Monday, December 8, 2008

Applicants Flock to Teacher Corps for Needy Areas

Applicants Flock to Teacher Corps for Needy Areas
  Dec 6, 2008 Washington Post, A1  

By Megan Greenwell

Like many Georgetown University seniors, Olubukola Bamigboye has no shortage of postgraduate options. She has a line on an internship with a high-profile fashion magazine, is considering law school or might train full time for a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field team.

But Bamigboye is focused on her second-round interview at Teach for America, hoping to win a stressful job in one of the nation's worst public schools, where, at best, she might earn $45,000 next year.

Her chances of landing a spot: less than 15 percent -- lower than the admission rate to Georgetown itself.

In its 18th year, Teach for America has emerged as the most popular nonprofit service organization among college seniors in the United States, with 14,181 applications received this year and as many as 23,000 more expected by the end of February -- all for fewer than 5,000 teaching spots.

In part because of the dearth of other job prospects in the sagging economy but mostly because the program has captured the imagination of a generation of student leaders bent on doing good, some graduates of the nation's elite universities are fighting for low-paying teaching positions the way they once sought jobs on Wall Street.

"We were quite hopeful that we would see an increase in applications based on last year's growth, but I don't know if anyone could have predicted this," said Elissa Clapp, who oversees recruitment for the organization, which sends recent college graduates to teach for two years in schools in low-income areas.

Experts say a 50 percent increase in applications in one year is surprising for any program, but they add that young adults' growing interest in public service organizations does not end with Teach for America. Programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps also report a steady rise in applications for the past several years, though not as large as Teach for America's.

A 2007 UCLA survey of college freshmen showed that 70 percent of students say it is "essential or very important" to help those in need. And many young people became socially motivated during this year's presidential election, when record numbers volunteered for President-elect Barack Obama, inspired by his message of change.

"Teach for America may fit a perfect niche," said Peter Levine, director of a research center on civic engagement at Tufts University. "You get to work on a social problem on the public payroll, but you're going through a nonprofit, which many young people prefer to working for the government."

The program's success in attracting top talent such as Bamigboye has not silenced its critics in the world of education, many of whom say teachers need more than a summer's worth of preparation before taking jobs in inner-city schools. Lorri Harte, a 20-year teacher and administrator in New York City who writes a blog called Debunk TFA, argues that placing the least-experienced teachers with the highest-risk children is a potentially harmful combination.

"Teaching is a job where you get better as you go along, so for the first two years, people are generally not good teachers," Harte said. "The public relations blitz for the program does not address the real problems in education."

Research into Teach for America's effectiveness has been inconclusive, but at least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by its teachers score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their peers. A small handful of other studies, and the organization's own research, contradict that claim.

The latest spike in applications is only the most recent high point for the program. More than 24,700 students applied for the 2008 teaching posts, a 36 percent increase over 2007. They teach in 30 cities and regions across the country, including 416 schools in the District, Prince George's County and Baltimore, where D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee began her education career as a Teach for America teacher.

Created by a Princeton graduate based on her senior thesis, the program has built a sizable staff that aggressively recruits student leaders and has become the top employer at dozens of elite colleges, including George Washington University and Georgetown. This year's expected total would more than double the number of applications received just two years ago.

Teach for America leaders say much of the growth is the result of gradual gains in name recognition rather than circumstances specific to this year. But they acknowledge that the shortage of other job prospects has prompted applications from some students who might not have considered teaching.

Business majors are expected to make up a larger percentage of the applicant pool, perhaps in part because six-figure entry-level investment banking jobs -- until this year considered natural slots for thousands of graduates of elite colleges -- have all but disappeared during the Wall Street collapse.

"The silver lining in the economic downturn is it has provided people the chance to pursue something they've always wanted to do," said Tom Clark, Teach for America's recruiting director for Georgetown and GWU. "Even last year, there was pressure to head straight to Wall Street, and now there's a lot less pressure."

Georgetown senior John Swan, the former editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, said he didn't seriously consider applying to Teach for America when he first heard about it as a sophomore. But after an internship at Forbes magazine, he decided that an entry-level reporter's position wouldn't provide enough responsibility. He met with Clark this fall, was accepted to the program and will teach in the District next year.

Personalized e-mails to student leaders -- such as the one Clark sent Swan asking him to chat over coffee -- are the heart of Teach for America's recruiting strategy. Student council members, athletes, political group leaders, newspaper editors and others whose names are provided by alumni and professors are invited to meet with campus recruiters around the beginning of each academic year. If a student does not respond or declines the invitation, more e-mails follow, a barrage that many students call incessant and unnecessary.

Yet it's difficult to dispute that the targeted recruitment strategy has been effective in luring seniors who might be worried about finding jobs. Three of Swan's friends have been accepted to the teaching corps, and seven others are in the process of applying. All told, 13 percent of seniors at Georgetown and 10 percent at GWU are expected to apply this year, numbers that are not uncommon at the most elite universities.

One major point of criticism from many educators is that the program does not specifically recruit students who are interested in teaching full time. For many, like Bamigboye, the program is a two-year stop on the way to graduate school or a corporate job, paths that program administrators encourage with a career services office and partnerships with private firms and universities.

"I'll be done when I'm 23, so jobs in fashion and law school and the Olympics will still be there," Bamigboye said.

But many current and former Teach for America participants say their work -- whether for two years or longer -- makes a significant impact on students' lives. Most former Teach for America participants can cite the moments that made them proud of their students' gains.

"Every year, teachers see the proof right in front of them that they're helping to raise achievement," said Rachel Evans, a Texas A&M graduate who taught in Baltimore and now directs Teach for America recruiting efforts at four universities in Maryland and Delaware. "It doesn't take much to sell the fact that these jobs actually change lives."

The organization's officials contend that engaging the brightest young minds to teach disadvantaged children for two years is better than not having them at all, and some do become career teachers.

The rigorous application process, Clapp said, ensures that the program accepts only graduates who are truly motivated to serve in those classrooms.

"What we need to do now is make sure we maintain our position as one of the premier things to do after college," Clapp said. "You don't stay on top unless you continue to aggressively compete for the best people."

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