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To teach or not to teach?

The lowdown on Teach for America

As fourth-year students near the end of their undergraduate experiences, some already are committed to more time in the classroom - as teachers. Since its inception in 1990, Teach For America has developed into one of the most popular and growing programs in the country for top-notch college graduates.

TFA originally began as the brainchild of Wendy Kopp, a Princeton graduate who initially developed the initiative as part of her senior thesis project. Kopp was inspired by the plight of a college friend who hailed from an underprivileged urban school who was struggling to adapt to the rigor of Princeton academics. She observed the heavy recruiting of Princeton graduates by prominent financial and consulting firms and wanted to give the poorest school districts in the nation the opportunity to apply that very same approach to their teachers. TFA's stated mission is to "eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation's most promising future leaders in the effort."

The purpose of TFA is twofold, said Emily Hagan Lazaro, a University alumna and a graduate of the corps - the colloquial term for TFA's diverse workforce. First, TFA helps place young graduates in teaching positions in impoverished school districts around the nation. Secondly, TFA aims to secure an alumni network built on a foundation of strong leadership positions in every possible field - including politics, law and medicine - with the goal of approaching the issue of education inequality from a variety of perspectives.

Crunching the numbers\nThe organization has flourished since its creation 20 years ago. For the past five years, TFA's applicant pool has grown by an average of 20 percent per year; last year, TFA received about 46,000 applications during the 2010 recruitment cycle. The organization examined the backgrounds and qualifications of these applicants, selecting for factors such as demonstrated past achievement, perseverance in the face of adversity and understanding and commitment to the mission, and offered positions to about 5,500 candidates - a far cry from its original placement of 500 in its starting year. That translates to an acceptance rate of about 12 percent, a selective number that rivals that of many of the nation's top colleges.

"TFA is nothing without its corps members and therefore maintains the highest possible standards in its recruitment practices," said Joseph Katona, a University alumnus and a former campus campaign coordinator for TFA. "Since TFA's talent pool is almost exclusively comprised of un-credentialed, inexperienced teachers, the recruitment must be that much more rigorous than one might originally expect."

Of the 5,500 selected candidates, about 4,500 accepted their offer. The 2010 corps members hail from diverse backgrounds - TFA recruits on more than 500 college campuses across the nation - and boast a wide variety of accomplishments. Incoming corps members earned an average GPA of 3.6, and 89 percent of those accepted held a significant leadership position during their years at college, according to a TFA press release. Fourteen percent are professionals who already have completed several years of full-time work before applying.

TFA attracts applications from more than 12 percent of all seniors at Ivy League schools and slightly lesser numbers from state flagships - the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for example, sent 79 graduates to the 2010 corps, comparable with 57 from the University of California, Berkeley and the University's own contribution of 48.

"We want to make sure that we're recruiting our nation's next generation of leaders who will be the next classroom leaders," TFA spokesperson Kaitlin Gastrock said. "We are trying to find the folks who are trying to close the achievement gap and have the skills ... [that we think] can predict success in the classroom.

The experience\nOnce accepted, corps members commit to a two-year position at various low-income communities throughout the nation. About 8,000 corps members scatter to 39 different regions comprising of more than 100 different school districts in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

A corps member's first summer usually consists of five weeks of training. TFA provides guidance and support during this time in tasks such as job placement, construction of a curriculum vitae, financial planning and preparation for various teacher certification exams. Once placed at a school, corps members can begin the teaching period that will define much of their time with TFA.

Lazaro taught kindergarten in the Bronx district of New York and called it the "hardest thing" she has ever done. "You wear so many hats as a teacher," she said. "These kids are knock-your-socks-off smart yet [they] face every obstacle: lack of accessibility to healthy foods ... parents who work multiple jobs in order to provide for their family, [living] in moldy, rat-infested apartment buildings ... They need committed teachers."

"I'm not being melodramatic," she added. "Teaching is tough. It takes over your life a little bit."

'Education revolution'\nWhen asked about their motivation for joining and the incentives that TFA can offer fresh young graduates - many of whom have been called the most promising of their field - most corps members, both past and present, answer that they join because they want to help disadvantaged youth. Their thoughts are echoed in the words of Michael Warburton, a fourth-year College student at the University who has committed to the corps, who said he "joined Teach For America to be a part of the education revolution that is beginning in the United States and to give each student the education they deserve."

Fourth-year College student Miriam Kaplan offered a similar assessment.

"The incentives are certainly not financial," Kaplan said, though she also added that any sort of guaranteed salary is preferred in this economy.

That's not to say corps members don't receive compensation, however.

They receive a full salary and benefits in addition to about $10,000 in grant money at the end of the two years to put toward furthering their education in any subject, said Liza Roesch, TFA campus coordinator at the University. Many TFA regions also offer their corps members the opportunity to pursue a masters degree after hours during their two-year commitment. Corps members also are allowed to defer their undergraduate loan payments for their term of service.

"TFA was my first choice for next year ... [but] it's not exactly cheap," said fourth-year College student Shannon Sullivan, another committed corps member. "I would estimate that in the past four months I've spent at least $1,000 of my own money towards travel and certification exams and other credentialing requirements, and I anticipate spending several thousand more when I move to Oakland, Calif. this summer - all before my first paycheck."

The sacrifices, of course, are taken alongside the tangible benefits. Katona, the former campus coordinator, said TFA's rising reputation and has made the two-year commitment a valuable experience for any curriculum vitae.

"[TFA is viewed as] a stepping stone to graduate school or school administration or a job in education policy," he said. "It looks terrific on a resume and provides an overwhelmingly supportive alumni network."

The TFA program does not suit everyone, but Gastrock, the TFA spokesperson, said the number of matriculated candidates who choose to leave before fulfilling their two-year commitment is a "small minority." From the latest available data set, 92 percent of corps members return for their second year.

"Whatever [your] reason [for joining]..." Lazaro said, " is impossible to anticipate fully what being a classroom teacher is like until you do it, and teaching in an under-resourced school is way too difficult if you are there for the 'wrong reasons.'"

Too much of a good thing\nDespite its strong reputation, TFA has gained its fair share of criticism. The two most prominent points of criticism allege that TFA sends barely-trained teachers to teach in difficult and exhausting environments, and that TFA strips desperately-needed jobs from local teachers in low-income communities.

Corps members also tend to leave the field. A study done by Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University at Sacramento found that "50% of TFA teachers leave after two years, and more than 80% leave after three years."

"Corps members tend not to remain in the profession [or] in the classroom very long," said Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education. "There's a lot of turnover in the teaching profession generally in the first few years, but the rate of attrition is higher for corps members."

Beyond these factors, a troubling 2010 Stanford study of all accepted corps members from 1993 to 1998 showed that graduated members lagged behind program dropouts and candidates who were accepted but chose to decline their offers in areas such as voting, charitable giving and civic engagement. Prof. Doug McAdam, a Stanford sociologist who helped conduct the study, attributed the decrease in activity to burnout and disillusionment developed after leaving the corps.

Despite his favorable past experiences with the organization, Katona said he is not 100 percent pro-TFA.

"I am a believer in the mission and strongly believe that TFA performs a much-needed service that is otherwise largely unavailable to our nation's most poorly funded schools," he said. "But I do not think that exchanging every teacher in this country for a TFA teacher would solve all - or very many - of our education problems."

Katona added that the driving need right now is for educators who are absolutely committed to the mission of improving educational inequity nationwide, not "Ivy League graduates who are largely going to quit after two years of teaching." He added that rigorous teacher residency programs - such as Capital Teaching Residency in the Washington, D.C. area - would go a long way toward helping to establish the support to meet this demand.

Lazaro offered a slightly different perspective on the issue. "TFA puts successful teachers into the toughest classrooms and seemingly hopeless situations in our county, and often, they stay there," she said. "Without TFA, those highly successful teachers would not be supporting students in the classroom. So whatever criticism you have, and some of it may be fair, try to remember that."

Life after the corps\nLazaro is now working in the education department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She called it "a far cry from P.S. 57 in the Bronx," but said she is taking advantage of the opportunity to tackle the problem of education inequity in a different way.

"This is my passion, fueled by my own experiences," she said. "Teaching with art objects is where I believe I can do the most good."

Despite its namesake, TFA is not dedicated exclusively nor is it limited strictly to recruiting teachers, said several sources close to the program. The purposes of the initiative deal with the more comprehensive issues of education inequity and leadership development.

"TFA wasn't designed to create a generation of teachers," said Roesch, the University's TFA campus coordinator. "Although 13 percent of people go into TFA saying they want to work in education long-term and 67 percent end up doing so, I think TFA is about proving all children can succeed if given the necessary means, demanding excellence of them, and exposing the issues of lower-income areas that hinder children's success to people going in many different vocational directions."

Others in the education business say TFA helps craft a generation of leaders.

"We're talking about teacher preparation here in a global manner, and Teach For America is a route to licensure, a route to teaching," said Stephen Plaskon, associate professor of education at the University. "[For] anyone who wants to be in a leadership experience in this country," he added, "this is a critical experience"


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