America's most prestigious teaching institution has a problem.
Teach for America, the extremely selective AmeriCorps program that places elite college graduates in teaching positions in low-income neighborhoods across the country, seems to be on the outs. The number of applications has decreased for two consecutive years, which represents a striking departure from a "15-year growth trend," according to the New York Times. This fall, the organization estimates that the size of its famed teacher corps could decline by 25% from the 10,500 teachers currently placed in classrooms across the country.
The news has prompted a great deal of buzz in the media and policy world. "Fewer Top Graduates Want to Join Teach for America," the New York Times declared in its article that kicked off the latest round of critiques. "Is Teach for America Beginning to Lose Its Luster?" asked an education writer at the Huffington Post.
TFA has struck a defensive note. Writing on the organization's blog, TFA's leadership responded to the recent criticism: "Overall, we're confident that the current dip we and others are seeing will pass. 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."
So why exactly is TFA shrinking? Some observers believe that its wane is a function of the economy. There's also significant evidence that its growing body of critics — from the left and from its own alumni — have begun to take a toll on its reputation. They contend that TFA undermines the very sector it purports to be saving, and their charges are at least as compelling as TFA's rise to power.
When bad times are good times: As Libby Nelson at Vox points out, a poor economy was good for TFA. In the late 2000s, the pool of candidates exceeded TFA's lofty targets and the number of teaching jobs they expected to fill, which in turn allowed them to accumulate even more prestige and selectivity. The program experienced great growth during the economic crisis and instability in the financials sector, with a 40% increase in applications between 2008 and 2009, and 40% the year after as well, according to Vox.
In accordance with this dynamic, the emergence of a stronger economy and lower unemployment has increased competition for graduates who might previously have been inclined to apply for TFA.
"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 TFA corps, and clearly, the money is going to be radically different," Lida Jennings, executive director of the Los Angeles office of Teach for America, told the New York Times.
The hypothesis that TFA's ranks ebb and flow in response to other competitive job opportunities speaks volumes about its appeal, and not in a way that affirms its purported mission. Consider the three options in Jennings' revealing quote: A Silicon Valley gig, a job as a banker and a teaching position. It's difficult to see why the type of person who is deeply interested in the first two would consider the third as equally desirable given the radical difference in salary, values, social mission and lifestyle. But there is one thing they have in common when TFA is in the mix: prestige.
For many, TFA has become a prestige play rather than a gateway into the education sector, a fact that is on full display in its extremely high attrition rates. Like going to an elite university, TFA boosts fresh college graduates' résumés while they figure out what kind of work they're actually interested in or until the economy calms. Now that the economy is recovering, the refuge that TFA offered to elite graduates to bolster their professional experience has become less inviting.
TFA has been rejected by many of its own alumni: Over the past few years, TFA has received vociferous criticism from its own alumni, many of whom drop out of the program early because they feel so ill-prepared for the circumstances that TFA drops them into.
"It's like you're the special ops team that's coming in to rescue education because real teachers are terrible at their jobs," one alumnus told Harvard Magazine in 2013.
The alumni's grievances are many, but most focus on the inadequacy of the training. TFA relies on a training course that lasts merely five weeks before matching students with schools in low-income communities unlike anything most have previously experienced. Even those with a deep interest in teaching as a career are often jaded by the experience; more than 50% leave after two years, and more than 80% leave after three.
"Five weeks of training was not enough to prepare me for a room of 20 unruly elementary-schoolers," Olivia Blanchard wrote in the Atlantic in 2013, explaining why she quit the program.
The idea that about a month is enough time to master a vocation as old as human civilization — and be equipped to succeed in exceptionally difficult circumstances — is one that merits enormous skepticism, if not derision. Becoming a good teacher who can handle the pressure takes time. In Finland, widely considered a paragon for education in the global community, teachers take special courses in subjects that they intend to instruct, spend a year apprenticing in a school under the guidance of mentors, and subsequently write an original, academic thesis within their subject area.
Among alumni of color, TFA has suffered from the perception that its work reeks of a kind of racial and class imperialism. What does it mean when so many self-assured, affluent and white college grads parachute into inner cities to save the day and then, when the going gets tough, leave without any accountability?
"It was deeply disconcerting to me that an entity attempting to educate underserved populations of largely black and brown students living in urban poverty would choose to do so using such a large percentage of privileged white suburbanites," Jason Edwards, an African-American teacher who worked worked for TFA in Philadelphia from 2008 and 2010, told Mic. "It seemed not only unfair to the students, who deserved much better, but also unfair to the many unproven, unaware new recruits, who had next to no connection with their students, geographically or demographically."
While there is some remarkable evidence that TFA teachers can sometimes outperform certified and experienced teachers, the poor preparation is clearly a factor in attrition, and high turnover is terrible for a school. Even if a 24-year-old Yale grad does manage to inspire her students sheerly through her grit, what good is it if that energy is sapped within a year by students wracked by problems they have no understanding of?
TFA's future: TFA has made big and impressive steps to make its corps more diverse, both racially and socioeconomically, in recent years. And it's testing out longer training programs as a future option.
This is good news, and a sign that TFA is at least somewhat responsive to criticism. But TFA's model is still premised on deeply problematic ideologies that are likely to keep its most troubling practices in place. Its disregard for expertise, rigorous training and retention is not the product of carelessness but the natural outcome of an ideology that has roots in an alarmingly conservative attitude toward education. TFA is not just a teaching academy, but a powerful political enterprise that misguidedly assumes that discrepant outcomes in educational performance are simply the result of poor teaching and uninspired students. It assumes that Silicon Valley-style disruption is a path to a fairer society.
But TFA's struggles to maintain its reputation and numbers are a sign that the path may not be as simple and virtuous as it believes.