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Teach for America announced this week it’s cutting about 15 percent of its national staff. The nonprofit teacher-training program will also beef up its regional offices and change the way it recruits.

For 25 years, Teach for America has recruited new college graduates to teach for two years, mostly in disadvantaged urban schools.  And there has been no shortage of critics, who say the model leaves the country’s neediest kids in the hands of unprepared teachers who don't stick around. For the past two years applications have declined, and the group has closed two of its summer training sites.  

The layoffs aren’t about money, said CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard. “We are very fortunate to be in a strong financial position,” she said.

Rather, trimming the central office will allow regional branches to hire more staff and be more flexible, Beard said. While the organization is eliminating around 250 positions, including its chief diversity officer, the group plans to create about 100 new posts.

“What we have learned over time is that this work is 100 percent local,” Beard said. “The needs of a place like New York vs. Houston vs. the Mississippi Delta are just so different.”

But in a recent letter to TFA corps members and alumni, Beard also acknowledged the group is facing “the most competitive and challenging recruitment environment” in its history. During the recession and its aftermath the group had no trouble attracting a steady stream of top graduates, many of them taking shelter from the bad job market.

“As the economy has improved, fewer and fewer new college graduates look at Teach for America as such a great option,” said Michael Hansen, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

Teach for America is also facing a backlash against its model of sending elite college grads into struggling schools, with just five weeks’ training. According to a report by Bellwether Education Partners, TFA’s own research found that negative criticism influenced almost 70 percent of potential candidates who chose not to apply.

“I think it’s really problematic for the organization and I think that’s telling,” said TFA alum Jameson Brewer, who co-edited a book of critical essays by former members. “They’re laying off, they’re shrinking, they’ve shut down institutions, so I think the writing is really on the wall for them.”

To fight back, TFA will start wooing college students much earlier. It no longer works to start talking to students as they begin their senior year, said Beard. By then, “they’ve been engaged with their career aspirations and done lots of internships and are pretty set on what they want to do.”


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Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports