Teach For America, the controversial education nonprofit that places recent college graduates as teachers in disadvantaged classrooms, saw a decline in its number of accepted corps members after previously seeing a drop in applications for the second year in a row, the organization announced Tuesday.
TFA received over 44,000 applications for the 2015-2016 school year. Last year, the organization received just over 50,000 applications. The previous year, the organization hit a high of over 57,000 applications, topping off years of growth.
At the same time, by maintaining an acceptance rate of 15 percent, the organization is welcoming a smaller class of teaching corps members than in previous years. TFA will have a new teaching corps class of about 4,100 this year, compared to around 5,300 the previous year and about 6,000 the year before that.
The organization's new class of corps members is also one of its most diverse. Less than half of TFA's new teachers are white, and over 40 percent are African American, Latino or multi-racial or multi-ethnic. Thirty-three percent are the first in their families to graduate from college. By comparison, in 2011, just 7 percent of America's teachers overall were black and 6 percent were Latino.
Teach For America is the brainchild of Wendy Kopp -- now the CEO of the organization's global parent, Teach For All -- who came up with the idea for the organization during her senior year at Princeton in 1989. The idea was to take high-achieving young people and put them in low-income classrooms in an effort to fight educational inequity. Indeed, it wasn't long before the organization glistened with prestige, attracting hordes of Ivy League graduates. Twenty-five years in, the organization boasts a network of alumni and corps members of over 50,000 -- many of whom are still involved in the education world via advocacy or teaching.
But critics who take issue with the organization's model -- which commits corps members to just two years of teaching after just a few weeks of training -- say it fails to adequately prepare young people for teaching and creates a cycle of instability in already needy communities. Indeed, across the country, the neediest schools are often left with the least experienced teachers. Others assail the organization for its close ties to charter school networks, saying that it helps feed into efforts to privatize public schools.
In 2014, a group of Harvard University students called the Student Labor Action Movement asked the university president to cut ties with TFA. TFA has an active presence recruiting students on campus at Harvard and has a number of ties to its graduate school of education.
“We’re calling on Harvard to support and provide the resources for people who want want to have lifelong careers in public education, not people who want to teach for a couple of years and then go to law school or business school,” said Blake A. McGhghy, a Harvard student at the time, according to the Harvard Crimson.
In 2013, a group of TFA alumni and corps members met formally to organize resistance against their employer.
Representatives for TFA say this polarized discourse -- coupled with a rebounding economy -- is contributing to the group's drop in applications. A recent report from education consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners found that when potential candidates were asked why did not apply to TFA, 70 percent said criticism of the organization played a role.
"As we look ahead, we’re in a challenging context. Our competitors are up and running," Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of TFA, told The Huffington Post. "We’re competing with all the things that are exciting and emerging and new, all the things that are just attractive to this generation."
She continued, "We need to show people that if you want to be part of change and innovative and entrepreneurial ... there's no better place to go than TFA."
Part of the drop in applications is TFA's making, Villanueva Beard noted. The group scaled back on some recruitment efforts over the past few years, in part because "it just felt irresponsible to continue so aggressively when we were getting enough applications." The organization had 1,000 people on a waiting list just over two years ago, said Villanueva Beard.
Notably, teacher preparation programs throughout the country have also seen a drop in applications in recent years.
None of these factors stopped Hannah Katz, a recent college graduate and newly accepted corps member, from joining TFA, even though she said she received pushback from peers. Katz, 22, will start teaching in a few weeks in the Tulsa Public School District, where she grew up.
"My choice, both just to teach and join TFA, was met with some confusion from people," said Katz. "I think that because you hear a lot of press about how hard teaching is and badly teachers get treated, people were like, 'Why would you want to go into that?'"
Katz, who attended a magnet elementary school, says she is inspired to teach after seeing what happened to some of her peers who did not move into the same application-based high school as she did.
"My friends who went to my high school ended up at Yale," said Katz, a graduate of Hendrix College in Arkansas. Her friends who went to different high schools "ended up on a different track, a path that had fewer opportunities."
The organization is taking steps to try and reverse the downward trend in applications. Indeed, demand from school districts around the country who want to staff their classrooms with corps members remains high.
The organization spent the summer developing plans to reach out "to prospective corps members much earlier -- as freshmen and sophomores in college -- and engaging them in ways that give them a fuller picture of what Teach For America does," TFA's head of national communications, Takirra Winfield, wrote in an email. "In this new landscape, we are doubling down on how we attract this entrepreneurial generation to join us; how we train and support them to be the best possible teachers for their students and commit themselves to this work for the rest of their lives."