A Chosen Few Are Teaching for America
By MICHAEL WINERIP
HOUSTON — Alneada Biggers, Harvard class of 2010, was amazed this past year when she discovered that getting into the nation’s top law schools and grad programs could be easier than being accepted for a starting teaching job with Teach for America.
Ms. Biggers says that of 15 to 20 Harvard friends who applied to Teach for America, only three or four got in. “This wasn’t last minute — a lot applied in August 2009, they’d been student leaders and volunteered,” Ms. Biggers said. She says one of her closest friends wanted to do Teach for America, but was rejected and had to “settle” for University of Virginia Law School.
Will Cullen, Villanova ’10, had a friend who was rejected and instead will be a Fulbright scholar. Julianne Carlson, a new graduate of Yale — where a record 18 percent of seniors applied to Teach for America — says she knows a half dozen “amazing” classmates who were rejected, although the number is probably higher. “People are reluctant to tell you because of the stigma of not getting in,” Ms. Carlson said.
When Robert Rosen graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2009, he did not apply, fearing he would be turned down. Instead, he volunteered in a friend’s classroom weekly for the next year, to see if he liked teaching, but also to build a credential that would impress Teach for America. Asked how hard getting in is, James Goldberg, Duke ’10 said, “I’d compare it with being accepted to an Ivy League grad school.”
Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Rosen, Ms. Carlson, Mr. Cullen and Ms. Biggers count themselves lucky to be among the 4,500 selected by the nonprofit to work at high-poverty public schools from a record 46,359 applicants (up 32 percent over 2009). There’s little doubt the numbers are fueled by a bad economy, which has limited job options even for graduates from top campuses. In 2007, during the economic boom, 18,172 people applied.
This year, on its 20th anniversary, Teach for America hired more seniors than any other employer at numerous colleges, including Yale, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Harvard, 293 seniors, or 18 percent of the class, applied, compared with 100 seniors in 2007. “So many job options in finance, P.R. and consulting have been cut back,” said Ms. Carlson, the Yale grad.
In interviews, two dozen soon-to-be-teachers here in Houston, one of eight national Teach for America centers that provide a five-week crash summer course in classroom practices, mentioned the chance to help poor children and close the achievement gap as major reasons for applying. Victor Alquicira (Yale), who is Mexican-born, and Kousha Navidar (Duke), who is Iranian-born, said it was a chance to give back to a country that had given them much.
But there are other more material attractions. Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a résumé, whether or not the person stays in teaching. And in a bad economy, it’s a two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck; members earn a beginning teacher’s salary in the districts where they’re placed. For Mr. Cullen, who will teach at a Dallas middle school, that’s $45,000 — the same he’d make if he’d taken a job offer from a financial public relations firm. Ms. Carlson, who will also make $45,000 teaching first grade in San Antonio, said: “I feel very fortunate. I knew a lot of people at Yale who didn’t have a job or plan when they graduated.”
In contrast, the Peace Corps (to which Teach for America compares itself) pays a cost-of-living allowance adjusted for each country where volunteers work, and a $7,500 stipend when the 27-month stint is finished.
While Teach for America is highly regarded by undergrads — Mr. Goldberg said Duke recruiting sessions typically attracted 50 students — it gets mixed reviews from education experts.
Research indicates that generally, the more experienced teachers are, the better their students perform, and several studies have criticized Teach for America’s turnover rate.
“I’m always shocked by the hullaboo, given Teach for America’s size” — about 0.2 percent of all teachers — “and its mixed impact,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a University of Texas professor. Dr. Heilig and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento, recently published a critical assessment after reviewing two dozen studies. One study cited indicated that “by the fourth year, 85 percent of T.F.A. teachers had left” New York City schools.
“These people could be superstars, but most leave before they master the teaching craft,” Dr. Heilig said.
Carrie James, a Teach for America spokeswoman, challenged the report. Teach for America press releases cite a 2008 Harvard doctoral thesis indicating that 61 percent of their recruits stay beyond the two-year commitment. However, that same thesis also says “few people are estimated to remain in their initial placement school or the profession beyond five or six years” — a finding not highlighted in the releases.
Ms. James says the program has an impact beyond the classroom, with an alumni contact list of 13,000 still in education, including more than 500 in “government or policy.” Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools, and Michael Johnston, a Colorado state senator, are among the alums.
Several of the new Teach for America members say it’s too early to know whether they’ll stick with teaching. Ms. Biggers, who was admitted to Harvard and Vanderbilt Law Schools, has deferred attending to teach elementary school in Houston for two years. She then plans to go to law school and, after finishing, says she hopes to do something in education.
To be accepted by Teach for America, applicants survived a lengthy process, with thousands cut at each step. That included an online application; a phone interview; presentation of a lesson plan; a personal interview; a written test; and a monitored group discussion with several other applicants. Rachel Faust, a University of Maryland graduate who will teach in Miami, says she was struck by how aggressive some applicants were at the group session. “They say you’re not against each other, it’s just a group discussion,” Ms. Faust said. “But some people don’t treat it like that, they’re very competitive.”
A $185 million operating budget, (two-thirds from private donations, the rest from governmental sources) helps finance recruiters at 350 campuses to enlarge the applicant pool. “I was recruited like crazy,” said Mr. Alquicira, who was a Yale Daily News editor and tutor in New Haven. “I’m not even sure how they got my name.”
The 774 new recruits who are training here are housed in Rice University dorms. Many are up past midnight doing lesson plans and by 6:30 a.m. are on a bus to teach summer school to students making up failed classes. It’s a tough lesson for those who’ve come to do battle with the achievement gap.
Lilianna Nguyen, a recent Stanford graduate, dressed formally in high heels, was trying to teach a sixth-grade math class about negative numbers. She’d prepared definitions to be copied down, but the projector was broken.
She’d also created a fun math game, giving every student an index card with a number. They were supposed to silently line themselves up from lowest negative to highest positive, but one boy kept disrupting the class, blurting out, twirling his pen, complaining he wanted to play a fun game, not a math game.
“Why is there talking?” Ms. Nguyen said. “There should be no talking.”
“Do I have to play?” asked the boy.
“Do you want to pass summer school?” Ms. Nguyen answered.
The boy asked if it was O.K. to push people to get them in the right order.
“This is your third warning,” Ms. Nguyen said. “Do not speak out in my class.”
On Education, a new column by Michael Winerip, will appear Mondays. Mr. Winerip can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.