Law school or Teach For America? Wrede Smith, a DePauw University political science major, weighed his options this spring as graduation loomed. Acceptance letters arrived from two of four law schools, and he received his invitation to enter the teaching corps in April.
In the end, Smith chose to enroll in the most competitive of his options -- the one that accepts less than 20 percent of its applicants (hint: it has nothing to do with torts or criminal procedure).
Many students like Smith enter their final term in college facing the grad school vs. service program question. And if recent numbers from Teach For America are any indication, the latter option is faring just fine. A record 19,000 people – roughly a 10 percent jump from the previous year – applied this academic year to the program that places students from top colleges in classrooms in disadvantaged school districts for a two-year assignment. The program allows the students to begin teaching just months after graduation while they work toward their teaching certificate, instead of having to wait a year or more to get into the classroom.
Teach For America accepted about 3,300 students this spring -- fewer than one in five of those who applied -- and roughly 2,400 are expected to begin teaching in the fall, according to Todd McGovern, a Teach For America spokesman. The program, developed by a Princeton University alumna, Wendy Kopp, as her undergraduate senior thesis in 1989, has become a popular option for aspiring educators and those looking for a meaningful first job. It has also drawn its share of skepticism, as detractors question whether a beginning teacher with often just a few months of training can be effective in the most challenging and lowest-performing schools, and whether program participants are in it more to pad their resumes than to become teachers.
Teach For America drew applicants from at least 10 percent of eligible graduating students at such institutions as Amherst, Carleton, Claremont-McKenna, Dartmouth, Kenyon, Scripps and Spelman Colleges, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale University. More than 9 percent applied from both Georgetown and Rice Universities, and among state universities, the University of California at Berkeley led the way, with 6 percent of its seniors applying.
“We’ve had a jump over the last couple of years due in part to this generation of students increasingly wanting to do public service,” McGovern said. “They see that it’s within their reach.”
Theresa Mikajlo, director of literacy at the Newark Public School District, said she has been impressed with the commitment and intentions of the roughly 40 Teach For America participants who teach in her district per year. “It has brought talented people into the schools without a doubt,” said Mikajlo, an adjunct at Seton Hall University who teaches the course that allows corps members to receive their alternative certificate. “But there’s a mismatch between what TFA defines as its goals, and what our goals are. When people enter the program, there can sometimes be a quick-fix mentality. One person can’t change the culture of the school.”
McGovern said Teach For America has stepped up its recruiting efforts over the last few years, visiting hundreds of campuses and hiring student interns to spread the word about the program. In particular, recruiters have been after potential math/science/engineering students, who made up 20 percent of the applicant pool this year, McGovern said. At Notre Dame, a third of all eligible students in those fields applied to the program, he said.
A record 14 DePauw graduates plan to begin their assignments in the fall, including Charles Carpenter, who, like Smith, chose Teach For America over law school. “I think that inequality in public education is our most pressing domestic issue. It is the new injustice,” he said in an e-mail.
Smith, who will be teaching in St. Louis this fall, said he is interested in experiencing public policy first-hand. He said he doesn’t plan to stay in teaching -- other than perhaps a faculty position in higher education -- beyond the two years required by Teach For America. “The idea that I could take two years off before law school and do something productive seemed like a good one,” he said. “I’ll be better prepared [for law school] in two years than if I was going this fall.” Teach For America has gained the reputation as being a solid career starter, but many students move outside the teaching field after the program. That has led some traditional teachers to deride the program's participants as dilettantes. McGovern said more than 60 percent of corps members stay in the field for a third year, either at their school or in another capacity -- he points out that some of the participants from years ago are now principals. And those who don't remain in teaching leave with a better understanding of the needs of public education, McGovern said.
Mikajlo said in any given year, about half of the corps members choose to stay in her district after their assignments end. She said the district is proud of its retention rate, but that those who leave create a “cycle of attrition at our schools that becomes in and of itself a problem.”
Mike Hendel, Carleton College ’s interim director of the career center, said Teach For America has prepared Carleton students well for a career in education. But he said the recruiting tactics are not always effective. “They target student leaders, and while that’s a good idea, not all of those high achievers want to teach. That’s where the disconnect lies.”
Stew Peckham, director of career development at Kenyon College, said the recruitment effort has worked on his campus. He said most of the students he has spoken to indicated that Teach For America was their first choice.
Smith, the DePauw student, said some of his cohorts applied in the fall round and accepted right away. “For most people it’s their first choice,” Smith said. It was for DePauw graduate Lauren Hawley, who said the social justice element of the program sold her right away. “TFA was my first choice for post-grad plans ... I did not apply for any other jobs,” she said in an e-mail.
McGovern said Teach For America hopes to grow over the next four years – from 3,500 corps members to 8,000 by 2010. Bekki Lee, associate dean of students and director of the career center at Amherst College, said she doesn’t see interest on her campus waning any time soon.
“It’s seen as a viable option for getting in on the ground level of teaching,” Lee said. “They are building a core of people who have first-hand experience, and it’s a good way to get them invested in ways they wouldn’t have been.”