Improving Teach for America
May 2 marked the deadline for those accepted by Teach for America to agree to join its ranks. Across the country some 17,000 applicants applied to the two-year teaching program that places uncertified teachers in under-resourced school districts. The attraction is to join an organization committed to closing the achievement gap between low-income and high-income areas.
The large applicant pool is a testament to the dedicated recruitment of Teach for America. In the last five years the pool grew by 318 percent and this year alone increased by 27 percent. Teach for America's recruitment strategy heightens the awareness of the achievement gap in the United States. Eleven percent of the class of 2005 at Dartmouth applied for Teach for America, compared with only four percent in 2004. This places Dartmouth second in the ranks of the Ivy League for total applicants in 2005. Twelve percent of Yale's graduating class applied. Teach for America now competes with investment banking firms for Ivy League grads. I was one of the more than 100 Dartmouth students who applied to Teach for America this year. After my interview I talked with a friend about my post-graduation options and he said, "Well, Teach for America will take anyone. I mean they need teachers desperately, so you could always do that at anytime."
True, teachers are needed across the country. The achievement gap is vast: nine-year-olds in low-income communities are three grade levels behind those in high-income areas and are seven times less likely to graduate from college. But it is not true that Teach for America will take anyone and everyone. Out of the 17,000 applicants roughly 2,000 were accepted in 2005.
I respect Teach for America's selective standards, which cull out the highest qualified applicants, and its rigorous training program. As a result, principals of schools with Teach for America teachers frequently view them as more effective than certified first-year teachers. Most Teach for America teachers succeed in diminishing the achievement gap of their class. But I do not doubt that some of the other 15,000 applicants would make a significant impact helping school children in the United States.
Teach for America did not accept me. I received a polite form letter in the mail stating that they were unable to tell me why I am not a worthy candidate but they appreciated the time I put into my application and hoped I would still pursue other teaching opportunities in disadvantaged areas. They included a list of other teaching organizations with contact information. After talking with other students who did not make the final cut I find that I am not the only one left feeling dejected and confused from the Teach for America admissions process.
I do not consider myself a sore loser. I am sure the students accepted are better qualified than I. But I find it sad that much of the proactive energy towards education generated by Teach for America is not funneled in such a way to keep students engaged in educational issues. I am not asking Teach for America alone to take on 17,000 new teachers and lower its standards and efficacy. But if the stated national need is so great, why not expand the program to fill that need? I hope in time that the capacity of the program will grow to accept a greater number of qualified applicants and serve more communities.
Right now I wish that Teach for America could better inform rejected students as to why they were not worthy candidates. This would leave students with areas to improve on if they desire to reapply. It would leave them feeling hopeful instead of discouraged towards teaching as a career. More than this I would like to see Teach for America better affiliated with other inspiring teaching organizations focusing in impoverished regions. If Teach for America could form solid partnerships with other high caliber-teaching organizations, a greater direct exchange of rejected applicants could occur. Teach for America could prioritize the students it did not accept into groups and suggest the most qualified groups to other organizations. This way the educational system would benefit to the largest extent possible from the time, effort and money invested by Teach for America.
Teach for America is highly successful at serving its mission. I am amazed at what its teachers accomplish. There is no reason why other organizations can not follow its model and take advantage of the large numbers of graduating college students who are interested in teaching in low-income areas. Call us lazy, but the more accessible and encouraging other teaching options are to overwhelmed college seniors the better chance we'll join the parade and not become discouraged.