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TFA: America’s hottest employer

It’s 7:30 pm on a Thursday when twenty-two year old Ron Ketelhut pulls into his driveway in Houston. He’s been teaching writing-based social studies to his 110 sixth-grade students, 90 percent of whom come from low-income families, and who spend between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. at school.

He’s what you might call a “green” teacher—not even six months ago, he was still a student at the University of Michigan, finishing up his senior year.

“It’s incredibly challenging. It’s incredibly exhausting,” said Ketelhut, one of over 5,200 recent college graduates who are just over two months into a two-year teaching commitment with Teach For America (TFA). “It’s a whirlwind of really awesome moments of kids really challenging you and totally feeling your vibe, to kids literally throwing something in your face and walking out. Literally.”

This school year, over 9,300 first and second year corps members are teaching in some of the neediest schools in 43 different regions around the country through TFA.

The organization’s goal is to eliminate educational inequality, or “close the achievement gap,” between rich and poor students by sending stellar recent college graduates and young professionals to schools everywhere from Los Angeles to Appalachia. These schools are in predominantly low-income areas, in districts where scoring several grade levels below in math and reading is the norm, and where alternatives to attending a low-performing school are few and far between.

And while the work itself is demanding, getting there was no easy feat either—last year was TFA’s most competitive since it was chartered 21 years ago. Of the nearly 48,000 applicants who applied to teach this school year, just 11 percent were accepted—a rate that rivals acceptance into many Ivy League graduate programs.

And just like every fall, the more than 150-person TFA recruitment staff is bringing its ground game to more than 600 college campuses.

Why so popular?

At Harvard where TFA applications have been consistently on the rise over the last several years, 18 percent of the 2011 senior class applied. Sixty-six of those applicants joined the teaching corps, the largest number for any mid-sized school.

“Many Harvard students have a desire to give back and hope to find a post-graduation job with a social impact,” said Deb Carroll, Director, On-Campus Interview & Employer Relations Office and the Assistant Director, Office of Career Services at Harvard.

At the same time, said Carroll, “students are not necessarily looking for a ‘career,’ but for their next experience.”

TFA was the number one employer of college grads at a number of schools across the country last year, including George Washington University, Yale and Duke.

Who are they looking for?

“There’s not a prototype,” said Lindsey Ciochina, Managing Director for the Midwest Recruitment region. “We’re looking for people who, essentially, are going to go on to be exceptional teachers and then even beyond that, have broad influence on the education movement in the longer-term.”

Qualities like sustained perseverance in the face of challenges and superior organizational abilities, are considered favorably. Recruiters also rely a lot on recommendations from current corps members or people who have recently been accepted into the program.

“First and foremost, we’re looking for people with past achievement as leaders and also students who are very successful in school,” said Caitlin Hanley, the TFA recruitment manager on the campus of the University of Michigan.

Hanley joined the corps in 2007, teaching fourth grade in San Jose, California for two years and then first grade in Oakland, California for two more.  She’s now working to identify the next group of TFA corps members by building awareness of the achievement gap problem and talking about how corps members are working to address it. At Michigan, eight percent of the student body applied to the program last year, and 119 graduates were accepted.

According to Hanley, the less than stellar job outlook for young adults (last year, only 24 percent of graduating seniors had jobs at graduation) may also be contributing to TFA’s success.

“The silver lining for us is that in this economy there are more people that are looking for jobs,” she said. “Some people were maybe set on going to graduate school right away but this shift in the economy makes working seem more appealing than going straight into a situation where they’ll have more loans to pay.”

But others, like Jacquelyn Gist, a career counselor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,  argue that economics is not the main draw. Gist has been working with students interested in TFA for over fifteen years.

“The students that I’m seeing, that are interested in Teach For America, these are students who are getting jobs,” she said. “We’re talking the cream of the crop here.”

And there does seem to be an undercurrent of social consciousness, especially in areas like education, among this diverse group of high achieving applicants.

“More and more, people I sit down with are identifying this as our generation’s civil rights issue,” said Hanley at Michigan. They’re identifying “that education is truly foundational when we think about trying to solve all sorts of other social issues such as unemployment or underemployment, lack of access to healthcare and housing.”

At UNC, Gist has seen a similar trend towards civic-mindedness. “The cohort of students going to school right now really wants to make a difference in a meaningful way,” she said. “And I think Teach For America, because it is a very challenging program…It’s real world. It has a direct impact. And so I think students are very much drawn to that.”

TFA’s way of promoting itself doesn’t hurt either. “They have the marketing of a major corporation in how they approach things,” said Gist. “There are many students who now believe that doing Teach For America is kind of the pinnacle of what you can do.”

About 6 percent of TFA’s $247 million budget (approximately $15 million) goes towards recruitment. In January, four donors each pledged $25 million into an endowment for the organization, with all $100 million going towards recruitment. The non-profit plans to use this additional funding to expand the program into even more regions.

The recruitment staff has grown this year in an effort of building an even bigger and more diverse teaching corps, said Kaitlin Gastrock, a TFA spokesperson. “Additional staff allows us to actively recruit on more college campuses and reach more students at each school.”

TFA may have the most name recognition but other programs have increased in popularity too, such as those at Citizen Schools and the Alain Locke Initiative.

Other limited-engagement postgraduate service programs have also become more competitive, though not nearly at the same level as Teach For America. The Peace Corps accepts around the top third of it’s applicants, said a Peace Corps spokesperson, though the program has a very different application process and doesn’t work on the semester schedule like TFA.


There is a large and still growing body of research focusing on the organization and it’s successes and drawbacks.

A 2009 study by Stanford sociologist Scott McAdams compared TFA alumni, or “graduates,” with individuals who were accepted into the program but did not join and with individuals who dropped out before completing their two years.

Level of civic engagement—as measured by factors such as voting and charitable giving—were lower among TFA graduates than the other groups, for reasons such as exhaustion and burnout.

While graduates did not necessarily become more civic-minded individuals after TFA, the study did find that they are more likely to remain involved in education than their peers.

TFA reports that nearly two-thirds of alumni stay involved in education—becoming school principals, social workers or going into educational policy-making and advocacy.

Around half of that group remains in pre-kindergarten through high school classrooms.

Notable alumni include and Michael Johnston, a state senator in Colorado and Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C. Public School Chancellor.

But even without the name dropping, participating in TFA has prestige. Many graduate schools, law schools, medical schools and even some Fortune 500 companies will allow someone to defer their entrance if they do Teach For America.

On top of their salaries, corps members are eligible for AmeriCorps education awards—scholarships of at least $5,350 for each year of service to be put towards future schooling or repayment of student loans. Some graduate schools offer to match this award amount. Corps members may also be able to postpone monthly loan payments during their two-year corps commitment.

Mo applicants, mo problems?

Despite it’s esteem and admirable goals, the non-profit has been criticized by TFA alumni and teachers unions alike.

The National Education Association (NEA), one of the country’s most powerful teachers unions, has accused the organization of “union busting,” arguing that corps members take jobs in districts where there are not teacher shortages.

And then there’s the argument that these new teachers are too inexperienced to handle the difficult dynamics they may face.

Gary Rubinstein, the author of several books on successful classroom management, has expressed his disapproval of TFA’s teacher training methods. Rubinstein was a 1991 corps member and in the past had helped to recruit for the organization.

TFA’s five-week training intensive, which includes some student teaching the summer before they take over their own classrooms, does not do enough to prepare corps members for the classroom dynamics that they’ll likely encounter, Rubinstein said in an email.

“It is possible for someone to become a ‘competent’ teacher in five weeks, though it takes about 2 years for a teacher to become a ‘good’ teacher,” he said. “Unfortunately the TFA training doesn’t even accomplish that, so they send incompetent teachers to ‘save’ the students who need the best teachers.”

Still others argue that TFA may be on to something with their non-traditional recruits—less than ten percent of whom were education majors in college.

A 2011 study by Will Dobie, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy, found that TFA’s admissions measures were associated with improved student achievement in math. In comparing data from the New York City Public Schools with data from the 2007 through 2009 TFA corps in New York City, the study found that students with TFA teachers who had scored high on TFA’s entrance evaluation measures, did better on standardized math tests within the first year.

In Houston, Ketelhut — the teacher — is still a student himself. Even for those who do enter the TFA with a teaching certificate, like Ketelhut, credential requirements vary from state to state.

Because of Texas’ certification requirements, Ketelhut, who last year earned a dual degree in Education and History, is working to earn an additional credential. This means that in addition to the long hours he spends teaching, he spends six more hours every other Saturday in a different classroom, this time as a student, working to get a certification through a Houston-based charter school network.

Though Ketelhut was “incredibly worried” about the way the other teachers would receive him, it’s worked out well.

“At the end of the day, if you’re a good teacher and you care about the kids, the other teachers who are not with Teach For America have complete respect for you,” he said. “They see that you care about the kids. They see that you’re making a difference.”

Eden Stiffman is the former editor of the Michigan Review. She is a contributor to The College Fix.

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