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Why Teach for America isn't as popular as it used to be

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Teach for America has had a rough few years.

Articles with headlines like "I Quit Teach for America" have been shared thousands of times on Facebook. Students on campus have protested the program. The percentage of alumni who would recommend TFA has shrunk dramatically.

And, most notably, applications to the two-year teaching program are down for the second year in a row. Applications peaked at more than 57,000 in 2013; this year, only about 45,000 people applied.

This could be cause and effect. As Max Ehrenfreund writes at Wonkblog, Teach for America has gotten more controversial and less popular even as it's massively expanded. And surveys suggest that the negative publicity is making a difference for some prospective teachers, including those whom Teach for America considered very likely to apply.

But the real explanation may be something that is totally out of TFA's control: the economy. Teach for America applications soared during the recession as the program promised a safe, predictable, prestigious way to spend the first years after graduation. As the job market has turned around, that safety has become less attractive.

Why the recession was good for TFA

TFA grew so fast that its growth never seemed likely to last. And looking at the numbers suggests that the poor economy, not a burgeoning interest in teaching, drove much of the rising demand for teaching jobs.

Applications jumped 35 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to a recent report from Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education policy consulting firm that generally works with education reformers. Then applications increased another 40 percent between 2008 and 2009, and another 40 percent the year after that. That's huge, probably unsustainable growth.

Teach for America had planned an aggressive expansion even before the recession — intending to more than double the number of teachers it placed in schools from 2005 to 2010. But the supply of candidates increased even more quickly than the supply of teaching jobs, making TFA ever more selective. In 2013, just 14 percent of applicants were accepted, a lower acceptance rate than Harvard's law school.

This is partly because TFA followed a similar recruiting playbook to investment banking and consulting firms. It could promise applicants stable and prestigious employment for two years, without trapping them in a traditionally low-paying teaching career. In fact, as investment banking became less attractive to Ivy League students in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Teach for America became ever more popular, suggesting that one was simply replacing the other.

"You don't have to pay people a ton of money to come to your program after college if what you're giving them still offers prestige and structure and the sense that they're not signing up for something forever," Kevin Roose, a reporter for Fusion who wrote a book about young Wall Street recruits, told Ezra Klein last year. "Teach for America has really approximated the banking model without the money."

The many reasons applications are dropping

The criticism of Teach for America in recent years from teachers' unions and other opponents of the education reform movement has been harsh.

The criticism starts with prominent opponents on Twitter and in blogs — Diane Ravitch, a former Education Department official who opposes education reform, is one persistent critic. But it's reached campuses that were once fertile ground for TFA recruiting, too. Teach for America "is working to destroy the American public education system," Sandra Y. L. Korn, a 2014 Harvard graduate, wrote in the Harvard Crimson in 2013. The organization, she argued, supports "the replacement of experienced career teachers with a neoliberal model of interchangeable educators and standardized testing."

The Bellwether report suggests that Teach for America, wasn't ready for the onslaught of criticism and couldn't respond effectively. When Teach for America surveyed "high-potential candidates who chose not to apply," 70 percent said the criticism was one reason why.

There's also the fact that teaching is hard — and the bigger the teaching corps grew, the more alumni there were with mixed experiences to report. Job satisfaction for teachers overall tumbled during the recession. "They know that corps member and alumni satisfaction is declining, but they don’t have a clear explanation of why; and they know that trends in corps member satisfaction mirror broader trends across the teaching profession," the Bellwether report says.

But the reasons for the broader decline are probably more basic. Ehrenfreund reported:

The organization says that the decline in applications is mainly among those who apply without any previous contact with a recruiter for the organization, which suggests the economy might be a factor.

The criticism worries TFA in part because it's hurting its reputation with candidates the organization really wanted to recruit. But the big drop is among candidates that TFA didn't even know were out there.

As the economy got better, the idea of teaching as a temporary safe harbor from an uncertain job market was less appealing. TFA might need to work on its image at elite colleges. But it's also the victim of macroeconomic trends beyond its control.

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