TOPICS > Education

Why is Teach For America struggling to recruit?

April 15, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Since the organization began in the 1990, Teach For America has sent more than 33,000 participants to lead classrooms in low-income, high-need communities. The competitive program has been a top choice for college grads, but recently it’s had more trouble with recruiting. Brandis Friedman of WTTW reports from Chicago on what’s behind falling interest in Teach For America and the teaching profession.

GWEN IFILL: Next: the struggle to draw college graduates back to the classroom.

Teach for America has sent more than 33,000 participants into schools in low-income, high need communities since it launched in 1990.

But as Brandis Friedman of public television station WTTW Chicago reports, the organization is now having a harder time recruiting new candidates.

JUAQUAN SAVAGE, Teacher: Why do I do that?

STUDENT: Because it’s a negative charge.

JUAQUAN SAVAGE: Because it’s a negative charge.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN, WTTW Chicago: Today’s chemistry lesson is on ionic bonds.

JUAQUAN SAVAGE: What does oppositely charged atoms mean?

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Teacher Juaquan Savage feels he’s charged with making a difference in his students’ lives. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate recently finished a two-year Teach for America fellowship in Memphis. He’s now one of 950 Teach for America alumni working in Chicago public schools.

This is Savage’s first year as a full-fledged teacher at this charter school, Butler College Prep. For years, the program has been a top choice for top grads.

JUAQUAN SAVAGE: I do consider myself a success story, because I had strong teachers. And it’s very thought-provoking just to think of, had I not had those strong teachers, where my life would’ve ended up. And so I definitely want to be a catalyst for making sure that all leaders — no matter where they’re from, no matter what their socioeconomic background is, any situation that they have come from, that they have opportunity to obtain a quality education as well.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Savage and Teach for America fellows get five weeks of intensive summer training before taking over a classroom.

But the once highly competitive program is noticing a troubling trend: not enough recruits like Savage.

JOSH ANDERSON, Executive Director, Teach for America – Chicago: We are facing greater-than-normal challenges on the recruitment front. And here’s what we’re seeing. As of December, we had 20,000 applications for the incoming corps. That’s behind pace from last year. And if this pace continues, we’d fall 25 percent short of what our partners around the country, our school partners around the country, have said they need from us.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Teach for America’s Chicago director, Josh Anderson, says a number of factors are contributing to a tougher recruiting environment on the elite college campuses, where it finds many of its applicants. Among those factors: the concern that teaching is an underpaid profession.

JOSH ANDERSON: In this post-recession moment, we’re seeing, especially for top talent on college campuses, greater and greater competition for folks out there. And so people have many more competing offers that they’re considering, very attractive competing offers that they’re considering, than they were just a couple of years ago.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Anderson says he’s concerned that a smaller pool of candidates will mean a weaker pool of potential teachers.

JOSH ANDERSON: We substantially increase the odds of having great teachers, the most effective teachers in front of our students the stronger, more robust, more diverse that pool of candidates is. And so that’s why this trend, if we’re not able to reverse it, if we’re not able to combat it effectively, is concerning, because it means real things downstream for student achievement in the very near future.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Teach for America argues the problem isn’t just its own, but points to a national decline in graduates interested in becoming teachers. Experts say some of that is brought on by the highly politicized nature of modern-day teaching.

Robert Lee runs the Chicago teacher education pipeline for Illinois State University, which produces most of Illinois’ teaching graduates. Even he has noticed that teacher prep enrollment is down slightly.

ROBERT LEE, Illinois State University College of Education: It used to be a very reliable profession, one that was filled with joy, and that was a lot of joy in the teaching and learning process.

And that somehow has been stripped away as well. There’s a lot of testing going on right now and high-stakes standardized achievement tests that try to pit teacher performance, if you will, based on that one exam. And I think that’s dangerous as well. I think it’s a problem, if we’re trying to recruit our best and brightest people to enter the field.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: But critics of the teacher corps say the organization has brought this problem of a shortage on itself.

Eleni Katsarou directs elementary education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

ELENI KATSAROU, College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago: When your larger message is, you only need five weeks to become a teacher, it demeans, it reduces, it oversimplifies what it is that teachers ought to be doing and what they do.

And, so, in that way, I think, again, they have contributed to making it less than what it actually is.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Katsarou argues that sending so many untested and briefly trained teachers into the classroom to serve mostly low-income students is more than just unethical.

ELENI KATSAROU: I don’t think it’s fair or ethical or professional to practice on kids. It just isn’t. And so we have practice-based teaching in programs that are solid and profound in the ways in which they let students understand community and understand classroom practices and so on. There’s a reason why we have practice-based approaches in schools, because it takes time.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: But Teach for America says their teachers are making a difference, and that they’re not only prepared after initial training, but they continue to receive mentoring and coaching throughout their fellowship.

JOSH ANDERSON: The biggest reason that people sign up has, I think, little to do with the concrete things they get from organization, but most to do with the opportunity to be in front of and work with our students and families and make a big impact, because teaches can make a profound impact in the lives of students. I think that’s number one.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: And for teacher Juaquan Savage…

JUAQUAN SAVAGE: Go around. Keep bonding. Keep finding different people.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: … that impact is the bond he shares with his students.

I’m Brandis Friedman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Chicago.