Teach for America surging in popularity
It's the strongest job market in years for new college graduates, with salaries and perks rising accordingly. But one of the country's hottest recruiters this spring promised low wages, exhausting labor and only a brief break before the work begins.
Teach for America is surging in popularity. At sites around the country, the 17-year-old nonprofit has begun training about 2,400 recent graduates for two-year teaching stints in disadvantaged schools, nearly triple the figure in 2000. Nearly 19,000 college seniors applied -- and more than four in five were turned down. At Notre Dame, Spelman, Dartmouth and Yale, more than 10 percent of seniors applied.
TFA has come a long way since founder Wendy Kopp used fliers to recruit her first corps of 500 teachers, a year after outlining the idea in her 1989 Princeton senior thesis. Today she has 90 full-time recruiters. By 2010, TFA plans to expand the number of regions where it places teachers from 22 to 33, and nearly double in size. It hopes to call itself the No. 1 employer of recent college graduates in the country.
Driving the growth is savvy and aggressive recruiting that students say exudes competence and reminds them of Wall Street firms. But there's also straight talk about how hard it can be to teach in low-income schools. The combination seems to appeal to high-achieving students who relish a challenge and want to be in the trenches -- as long as they have help.
"It sounds like it's going to take all your energy for two years," said Lida Storch, a former University of Minnesota rower who will teach this fall at an elementary school in the Bronx. "But I just graduated from college. I've got lots of energy."
TFA recruits, trains and helps get the new teachers alternative certification, then schools pay their salaries.
The organization says it has proved the model can work. Now it is trying to build a critical mass of alumni who -- even if they move onto other fields like law or politics -- share the experience of having taught in low-income areas and may use those experiences to influence education policy.
"I told them right up front that I was going to go to med school," said recent Dartmouth graduate Kristen Wong, who starts this fall on a new site in Hawaii. "They liked that even better. They pick people who become leaders in the community, who make policy, who vote."
Some critics note fewer than one-third stay in the classroom following their two-year stints. But TFA says about two-thirds have remained directly involved in education -- if not as teachers, then in research, policy and in many cases starting charter schools. TFA counts 10 alumni in elective office, including Natasha Kamrani, recently elected to Houston's school board. The goal is 100 alumni in public office by 2010.
"Given our theory of change," Kopp said in a phone interview, "numbers are everything."
The growth plan is ambitious. TFA's budget will have to grow from $40 million to $100 million a year, the vast majority from private donors.
But Kopp says recruiting is what she worries most about.
The challenge is both quantity and quality. TFA spends about $12,000 on each corps member per year, and about $4,000 of that goes into recruiting applicants, then evaluating whom to hire through a rigorous interview process. Program officials say they could find teaching slots for more than the 17 percent of applicants accepted last year, but they want to pick only candidates who will succeed. Even so, about 15 percent fail to complete their two-year commitment.
"There are times when you come to saying, 'This is it, I can't help these kids,'" said Shawna Wells, a University of Vermont graduate who is finishing up her second year teaching in a Las Vegas middle school. Still, she'll stay in teaching next year.
Kopp says more and more students are looking to do meaningful work after college, particularly if it is not a career-long commitment.
Megan Scelfo is one of 14 new graduates from Louisiana State University who are joining. Hurricane Katrina was the motivation for many, though Scelfo said she was attracted by an inspiring TFA teacher she had during high school.
"I had been given such a gift by someone who joined their movement, I felt like I had to give back," she said.
The program's rapid growth has made it a bigger target for some critics, who worry TFA is geared more toward the experience of the teachers than that of their students. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor, has argued that the failure of TFA teachers to go through regular certification hurts their effectiveness.
Some principals, meanwhile, have concluded bringing in TFA teachers isn't worth it, because most leave after two years.
Robert Venegas, principal of Ford Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, acknowledges TFA provided good teachers. But the school still paid some staff-development costs beyond what TFA picked up and "the money we had to invest in training only to see it leave two years later was a hard pill to swallow," Venegas said.
TFA points to research showing most principals think its teachers are more effective than other faculty, and one study showing TFA teachers help students make 10 percent more progress than expected in math (with some, but less, benefit in reading). And as for leaving after two years, some schools face such turnover problems that even that long a commitment is welcome.
"I understand that that's the deal when they come," said Nancy McKay, principal of Crestworth Middle Magnet School in Baton Rouge, La. "I tease them every year that we're going to try to find them a girl or a guy so they'll stay, try to set them up with a little matchmaking. That's the length to which I will go to try to keep them."
On the Net:
Teach for America: http://www.teachforamerica.org