Teach for America struggles to find recruits

This story was originally published in the Mar 2 print issue of Fourth Estate.

The organization Teach For America has been struggling to recruit new teachers for the 2015 corps, and with a strengthening economy the number of Mason applications could soon go down too.

“With one recruitment deadline left to go, we have received 36,000 applications for the 2015 corps,” said Dana Cronyn, the director of communications for Teach For America via email. “While this large applicant pool is exciting, it is slightly down from last year. More concerning, this number is not on pace to meet the growing need for diverse teaching talent across our partner communities and regions.”

Teach For America’s Facebook page describes the organization as the national corps of top recent college graduates who commit to teach for at least two years in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity. Their mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.

Cronyn also said the reason there has been a decline in applications in the last recruiting year is due to the improving economy. She said many undergraduate and graduate teacher training programs are seeing their enrollments decline and many of TFA’s partners are also seeing applicants go for alternative certification programs or post grad service opportunities.

“We know that decline in enrollment in education schools and interest in education in general has the potential to have a serious, negative impact on students,” Cronyn said. “The demand for great teachers is tremendous and there’s still time for GMU students to be part of the solution.”

In a recent article, the Washington Post said that interest in Teach for America increased rapidly during the financial crisis and the following recession, as many school districts were laying off staff in large numbers. The article said that TFA, with its two-year commitment, likely was an attractive option to prospective teachers unsure of whether it would be wise to invest their time and money in earning a conventional teaching credential, given the weak labor market. The articled went on to say that because the economy has been improving and headlines about layoffs in school districts have become less frequent, TFA may increasingly lose this aspect of its appeal.

Cronyn said that as of right now, TFA has not seen a decline in applications from Mason. She said TFA’s recruitment efforts at Mason are still relatively new and they are excited to continue to grow and expand their efforts on campus.

“George Mason students are passionate about their community and understand the impact of educational inequity, making them strong applicants and future teachers. There are more than 45 GMU graduates who are either current corps members or alumni of Teach For America,” Cronyn said. “Several members of the class of 2015 have been admitted to our program [and] we’re excited to see what they accomplish with their students next year.”

Cherelle Washington is one of the 45 Mason graduates who currently work for TFA. A graduate of the 2014 class, Washington is a TFA corp member who teaches fourth grade in Halifax, North Carolina. She said that as a teacher and new resident of the area, it is her goal to build a relationship with her student’s families, as well as the communities in which they live.

“Working for TFA has not been easy. It has been one of the toughest experiences I’ve ever endured, but I’ve learned so much as I have worked in this rural area,” Washington said. “It is also amazing to see how so many of my peers are invested in their students and their well-being.”

Cronyn said TFA seeks professionals and recent graduates from a wide variety of backgrounds and career interests who have a bachelor’s degree, a minimum 2.5 undergraduate GPA, and have demonstrated a commitment to social justice and the leadership necessary to teach successfully. She went on to say that their current corps members represent more than 800 colleges and universities.

Declining application rates is not Teach For America’s only problem. Critics say that TFA does an inadequate job of training and preparing young teachers for the reality that is teaching students in disadvantaged schools.

The Washington Post stated, “The program’s critics say it doesn’t train its recruits adequately. They say that since Teach for America recruits only commits teachers to two years of teaching, it undermines the idea that teaching is a profession and a career.”

“TFA does face a lot of criticism in regards to the training teachers receive,” Washington said. “Training for the summer is given for 5 weeks, which isn’t a lot of time [but] throughout the academic year, several workshops are held and resources are constantly being given to new teachers to guide them in their first year of teaching.”

Cronyn’s response to the critics was that stories of TFA’s students and the results they see in their classrooms affirms their approach, but, she said, she knows TFA must keep getting better to ensure that the students in their classrooms today are the leaders of tomorrow. She goes on to say that a growing body of research says that Teach For America corps members are as effective as, and in some cases more effective, than other teachers.

“A 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Education and Mathematica Policy Research found that Teach For America teachers are more effective than novice and veteran teachers from traditional, or what the researchers termed less-selective alternative-certification, programs,” Cronyn said. “On average, students taught by Teach For America teachers showed an additional 2.6 months of learning in math over the course of a year.”

Washington points out that TFA is not for everyone. She said applicants must consider their “why” when considering TFA as possible career. She goes on to say that if an applicant’s “why” isn’t something that truly resonates with their character and what TFA stands for, then TFA isn’t for them, especially since teaching at disadvantaged schools is no easy task.

“Within your TFA school, you are more inclined to impact not only the children you teach, but the community in which you live. The people of the community are truly counting on you because most of the other teachers have given up on them,” Washington said. “If giving back to the community is your passion, if working with children is something you love, I would recommend you applying to TFA because that is what the organization is all about.”

Photo Credit: Claire Cecil