Teach for America sees big growth

Elizabeth Venechuk, a third grade teacher at Powell Elementary School and Teach for America participant, teaches a math lesson in Washington, Monday, May 12, 2008. Brendan Hoffman, The Associated Press


Elizabeth Venechuk, a third grade teacher at Powell Elementary School and Teach for America participant, teaches a math lesson in Washington, Monday, May 12, 2008. Brendan Hoffman, The Associated Press

By Nancy Zuckerbrod

WASHINGTON – Backpacking in Europe? Nah, the dollar’s too weak – and for some, the needs closer to home are too great.

More than ever, graduating college seniors are signing up to spend two years in America’s poorest communities as part of Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that recruits and trains top college students for teaching jobs.

The group saw applications jump by more than a third this year from about 18,000 to nearly 25,000.

Of those, about 3,700 are expected to step up to the blackboard as new teachers this fall. That’s up more than 25 percent from the 2,900 who did so last year.

Several factors appear to be behind the trend.

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In a slow economy, teaching often becomes more attractive because it is generally considered stable.

Still, Teach for America’s growth can’t be attributed just to economic conditions.

The group, around since 1990, increased its recruiting staff this year and arranged one-on-one meetings with 30,000 students at about 400 colleges, up from last year.

“We are not in the business of just going after anybody,” said Elissa Clapp, who oversees recruiting. “We are looking for a very specific person.”

That has given Teach for America “cachet,” says Harvard University education professor Susan Moore Johnson. “The status of the program has grown steadily among college students,” she said.

Healthy fundraising helped pay for the additional recruiting efforts. The group’s annual budget grew from about $40 million in 2005 to about $110 million this year.

Philanthropists like Eli Broad, whose foundation has given $16 million to Teach for America, say they are increasingly motivated by studies showing the program has a positive impact on kids’ learning.

“The results speak for themselves,” Broad said, adding that he plans to make a larger contribution soon. “It’s one of the best investments our foundation has made.”

Several studies have found Teach for America corps members are as effective or more effective than educators who come through traditional teacher preparation programs within colleges of education.

The latest study, by the Urban Institute, found that Teach for America high school teachers have a particular edge in boosting math and science test scores.

But Johnson, of Harvard, cautions that there isn’t enough research to make definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of Teach for America’s teachers. The studies also haven’t quieted critics, who say Teach for America recruits are far too unprepared for the challenges of teaching, particularly in poor communities with low-performing schools.

Recruits often have no prior education experience or course work. They get five weeks of intensive training the summer before they start teaching, and then they get professional development during the school year provided by Teach for America and the districts in which they work.

Elizabeth Venechuk, who teaches third-grade in Washington, D.C., said the Teach for America training was strong given the obvious time limitations. “I don’t think any teacher is prepared for that first year,” she said.

Venechuk, in her second year, is clearly in command of her class of squirmy eight- and nine-year-olds. During a recent late afternoon lesson in lines and shapes, she had kids enthusiastically and politely asking questions and demonstrating with their bodies – in yoga-like fashion – what lines, line segments and rays look like.

Asked what surprised her most, Venechuk said, “how much organization you need to have and how much you love your kids.”

She plans to stay at least another year at Powell Elementary School, a neglected old building with mismatched classroom supplies. Nearly all the kids are poor and either black or Hispanic, two minority groups that generally lag behind their white peers academically.

Venechuk says she isn’t sure what she’ll do afterward. “I wasn’t planning on a career in education. I’m still not sure if I am,” she said.

Teach for America teachers are less likely to stay in the classroom than those who come through traditional teacher preparation routes, and that has fueled criticism.

“Recruitment is only half the battle. The other side of that battle is retention,” said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. “I’m going to say that just having people come and go in the profession is not going to make a quality education for students.”

Teach for America supporters note that low-income schools already have high turnover rates. Teach for America estimates a third of its alumni stay in the classroom, while many others have other jobs in the education field.

Stanford University education professor Susannah Loeb said she thinks Teach for America is addressing a need but not solving the underlying problem.

“The shame is that we have so many schools serving low-income, low-achieving kids that need teachers so badly and can’t attract teachers in a more stable way,” Loeb said.

She has conducted research indicating Teach for America teachers are not as effective in reading as they are in math. Teach for America leaders say they have responded to such research by revamping literacy training, an example of how the program is willing and able to change, they say.

The organization also has reworked its professional development and stepped up efforts to ensure that recruits are clustered in schools.

Clapp said she also has increased efforts to ensure that recruiters paint a realistic picture of life as a new teacher in low-income communities. That’s in response to critics who say not enough is done to make sure young idealists don’t find themselves shocked and frustrated by the harsh realities of the job.

“I think people don’t understand how little it behooves us to sell a false picture,” said Clapp. “None of us are in this to have people quitting on us in the middle.” She said more than 85 percent of corps members finish their two-year commitment.

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp said she’d like to see the corps of first- and second-year teachers grow to 8,000 by 2010, up from about 5,000 now.

“We’re never satisfied,” she said. “That is just the nature maybe of this work. There is just so much more to be done.”