Teach for America’s founding CEO, Wendy Kopp (center), is being replaced by two top executives at the 23-year-old nonprofit. (Photo: Teach for America)

Nearly 24 years after first sketching out Teach for America in her undergraduate thesis, founding CEO Wendy Kopp is stepping down from running the organization, according to a decision that its board approved on Tuesday.

Kopp will instead focus on running Teach for All, the nonprofit she launched in 2007 to support organizations in other countries as they adopt the Teach for America model of recruiting and training strong teachers to work in high-need schools. Two dozen countries currently have Teach for All programs.

Kopp’s departure marks the start of a new phase for Teach for America, which grew from 500 teachers in 1990 to more than 10,000 in 46 regions today, including nearly a thousand in New York City, along the way jumpstarting a paradigm shift in teacher preparation. Nonprofit organizations are notorious for tending to struggle after their charismatic founders move on.

But Kopp’s successors have been steeped in her leadership. The group’s board chose Teach for America’s top executives, Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard, to share the CEO position starting March 1. Kramer is the organization’s president, and Villanueva Beard — who was a Teach for America “corps member” in rural Texas — is its chief operating officer.

And Kopp will continue to influence the nonprofit’s vision and direction as the chair of its board. Kopp offered one hint of what that direction might look like in an open letter last month to Gary Rubinstein, a New York City teacher who entered the classroom through Teach for America but has been critical of it in the decades since.

Responding to Rubinstein’s charge that the organization promotes only certain ideas about how to improve schools, Kopp said she had always worked to create a “big tent” for ideas, in large part by not asserting her own in many cases (but not all). She wrote:

However, I’ve learned the hard way that silence just reinforces misunderstanding. Going forward, our goal is to show the plurality of opinion within our community and provide more outlets to challenge one another and share our best thinking.

I believe there is real misunderstanding about what opinions Teach For America wants to hear – misunderstanding we haven’t done enough to combat. When corps members and alumni assume their opinions defy conventional wisdom and no one wants to hear them, they often choose not to speak up. This becomes a self-perpetuating problem. The people who do speak up express similar views, which reinforces the impression that we all think one way and discourages dissenting opinions.

Changing this will require more than providing discussion forums – it involves the difficult work of changing culture. As you’ve noticed, over the past year we’ve made a concerted effort to do just that by encouraging honest engagement and debate on several platforms, both inside and outside the organization.

Kopp’s successors appear to be carrying out that vision. Among the pair’s first acts, according to a letter they sent to Teach for America’s participants and backers today, will be a “listening tour” to solicit guidance from teachers, alumni, and supporters.

To support the board and the co-CEOs during the transition, one board member, Richard Parsons, is becoming an “independent lead director.” Parsons is also the chair of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission, whose first report last month included a recommendation to expand the use of alternative certification programs in New York State.

Kopp’s decision to run Teach for All full-time suggests that she no longer sees being New York City’s schools chancellor as “the best job in the world” after being Teach for America’s CEO.

Teach for America’s full press release is below. (Disclosure: GothamSchools’ board chair Sue Lehmann is on Teach for America’s national board.)

TEACH FOR AMERICA FOUNDER VOTED CHAIR OF THE BOARD
— Teach For America’s COO and President to become co-CEOs –

NEW YORK, NY – February 13, 2013 – In a vote yesterday, the Teach For America Board of Directors named CEO and founder Wendy Kopp as board chair, succeeding Walter Isaacson, who will become chair emeritus after more than seven years as chair. The board also appointed Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard co-CEOs of Teach For America, effective March 1. Kopp will continue in her current role as founding CEO of Teach For All, a global network working to expand educational opportunity.

As board chair of Teach For America, Kopp will work closely with Villanueva Beard and Kramer to inform the organization’s strategic direction. She will develop and lead the national board of directors, cultivate external support, and provide advice and counsel to the leadership team.

“Today’s announcement reflects Teach For America’s strength. Our dramatic growth over the past few years calls for more leadership capacity to respond to growing needs and opportunities,” said Isaacson. “We are excited to elevate two proven leaders who have a lot more to contribute and free up our founder to focus on the areas where she can add the most unique value.”

Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer have served as senior members of Teach For America’s leadership team for eight years, and this transition is a natural evolution of their existing responsibilities. As co-CEOs, they will be jointly accountable for the organization’s performance and will assume the leadership role in charting its strategic direction, developing its team and culture, building external relationships, and raising public awareness.

Elisa Villanueva Beard will oversee Teach For America’s regional operations and represent the organization publicly. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Villanueva Beard joined Teach For America in 1998, teaching bilingual first and second grade in Phoenix for three years. She then spent four years as executive director of Teach For America’s Rio Grande Valley region, before joining the national staff as chief operating officer. In that position, she managed Teach For America’s now 46 regions, which are responsible for the placement and development of more than 10,000 corps members, fostering the leadership of their local alumni, and raising 80 percent of Teach For America’s funding.

“Having grown up in the Rio Grande Valley, my life’s work is fighting for educational justice for underserved kids in my hometown and across the country,” said Villanueva Beard. “I am honored to continue this work as co-CEO of Teach For America, an organization that I know has such deep potential to move us toward the day when all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Matt and I look forward to working together to take Teach For America to the next level.”

Matt Kramer will manage all aspects of the central Teach For America structure, including recruiting and admissions, corps member training, administration, development, marketing and communications, and central programmatic support of the regions. Inspired by his wife’s experience as a corps member, Kramer originally joined Teach For America as chief program officer in 2005. He then moved into the role of president, where over the past five years he has helped oversee all aspects of Teach For America’s national operations, from growth and strategy to performance and organizational culture.

“I am thrilled to continue my partnership with Elisa, now as co-CEOs of Teach For America,” said Kramer. “Teach For America plays such an important role in developing the leadership our country needs to live up to our highest ideals, and Elisa and I are eager to continue the hard work of ensuring that all children in our country have the opportunity to reach their full potential. I am also excited that we will continue to benefit from Wendy Kopp’s extraordinary energy and wisdom in her new role as chair of the board.”

To ensure strong governance, the board has created a new role of independent lead director and has appointed Dick Parsons, former CEO and chairman of Time Warner, to this position. As chair of the board’s executive committee, he will help ensure the effectiveness of the board, support the development of the co-CEOs, and provide additional support in cultivating external relationships.

As CEO of Teach For All, Kopp leads a growing global network of independent organizations that, like Teach For America, are enlisting their countries’ most promising future leaders to become lifelong advocates for educational excellence and equality. Now in its sixth year, the Teach For All network includes organizations in 26 countries worldwide. In the coming years, Teach For All aims to build support for the growth of the network and its partners, and to accelerate the growth and progress of its partners by fostering learning, sharing, and innovation.

“It has been my privilege to serve as CEO of both Teach For America and Teach For All for more than five years,” said Kopp. “Today’s announcement helps ensure that each organization has the leadership capacity necessary to meet growing aspirations. Elisa and Matt are exceptional leaders and great partners. They have already contributed immeasurably to Teach For America’s growth and impact and I look forward to supporting them as they lead Teach For America into the future.”

About Teach For America
Teach For America works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty. Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits and develops a diverse corps of outstanding individuals of all academic disciplines to commit two years to teach in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the movement to end educational inequity. Today more than 10,000 corps members are teaching in 46 urban and rural regions across the country, while nearly 28,000 alumni are working across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education. For more information, visit http://www.teachforamerica.org/ and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.