TFA founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)
TFA founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)

Growing criticism about Teach For America and a polarized education reform debate is affecting recruitment of new corps members and the organization “could fall short of our partners’ overall needs by more than 25 percent” next year, TFA officials say.

A note that co-Chief Executive Officers Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard are sending out to the organization’s partner organizations (see text below) cites several reasons for the decline, including “polarization around TFA” as well less interest in teaching and public service by college graduates. It says in part:

Today’s education climate is tough—fewer Americans rate education as a “top 2” national issue today, and teacher satisfaction has dipped precipitously in recent years—down from 62% in 2008 to 39% in 2012. Additionally, an increasingly polarized public conversation around education, coupled with shaky district budgets, is challenging the perception of teaching as a stable, fulfilling profession; in turn, we’re seeing decreased interest in entering the field nationwide. (You can read analysis of this trend here in Education Week.) We’ve felt some of this same polarization around TFA. At the same time, the broader economy is improving and young people have more job options than in recent years. Having experienced the national recession through much of their adolescence, college graduates today are placing a greater premium on what they see as financially sustainable professions. Teaching and public service have receded as primary options.

Critics of TFA are likely to read that paragraph and say that TFA itself is partly responsible for a perception that teaching is not a stable profession. TFA, which has received millions of dollars from the Obama administration, has come under increasing criticism in the last few years for its longtime practice of recruiting new college graduates, giving them only five weeks of summer training and then placing them in classrooms in some of America’s most needy schools. Furthermore, TFA only  requires a two-year commitment from its corps members to stay in the classroom — which some corps members don’t meet — creating a great deal of turnover in classrooms with students who most need stability. TFA says it has filled an important need by placing teachers in hard-t0-fill positions, though critics note that in many cases TFA corps members have replaced veteran teachers. TFA has successfully lobbied Congress to define a “highly qualified teacher” — as required by the No Child Left Behind law — as a student teacher which, of course, covers its own corps members.

After enjoying enormous popularity among school reformers and elected politicians, TFA has been feeling growing pushback. Pittsburgh schools decided to drop its ties to TFA last year, citing as one reason TFA’s close relationship with charter schools, and early this year Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a line item inserted into state legislation that would have given $1.5 million to Teach For America over two years.

Chalkbeat New York reported last week that TFA is closing its New York training site “in anticipation of declining numbers” of recruits. That, Winfield noted, comes after TFA has in the last four year  added 11 new regional sites across the country.

To beef up its recruitment this season, she said that TFA is doing more outreach to prospects and “rallying our regional teams, corps members and alumni” to generate referrals.

Here’s the text of the note that is being sent to TFA partners:

Dear Colleagues,
With a few months to go in our recruitment season, we’d like to share an update on our work, including the patterns we’re seeing among the college seniors, graduate students, and professionals we’re working to recruit. As always, we’d welcome your advice and collaboration.

At this point, we’re tracking toward an incoming corps that may be smaller than the current one, and because demand for corps members has grown in recent years, we could fall short of our partners’ overall needs by more than 25 percent. We understand that this has very real implications for you and your students, and though we’ve still got nearly half our recruitment season to go, we wanted to keep you in the loop.

Today’s education climate is tough—fewer Americans rate education as a “top 2” national issue today, and teacher satisfaction has dipped precipitously in recent years—down from 62% in 2008 to 39% in 2012. Additionally, an increasingly polarized public conversation around education, coupled with shaky district budgets, is challenging the perception of teaching as a stable, fulfilling profession; in turn, we’re seeing decreased interest in entering the field nationwide. (You can read analysis of this trend here in Education Week.) We’ve felt some of this same polarization around TFA. At the same time, the broader economy is improving and young people have more job options than in recent years. Having experienced the national recession through much of their adolescence, college graduates today are placing a greater premium on what they see as financially sustainable professions. Teaching and public service have receded as primary options.

Against this backdrop, we’re committed to holding our same rigorous bar for admissions in order to provide candidates who have the potential to have a tremendous positive impact with kids. Through our first four deadlines, we’ve received 26,000 applications. While this is fewer than we had last year at this time, we are on track to receive more than twice the number of applications we received each year between 2005-2007, the last time we were in a strong economy. Our recruiters are meeting with more people than ever, and those they meet with are applying at similar rates to prior years, but we’ve seen a drop in the number of individuals who submit applications without meeting with us directly.

We think part of the solution lies in finding more great people to sit down and talk with. To that end, we’re reaching out to members of our network to get suggestions of individuals (including many former students!) they think are ready for this work for students. Additionally, we’re redoubling our efforts to share how important it is that this generation chooses to fight for educational equity and helps create the change we need for children in our country today.

We hope you’ll consider lending your voice to this effort, too. We’ve provided sample social media, newsletter, and email listserv language below, and would be happy to support you if you’re interested in writing an op-ed on this topic, or joining one of our recruiters on a local campus. We’re finding that college seniors want to hear personal perspectives from those immersed in this work. They want to interact directly with professionals in the field in order to learn about Teach For America.

As always, we remain optimistic. The quality of our applicant pool is strong, with applicants from a diverse set of backgrounds, institutions, and professional sectors. The candidates we’ve accepted to date reflect the excellence you’ve come to expect from Teach For America. We’re committed to doing all we can to enlist additional high-quality candidates in the months ahead and we’re certain that whatever the size of this year’s corps, we’ll bring a large group of leaders into this work, each with the potential to make meaningful, positive change in the lives of the students they teach and inspire. Members of your local regional team will be reaching out soon to follow up, and please also let us know if you have questions or ideas for other ways you can help.

Sincerely,
Elisa & Matt

 

SAMPLE SOCIAL MEDIA LANGUAGE:

Twitter: Define your success by what you help others achieve. #ChooseMore. Teach. http://bit.ly/1vo66GY
Bring your passion to the classroom. #ChooseMore. Teach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIMYq4Vivik
Facebook: Don’t settle for statistics. Define your success by what you help others achieve. #ChooseMore. Teach. http://bit.ly/1vo66GY

SAMPLE EMAIL TO YOUR LISTSERV

Subject: Small action, Big Impact                                                                                                                                                                                                                To [ORGANIZATION],
At ORGANIZATION, we believe that an excellent education is a universal right.
As you know, Teach For America is a great partner to us, and this fall, we’re looking to lend them a hand.
Demand for their teachers is up–districts and schools are asking for more corps members than ever before, and we don’t want them to be let down. Schools deserve large groups of diverse talent to choose from, and that’s where you come in. If you know some current leaders who would make great educators, refer them to apply to Teach For America.

SAMPLE BLURB FOR NEWSLETTERS:

Small action, big impact: We believe that a great education should be a universal right, not a privilege. Recommend leaders you know to apply for Teach For America and join the effort in making that dream a reality

(Correction: An earlier version had dropped the word “not” in the sentence about TFA adding to the notion that teaching is not a stable profession. It is correct now.