Teach for America has spent most of its 25 years working to expand, growing from a concept outlined in a Princeton student’s honors thesis to an education-reform juggernaut that places thousands of idealistic college graduates in some of the nation’s neediest classrooms.
But that growth has stalled. Applications for TFA’s two-year teaching stints have plummeted 35 percent during the past three years, forcing the organization to reexamine and reinvent how it sells itself to prospective corps members. It has been focusing particularly on how to engage students at the nation’s most-selective colleges, where the decline in interest has been among the steepest.
“It’s going to take us time to recover,” said Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s chief executive, noting that the organization’s leaders are trying to “step back and take a really honest look” at why TFA is struggling to attract interest and how to reverse the trend.
TFA believes that some issues common to the teaching profession at large are affecting its ability to recruit. In an era of fierce debate about public education, morale among teachers has taken a nosedive, according to national polls, and with an improving economy, college graduates have more job options than they have had in years.
But Teach for America also acknowledges that it faces singular challenges, having been buffeted by critics who say that the organization does not address educational inequity but instead amplifies it, institutionalizing teacher turnover and saddling disadvantaged kids with novice instructors who won’t stay around long enough to really make a difference.
Jennifer Wolf, who teaches education courses at Stanford University, said those criticisms appear to have taken hold among students who are deeply concerned about social-justice issues. They seem less interested in applying to TFA now than they were several years ago, she said, and if they do apply, they are less likely to admit it publicly.
When TFA was at the height of its popularity at Stanford, “if someone was chosen, that was a real badge of honor and something they would talk about,” Wolf said. “Now it’s more seen as, is that something that’s going to be best for you? Or is that going to be best for the kids?”
TFA is a nonprofit organization that has long been a darling of education philanthropists, with major funders such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. About 50,000 people are alumni or current corps members. At its recruiting peak in 2013, TFA attracted 57,000 applicants, yielding a corps that year of 5,800 teachers. Last year, 44,000 people applied, yielding a corps of 4,100; this year, the number of applicants dropped to 37,000.
Individual school districts employ and pay TFA teachers and also pay fees to the organization for those job placements.
TFA has long employed recruiters on college campuses, but the focus has been mostly on graduating seniors. Taking a page from recruiters for high-paying consulting firms and investment banks, the organization is now aggressively pursuing students earlier in their college careers, before they commit to other employers.
It also began running day-long recruitment sessions at several of the nation’s most-selective campuses this school year — including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and George Washington.
Students had a chance to observe TFA corps members teaching. Then they were treated to lunch and a panel of TFA alumni speaking about how their classroom experiences had translated into marketable skills in fields including law, politics, education advocacy and nonprofit entrepreneurship.
“We believe that this is far bigger than teaching,” Kimberly Diaz, of the organization’s D.C. regional office, told a group of prospective applicants from Georgetown and George Washington universities in April. They had just visited an elementary school in suburban Maryland and heard from alumni working outside of classrooms. “This is about dismantling systems of oppression.”
The organization believes that — with five to seven weeks’ summer training and ongoing support from instructional coaches — talented and motivated novices can help close the yawning achievement gap that separates the nation’s poorest children from its most affluent. And even if corps members don’t stay on as teachers, TFA believes their classroom work gives them experience they can use in other careers dedicated to improving the prospects of disadvantaged youth.
TFA hopes to reach high-flying students who are most likely to meet TFA’s admissions criteria, including a record of academic success and campus leadership. And the message is two-pronged. First, by signing up for TFA, they can help solve some of the most intractable social problems in America, including institutional racism and educational inequity.
And second, by signing up for TFA, they aren’t consigning themselves to working in a public school, but to opening doors to a set of opportunities and a professional network that can help achieve career goals, whatever they might be.
Andres Chong-Qui Torres, one of the program’s graduates, told prospective recruits in the District that his experiences teaching in Miami gave him the connections and the organizational skills he needed to excel as an organizer for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.
“It allowed me to beat everyone else by leaps and bounds,” he said, explaining that the campaign helped him land his current job as a political appointee in the Treasury Department.
Graduates have seen TFA as a valuable résumé-builder that can help in all kinds of fields, including education. Notable alumni include Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and her successor, Kaya Henderson; Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the co-founders of the KIPP charter school network; and DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, leaders in the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Julie Young, who now works for the consulting firm Accenture, said that business school was easier for her after teaching in a New York City classroom: “I felt like all of us were able to move more quickly and be more successful than many classmates who had a more traditional trajectory,” she said.
The focused pitch has brought promising results, according to TFA. Although overall applications were down 16 percent between 2015 and 2016, applications from college juniors rose 70 percent. At the most selective schools, including Georgetown and members of the Ivy League, applications were up 112 percent among juniors.
Alexandra Foley was among 22 Georgetown juniors who applied this year to join TFA after their planned graduation in 2017, up from eight juniors who applied last year. Foley volunteers at a tutoring center for at-risk D.C. teens, but she had not considered teaching after college until she met a TFA recruiter at a career fair.
The idea of contributing something positive to the lives of disadvantaged children hit home.
“Where you are in life has a lot to do with the opportunities you have access to when you’re young,” she said. “There are so many people I’ve met who deserve more than they have, and I would love to be a part of a movement to help our country figure out how to give more to them.”
She said she thinks that she will love teaching and that she will be a good teacher. But she’s still not sure it’s something she wants to do as a career — and that makes TFA attractive, both to her and her parents.
“When you look more into TFA, the opportunities it can provide for you after, if you don’t decide to pursue teaching long-term, are pretty incredible,” she said.
Georgetown senior Antwan Robinson, who was accepted to TFA in New Orleans for the coming school year, said he knew he wanted to join because TFA teachers changed the course of his life, helping him get from Yazoo City, Miss., to one of the nation’s top-tier colleges.
“I really need to give back to communities that look like mine,” Robinson said.
But the students who chose not to apply show the range of challenges TFA must overcome.
One Georgetown junior said she was attracted to TFA but wasn’t convinced that teaching would be for her. She said she believed in the program’s impact and the potential to help her career advancement but worried that the day-to-day wouldn’t play to her strengths.
Another Georgetown junior said she had her sights set on the tech industry and couldn’t see putting that off to work temporarily as a teacher. She requested anonymity to avoid hurting her chances of turning her internship with one of the nation’s largest tech companies into permanent employment: “I’m definitely leaning toward starting my full-time job, if I get an offer,” she said.
And then there are philosophical doubts. Queen Adesuyi, a Georgetown senior, began the TFA application process this year. She knows there are schools that can’t find qualified teachers, where a TFA corps member could do a lot of good.
“That reality exists,” Adesuyi said. TFA “wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a discrepancy and a need for teachers.”
But she withdrew her application partway through the process. She said she didn’t believe — even as a Bronx native familiar with low-income communities of color — that she would be the best choice for children in need of excellent teachers.
She wants to become a lawyer, and she plans to work for a year or two in a job related to the legal world before applying to law school.
“I wouldn’t want to have my first year of kids be my guppies, or be my learning curve,” she said. “Young teachers are awesome, but I just think training is important, and I don’t know if a summer is necessarily enough.”