Applicants Flock to Teacher Corps for Needy Areas

Katelyn Roedner, left, Catherine Wrisley and Abby Fee attend a reception this week for college seniors accepted at Teach for America. Young adults' interest in doing good has increased the program's popularity, experts said.
Katelyn Roedner, left, Catherine Wrisley and Abby Fee attend a reception this week for college seniors accepted at Teach for America. Young adults' interest in doing good has increased the program's popularity, experts said. (Photos By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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[Graph: Applications for the Teach for America program over the past five years]
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Like many Georgetown University seniors, Olubukola Bamigboye has no shortage of postgraduate options. She has a line on an internship with a high-profile fashion magazine, is considering law school or might train full time for a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field team.

But Bamigboye is focused on her second-round interview at Teach for America, hoping to win a stressful job in one of the nation's worst public schools, where, at best, she might earn $45,000 next year.

Her chances of landing a spot: less than 15 percent -- lower than the admission rate to Georgetown itself.

In its 18th year, Teach for America has emerged as the most popular nonprofit service organization among college seniors in the United States, with 14,181 applications received this year and as many as 23,000 more expected by the end of February -- all for fewer than 5,000 teaching spots.

In part because of the dearth of other job prospects in the sagging economy but mostly because the program has captured the imagination of a generation of student leaders bent on doing good, some graduates of the nation's elite universities are fighting for low-paying teaching positions the way they once sought jobs on Wall Street.

"We were quite hopeful that we would see an increase in applications based on last year's growth, but I don't know if anyone could have predicted this," said Elissa Clapp, who oversees recruitment for the organization, which sends recent college graduates to teach for two years in schools in low-income areas.

Experts say a 50 percent increase in applications in one year is surprising for any program, but they add that young adults' growing interest in public service organizations does not end with Teach for America. Programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps also report a steady rise in applications for the past several years, though not as large as Teach for America's.

A 2007 UCLA survey of college freshmen showed that 70 percent of students say it is "essential or very important" to help those in need. And many young people became socially motivated during this year's presidential election, when record numbers volunteered for President-elect Barack Obama, inspired by his message of change.

"Teach for America may fit a perfect niche," said Peter Levine, director of a research center on civic engagement at Tufts University. "You get to work on a social problem on the public payroll, but you're going through a nonprofit, which many young people prefer to working for the government."

The program's success in attracting top talent such as Bamigboye has not silenced its critics in the world of education, many of whom say teachers need more than a summer's worth of preparation before taking jobs in inner-city schools. Lorri Harte, a 20-year teacher and administrator in New York City who writes a blog called Debunk TFA, argues that placing the least-experienced teachers with the highest-risk children is a potentially harmful combination.

"Teaching is a job where you get better as you go along, so for the first two years, people are generally not good teachers," Harte said. "The public relations blitz for the program does not address the real problems in education."

Research into Teach for America's effectiveness has been inconclusive, but at least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by its teachers score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their peers. A small handful of other studies, and the organization's own research, contradict that claim.


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