Teach For America (TFA) has experienced a considerable surge in popularity this year, with a 42 percent nationwide increase in the number of applications for the highly competitive program.
TFA Recruitment Director Abbey Prior, who is part of the Boston recruitment team, said that the number of Bowdoin applicants this year reflect the positive national trends. However, Prior did not provide the Orient with the specific number of applicants or the number of accepted Bowdoin students as numbers are not available on a school-to-school basis until the entire application process is complete.
Prior said that TFA's application spike is indicative of the program's increasing visibility among college students, among other factors, and is "not just a function of the economy," meaning college graduate's perceived willingness to do anything in the tough job market.
The top employer of Bowdoin graduates in 2007 and 2008, TFA is an organization that recruits and trains college graduates to serve as teachers in low-income communities. Last year, nearly 25,000 individuals applied to TFA—including 32 Bowdoin students. Of those 32 students from the College, 12 were accepted.
President of Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) Sophia Seifert '09 will become a TFA corps member at a Philadelphia public school next year. She partly attributes her decision to join TFA to her experience working with a demographer at Princeton University last summer.
"After having seen the facts and figures that show how real educational disadvantage is, you can't not be dedicated to righting that."
While some champion the program as a means of fighting educational inequity, others criticize the preparation that the program provides for teachers.
Assistant Professor of Education Charles Dorn said that he often hears TFA alums say "'I learned much more than my students did,'" which, in his opinion, is "something of a damning claim in terms of the preparation they had going into the classroom."
"If your third-graders are learning less than you are, you should have had more preparation," Dorn said.
However, according to Prior, recent data suggests that under-preparation is not a hindrance to TFA teachers. Prior cited data collected by the Urban Institute in a March 2008 study called "Making a Difference? The Effect of Teach for America on Student Performance in High School." The study found that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers.
Dorn also questioned whether the size of TFA is too small to register anything more than a blip on the radar screen of public education. According to Dorn, there are 2.5 million teaching positions in the U.S. TFA fills only 6,200 of them.
"In terms of actual impact on public school classrooms, TFA is irrelevant. It doesn't exist," he said.
Other critics of the program contend that TFA accepts too many college graduates who do not plan on making teaching their ultimate career. Education Department Chair Nancy Jennings said, "Teaching requires...commitment that I'm not sure is always there [among TFA members]."
According to Jennings many students join the corps because of the way the highly selective program looks on a resume or because they are uncertain of what to do after college.
One student who wished to remain anonymous out of concern of having anti-TFA statements attached to her name, said that her friends who are doing TFA are "mostly doing it because of where it can take them after, not because they want to teach." This student referred to the high-power career tracks many TFA alumni pursue, including law, business, and medicine.
Visiting Fellow of Education Ken Templeton said it is clear to him that TFA wants its alumni to pursue other career paths besides education.
"It's not, at the end of the day, about the teachers in the classrooms," Templeton said. "It's about recruiting people who are going to be leaders in other fields. If their teachers stay in the classroom, they will not have the same sort of voice."
According to Prior, however, the majority of TFA alumni do remain in education. "Two out of three alumni...are working or studying full-time in education," Prior said. "Fifty percent of those alumni are teachers, and the other alumni are principals, policy advisors, and leaders and staff of education reform organizations."
"TFA has now made teaching a competitive endeavor and something you can be proud of doing," said Amy Helbig '09, who was accepted into TFA this year.
Another contentious issue surrounding TFA is the high-powered recruiting tactics by the organization. Dorn said he thought that TFA recruiting efforts are over the top.
"TFA is spending more to get one recruit into a classroom than the state of Maine pays a teacher in their first year," he said.
But Prior, as a recruiter, said that it is crucial that campus leaders and strong candidates be actively sought out for TFA positions.
"It's really important to me that I reach out to the strongest leaders because it makes a difference in the lives of our students," Prior said.