As of the end of January, the number of applicants to the program was down about 10 percent from last year — the second consecutive year-over-year decline after fifteen years of increases. As a result, TFA has advised schools that its teacher corps this fall could be smaller by as much as 25 percent. The organization also has closed two of its eight summer training sites, in New York City and Los Angeles. Last year, TFA accepted about 15 percent of its applicants, and co-CEO Matt Kramer told the Times the organization had no plans to be less selective this year. TFA officials also told the Times that as a result of the improving economy, more of the high-achieving college graduates that might have considered the program in the past are applying for, and getting, attractive job offers in other industries.
Others see the decline in applicants as a sign that TFA, which was founded in 1990 and rose to prominence with a Peace Corps-like mission to provide an excellent education to kids in low-income schools, is losing its appeal. According to the Times, the organization's belief that new college graduates can jump into teaching with minimal training, as well as its association with the testing and standards movement, may be driving away the kind of students the program once attracted. In recent years, TFA also has faced criticism from teachers unions, teacher training programs, and policy makers, many of whom have argued that placing enthusiastic but untested novice teachers in some of the nation's most troubled schools does more harm than good. In response, TFA announced last March that it would offer a yearlong pre-service training program and bolster ongoing support for teachers in their third, fourth, and fifth years of teaching to raise teacher retention rates.
Supported by corporations such as Wells Fargo and Comcast NBCUniversal and a range of philanthropic organizations, including the Laura and John Arnold, Eli and Edythe Broad, and Walton Family foundations, TFA trains more new teachers than any other entity in the U.S., Bellwether Education Partners reports. What's more, minority teachers make up half its corps of more than ten thousand teachers in thirty-five states, and nearly half come from low-income backgrounds. Some school officials told the Times the program has been a critical ingredient in keeping classrooms in underresourced schools staffed.
"If we didn't have them, we would really have some very serious problems," said Ray Spain, schools superintendent in Warren County, North Carolina, a poor rural district where one in five teachers is a TFA recruit. "We just aren't geographically in that area of the state where it makes it easy to recruit teachers."
Not everyone agrees. Teach for America "was always going to have a half-life," said Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. "It did wonderful things and attracted superb people to teaching and prepared a generation of leaders." But it was never going to profoundly change schools, he added. "Eventually, we're going to get to the point of trying to fix the system rather than applying a patch."