Teach for America applicant numbers down for second year in a row

Reuters/Enrique Calvo
After 15 years of growth, Teach for America, the controversial education program known for supplying inexperienced college graduates to teach at often low-performing schools, has reported a second year in a row that its applicant numbers have fallen.

As of the end of January, Teach for America applications were down by about 10 percent from last year, according to the New York Times. The organization has built a reputation in recent years – especially during the economically-starved Great Recession – for sending top college graduates to school districts in need of teachers, which often means going to some of the most desperate schools in the nation.

The organization’s model is hailed by and aligned with school reformers, advocates of charter schools, major corporate sponsors, opponents of teachers’ unions, and proponents of the oft-criticized testing and standards movement in the US, exemplified by the federal education initiatives pursued by the last two presidential administrations: No Child Left Behind and Common Core.

Opponents of the aforementioned education efforts that Teach for America is immersed in add that the organization’s training model and its demand for only two years on the job from members of its teaching corps do not translate to a stable environment for children nor for the teaching profession in general.

The applicant drop has led the organization to announce its supply of young teachers this fall could be down by a quarter, and that it will close two of its eight national summer training centers, in New York City and Los Angeles. The training sites are where select graduates are trained for five weeks before Teach for America dispatches them to a school in need of educators.

“I want the numbers to be higher, because the demand from districts is extremely high and we’re not going to meet it this year,” Matt Kramer, a co-chief executive of Teach for America, told the Times, adding that the decrease in applicants is “not existentially concerning.”

Teach for America accepted 15 percent of its applicants last year, and Kramer said there are no plans to reduce standards for 2015.

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Officials for Teach for America– founded in 1990 as a sort of Peace Corps for failing schools and students within the US education system – said a rebounding economy is one reason college grads are looking to other professions.

“It’s so different from three years ago, where suddenly you have candidates that may have an offer from Facebook and Wells Fargo and an offer to join the T.F.A. corps, and clearly, the money is going to be radically different,” said Lida Jennings, executive director of the Los Angeles office of Teach for America.

On college campuses, some education-minded students are pushing against Teach for America’s model and mission.

“Teacher turnover really destabilizes a learning environment,” Hannah Nguyen, a University of Southern California junior studying to be a teacher who has organized protests against Teach for America, told the Times.

“So having a model that perpetuates that inequity in and of itself was also very confusing for me.”

Kramer dismissed criticism aimed at the organization as playing much of a role in the applicant decline.

“As I talk to people on campuses, it is not like the central thing I hear,” he said. “I don’t hear people say, ‘Oh, I hear this criticism and therefore I don’t want to do Teach for America.’”

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Yet, citing reasons including “polarization around TFA," Teach for America sent a message to its partner organizations in December that predicted applicant numbers would fall. In what was certainly more fodder for critics of its two-year model, the organization also blamed challenges to the “perception of teaching as a stable, fulfilling profession.”

“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,” Kramer and co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard stated in the letter, according to the Washington Post. “Teaching and public service have receded as primary options.”

Teach for America has countered accusations that its model encourages high teacher-turnover by saying that it has supplied educators where they are most needed.

Critics, though, say many members of the Teach for America corps – 10,500 teachers in 35 states – replaced experienced teachers.

According to federal statistics, enrollment in teacher training programs nationwide dropped 12.5 percent from 2010 to 2013.

Kramer and Villanueva Beard penned a response to the Times piece on Friday, reiterating macro trends in the teaching profession.

"Overall, we’re confident that the current dip we and others are seeing will pass," they wrote.

"And while the decrease in interest we’re seeing this season will be painful for our school partners and their students who are counting on us for 6,000 teachers, it’s critical to keep the macro trend of the last 15 years in mind. Over that longer period, we’ve seen significantly more interest from our next generation of leaders in teaching in low-income communities, be it through TFA, TNTP, or other pathways."