to meet them halfway.
I’m really proud of our alums. This was never about two years [in the classroom]. It just really wasn’t. And we have evidence of that in our over 65,000 alums who are literally working at every level of the system, as teachers and principals and system leaders and policymakers and social entrepreneurs.
I think that’s incredible to have that kind of leadership working alongside many others to do big things for kids.