Recruiting college graduates into the program Teach For America isn't as easy as it used to be. The alternative teacher licensing program started in 1990 with a corps of 500 college graduates. Since then, that corps has sent more than 47,000 participants into classrooms in low-income, high-need communities. But, the organization says this year, it's having a hard time recruiting enough new teachers to meet the need.
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 TFA alumni working in Chicago Public Schools.
This is Savage's first year as a full-fledged teacher at a charter school called Butler College Prep.
For years, the TFA program has been a top choice for top grads.
“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,” said Savage. “I definitely want to be a catalyst for making sure all students, no matter where they're from, no matter what their socioeconomic background is, any situation that they come from, that they have the opportunity to obtain a quality education as well.”
Savage and TFA fellows get five weeks of intensive summer training before taking over a classroom. But, the once highly competitive program is noticing a troubling trend – there are not enough recruits like Savage.
“We are facing greater than normal challenges on the recruitment front,” said Teach For America’s Chicago Executive Director Josh Anderson. “As of December, we had 20,000 applications for the incoming corps. That's behind pace from last year. If this pace continues, we would fall about 25 percent short of what our school partners around the country have said they need from us.”
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 is the concern that teaching is an underpaid profession.
“In this post-recession moment, we're seeing, especially for top talent on college campuses, greater and greater competition for folks out there,” said Anderson. “People have many more competing offers that they’re considering, very attractive competing offers that they are considering, than they were just a couple of years ago.”
Anderson says he's concerned that a smaller pool of candidates will mean a weaker pool of potential teachers for all schools nationwide.
“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,” he said. “That's why this trend, if we're not able to reverse it or combat it effectively, is concerning because it means real things downstream for student achievement in the very near future.”
Teach For America argues the problem isn't just its own, but points to a national decline in graduates interested in becoming teachers. Education experts say some of that is brought on by the highly politicized landscape 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.
“It used to be a very reliable profession, one that was filled with joy; there was a lot of joy in the teaching and learning process. And that somehow has been stripped away as well,” said Lee. “There’s a lot of testing going on right now, high-stakes standardized tests, that try to pit teacher performance based on that one exam. I think that's dangerous as well. I think it’s a problem as we’re trying to recruit our best and brightest people to enter the field.”
Watch Robert Lee explain where the teaching shortages are and discuss what ISU’s College of Education does to fill the void in the following web extra video.
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.
“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,” she said. “So, in that way, I think they've contributed to making it less than what it actually is. So, the de-professionalization that they have contributed to has come to hit them in their enrollment.”
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.
“I don't think it's fair or ethical or professional to practice on kids. It just isn't,” she said. “We have practice-based teaching in the 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.”
But TFA 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.
“The biggest reason that people sign up has little to do with the concrete things they get from the 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 teachers can make a profound impact in the lives of students. I think that is number one,” said Anderson.
And for teacher Juaquan Savage, that impact is the bond he shares with his students.
Teach For America says even though the number of applications it's received at this point are slightly less than what they'd received at this time last year, 36,000 people have applied with the application window closing in a week-and-a-half.