Recruiting teachers to work in low-income communities is not as easy as it used to be.
Teach For America reports that it has received 44,100 applications this year for its program of training professionals and college graduates, and placing them in two-year teaching commitments at schools. The education non-profit says that less than 15 percent of those applicants will be chosen for its highly-selective program.
Those numbers sound impressive until you consider Teach For America’s recent past. The group’s applicant pool ballooned tenfold in the last 15 years to a peak of 57,266 applicants in 2013. It has since declined 23 percent.
The organization attributes its recruiting challenges to an improving job market, and more competition for college graduates and professionals.
“We are looking for the same kinds of young leaders… that many of the top corporations and best places to work are looking for,” says Massie Ritsch, a spokesperson for Teach For America.
But the headwinds Teach For America is facing are not from an improving economy alone.
Sara Mead, a consultant with Bellweather Education Partners who helped author an internal study for Teach For America, says while the economy is by far the top reason, Teach For America also is battling negative perceptions.
Some of the non-profit group’s alumni have advocated for things like standardized testing and other educational reforms that Mead describes as “polarizing.”
“Some of the critics of those changes have really focused on Teach For America in a negative way,” Mead says.
There are anecdotal reports that some professors have dissuaded their students from applying to Teach For America and that some recruiters have faced negative responses on campuses, says Mead.
“We are definitely having to answer harder questions and more questions,” says Ritsch.
But those questions aren’t about Teach For America alone. They are also about the teaching profession, as a whole.
“Millenials tend to have a pretty poor perception of the teaching profession,” says Tamara Hiler with the education think tank Third Way, who conducted a survey of college undergraduates. “They want to be entering careers that are going to be seen as sort of opening doors for them and a lot of times they see teaching as actually closing doors.”
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