The Transformative Power of Education

Interview with Ms. Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of TEACH FOR AMERICA, conducted by the Harvard International Review on June 20, 2016.

Q: What do you believe is the most important way through which the lives of children can be transformed? What is the role that education plays in this potential transformation?

A: I do not think that there is just one single way through which a child’s life can be transformed. I think it is a combination of many factors that allows a child to meet their full potential and contribute to the world. The question for us at Teach for America has always been how to utilize our students’ strengths and assets and unleash their full potential. In order to do this, we have realized that apart from our brilliant teachers, our students need affirmation, good health care, and proper nutrition. All of these things, combined, allow a child to fully develop and thrive.

At the same time, I do believe that education is a very important component to ensuring that a child is able to meet their full potential. I speak from my own personal experience that when one is educated fully, and has developed the knowledge, the confidence, and the capacity, one becomes simply unstoppable.

Holistically educating a child has the potential to be life-changing and trajectory-changing and this is especially true for kids growing up in low-income communities. At Teach for America, we know that a kid’s ability to read, write, and do math is just as important as having good speaking skills and communications skills; all of this put together allows a kid to fully contribute to their society and become leaders.

Q: Teach for America has been empowering students since 1989. Could you tell us a little bit about where children growing up in poverty in America are today versus were they were about 25 years ago, in terms of high school/college graduation rates, students entering college, earning bachelor’s degrees, etc?

A: Well, progress has certainly been made over the last two decades. If we look at the data, it shows that more kids in low-income communities are graduating at a higher rate from high school than before, more kids are getting into college and completing their degrees, and more kids are more proficient in subjects like reading, math, and science. So the data tells us that kids are doing much better, in school and in college. But what is most important to realize is that our work is still unfinished.The realities of kids growing up in low-income communities still remain mired in inequity and too many children still don’t have the opportunities they deserve.

Today in rural and urban America, you have hundreds of schools across the country, where you can see that children growing up in low-income communities, who are usually children of color, can do just as well as their more affluent peers. They are graduating from high school, college and career-ready. And this provides a powerful example of optimism, hope, and progress to all of us working to provide equal access to education to all students, because only fifteen years ago, the progress we see today was basically nonexistent. But now, all of our work and research has shown us what is possible. It has shown us that education is a powerful tool and it can truly transform the lives of all students. We know that it’s possible to bridge the gaps between students from low-income communities and their more affluent peers.

Q: The realities of kids growing up in low-income communities still remain mired in inequity and too many children still don’t have the opportunities they deserve. How important is diversity, as a value, for Teach for America?

A: So we start off with the fact that we need every future leader of this country to join Teach for America. We would like for every qualified person to join. We also believe that we need a very diverse group of people, which means that you have teachers from privileged backgrounds and teachers who share the backgrounds of our students. But what ultimately changes the country is when you have people who have the audacity to believe in what we believe—which is every single kid deserves equal access to good education, regardless of their skin color, or where they were born, or who their parents are.

We have 50,000 people in our network right now, who are touching dinner tables from Darien, Connecticut, to McAllen, Texas, to south-central Los Angeles. But we have learned over time that it actually doesn’t matter what your background is when it comes to education children. However, when you have a shared identity with you kids, you have additional potential to have a powerful transformational impact on the students. You cannot deny that. When you, yourself, have sat in the shoes of your kids, you become a role model, someone who kids look up to and relate to in a special way.

And in our country today, most kids actually are of color, and yet most of our teachers are white. This is also not good. Our kids need to have teachers from many diverse backgrounds because they can learn from so all the different kinds of people. And this is why diversity is very important for us.