Teach For America, once a powerful player in the teacher-preparation landscape, is hoping to regain its footing post-pandemic.
Last year, TFA placed its smallest number of first-year teachers in schools in at least 15 years—about half as many as in 2019 and about a quarter of the size of its nearly 6,000-member incoming class a decade ago. The nonprofit also had significant staffing reductions this year, and has stopped placing new teachers in about a dozen of the communities it serves.
TFA leaders say the organization is undergoing a broader transformation amid a challenging moment for education and the teacher pipeline, which has shrunk dramatically over the last decade. This summer, CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote that despite the “hard choices” made, TFA is recommitting to its goal to improve student outcomes and inspire a new generation of teachers.
Indeed, there are signs of progress: The organization says its incoming teacher corps this fall has grown by nearly 40 percent. A new tutoring program TFA set up mid-pandemic, designed to address pandemic-related learning gaps and build a pipeline into the corps, is also growing rapidly.
Its Indiana chapter just received a positive evaluation from the RAND Corp., which found that TFA Indy teachers are, on average, more effective at increasing student achievement than other teachers hired during the same period. Those findings align with a larger body of research on the organization.
After all, “part of the secret sauce of TFA has always been selectivity,” said Pam Grossman, a professor of education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies teacher preparation.
Teach For America was built on the premise that recruiting some of the brightest young people into a two-year teaching commitment will both improve student outcomes and produce civically minded leaders who care deeply about education.
Education Week once called the organization “a proxy for advocates’ best and worst dreams about the teaching profession"—supporters love how it attracts smart individuals who might not have otherwise considered going into teaching; critics have accused it of “deprofessionalizing” teaching by providing limited training and accepting short-term commitments.
Even though the number of TFA corps members represented “a drop in the bucket” in terms of the national teacher supply, “it had a pretty big impact on the national conversation,” said Melissa Arnold Lyon, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Albany.
But as time has passed, alternative routes into the classroom that bypass some or all traditional coursework have become more common. There were few in 1989, when the organization launched; now, federal data show there are more than 200 alternative providers operating outside of colleges and universities.
Teach For America has faced many of the same challenges as traditional teacher-preparation programs, including waning interest in the profession, Lyon said. And the organization, once the subject of endless op-eds and articles, both glowing and caustic, no longer has quite the same foothold in education policy debates as it did a decade ago, when it was a darling in the reform movement.
“Over time, TFA is looking less like a disrupter and more like these traditional programs,” Lyon said.
A decline in enrollment reflects a broader trend
This year, TFA is welcoming an incoming class of about 2,200. That’s up from last year’s low of 1,616—but still a far cry from the nearly 6,000 first-year teachers that TFA deployed to schools in 2013.
The organization hopes to soon get back to an incoming class size of at least 3,000, said Whitney Petersmeyer, the executive vice president for growth at TFA.
TFA’s recruitment woes have been part of a broader shrinking of the teacher pipeline.
Traditional teacher-preparation programs have seen their enrollment rates fall significantly over the past decade, and although alternative programs have fared better, their completion rates have declined in the same time period. One 2022 study found that interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshman is at its lowest point in 50 years.
Those young people are less interested in teaching in part because of low salaries, well-documented challenges with working conditions, and a perceived lack of public respect.
“We’ve seen many of the same patterns and trends as other routes into teaching have experienced over the last number of years,” Petersmeyer said. “Recruiting during the pandemic created its own set of challenges. I think the conditions around the teaching profession were very challenging, and very publicly so. The pitch to teach was a hard one.”
It didn’t help, she said, that recruitment drives had to happen virtually at the height of the pandemic, putting a damper on recruiters’ ability to form meaningful relationships with candidates. TFA recruiting typically starts during prospective candidates’ junior year of college.
And state laws that restrict how teachers can discuss race or LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom have also made teaching a hard sell, especially to the social-justice-minded individuals TFA tends to attract—and who have also pushed the organization to improve its work on cultural competency for new teachers.
“The politicizing of what is happening in schools and in classrooms makes it very challenging to recruit,” Petersmeyer said. “I think the case that we’re working to make to a prospective corps member is really focused on getting into a relationship with young people and on having a positive impact with young people. That fundamental case that we’re making in recruitment is there with or without all of the challenges around the profession right now.”
A focus on building out the pipeline
The pandemic also opened up some opportunities to whet prospective applicants’ appetite for the work of teaching. In the fall of 2020, TFA launched a paid, virtual tutoring program, called Ignite, through which college students help elementary students improve their reading skills—creating a pipeline for TFA after those tutors graduate.
Last school year, more than 1,000 Ignite fellows worked as tutors in 74 schools, with many signing up for both the fall and spring semesters. About half of the 2022-23 fellows who were college seniors then applied to the corps and were three times more likely to be accepted for this coming school year than other applicants, according to a spokesperson.
“Early engagement is critical for us,” Petersmeyer said. “I think people need to be able to really try on the idea of teaching after college.”
Over the past year, the organization also retooled its recruitment strategy so that local chapters are more deeply involved in bringing candidates on board, Petersmeyer said. TFA has also given candidates more agency to choose where they teach to foster a greater sense of belonging, she added.
And the organization has adjusted its training and onboarding process. TFA spokesperson Natalie Laukitis said in an email that corps members now receive three weeks of virtual training focused on teaching content, classroom management, and how to create an equitable and inclusive learning environment. Then, corps members undergo at least three weeks of practicum, in which they work directly with students under the supervision of a TFA employee.
The recent shift to a virtual model has provided a consistent experience across the national corps and has given members access to grade-level and subject-area content-specific training, which had been a common request, Laukitis said.
Throughout their two-year commitment as teachers of record, but especially in the first 90 days, corps members work with an instructional coach for feedback and development.
The politicizing of what is happening in schools and in classrooms makes it very challenging to recruit.
TFA leaders are hoping that the more support they provide their members, the longer they’ll stay in the classroom. The recent RAND study found that TFA Indy teachers left teaching earlier in their careers than non-TFA teachers, often once their two-year commitment ended—a finding echoed in previous research.
Even so, when accounting for the negative effects of the higher turnover, the RAND researchers found that hiring a TFA Indy teacher resulted in a net-positive effect on student achievement.
“I don’t feel that school districts are particularly worried about the turnover rate,” said Tenika Holden-Flynn, the executive director of TFA Indianapolis. “We are not immune to the fact that there’s a teacher shortage.”
Also, “we think about ourselves as a talent agency,” she said. “When you look across the city of Indianapolis, you will see amazing teachers in the classroom that are part of Teach For America, but then also, ... you’ll see people leading in many adjacent organizations as well. I think people understand that all of that work leans toward helping us produce more positive results for students in our city.”
The RAND study found that in the 2021-22 school year, non-TFA members were about 27 percentage points more likely than TFA Indy members to stay in the classroom for year three, and 37 percentage points more likely to stay in year four. Holden-Flynn said the chapter has focused on providing more support for its members in recent years to close that gap, with some early signs of progress.
The national organization also offers a two-year fellowship program for high-performing alumni in certain cities, including Indianapolis. Fellows must have at least three years of teaching experience and be dedicated to “sharpening their skills as teachers.” The goal is to help those alumni stay in the classroom for longer, Holden-Flynn said.
In the wake of teacher-supply challenges, the organization is focusing more on that type of alumni support. Petersmeyer said out of the 50 communities with a TFA chapter, only 38 are currently receiving first-year teachers. In the other regions, TFA is now focusing its efforts on supporting alumni still in the classroom or who want to take on a school leadership role.
“As our total corps size declined, we had to make some strategic choices about where to place a more limited group of first-year teachers,” she said. That decision, she said, took into account “what other offerings Teach For America could make in pursuit of goals with communities, beyond teachers.”
For example, Teach For America San Diego is now focused on strengthening the leadership skills of alumni to build the pipeline of more diverse school leaders. (Nationally, 62 percent of the TFA corps identifies as people of color, Petersmeyer said, compared to just 20 percent of the entire teacher workforce.)
Layoffs reflect the ‘external uncertainty’
Teach For America has been moving toward a decentralized model for several years now. The broader challenges in education have required it to become even more streamlined, said Rachel Tennenbaum, a TFA spokesperson, in an email.
That meant having a “smaller and more agile” staff, she said. In December, the organization told its staff that it would reduce its staff by about 400 positions, Chalkbeat reported, resulting in a new team of 1,000 staff members.
Tennenbaum said some of the positions that were cut were already unfilled, and other positions were transitioned into new roles, for which employees could apply.
Experts note the organization is also operating in a new policy landscape than it was during its peak in the early 2010s. That was the era of teacher accountability, when many in the field thought that focusing on teacher effectiveness, both through recruiting new talent and holding teachers responsible for classroom results, would improve schools.
And many policymakers and researchers wanted to shake up the status quo of public schooling with the kind of innovation Teach For America promised. The idea that bright-eyed, smart young people could enter underprivileged classrooms and make a substantive difference was particularly appealing at the time, experts said.
“A big part of TFA’s success in the particular moment that it came to prominence is that it aligned with the beliefs and assumptions that dominated the education community,” said Jack Schneider, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the history of education reform. “Those beliefs and assumptions have changed on both the left and right.”
Said Lyon, the public policy professor: “There’s a change in the way to how we think about the solutions in education, and less of a willingness to put all the blame on teachers as there was 13 years ago.”
That said, the need to attract new groups of people into teaching is still pressing, she said. Lyon also noted that TFA hit its peak during a time of economic uncertainty following the Great Recession of 2008, when the organization was able to offer reliable jobs to new college graduates.
“If that’s the case again, I think you could see another TFA expansion,” she said, referring to forecasts that another recession could be on the horizon. “And this time around, they’d be better equipped to expand more rapidly if there was interest.”
An ambitious goal for the next seven years
Teach For America’s long-term goals remain ambitious: By 2030, the organization says, twice as many children in communities where they work will reach key educational milestones indicating they are on a path toward economic mobility and a future filled with possibility.
What that looks like will vary based on each community, Petersmeyer said. But the strategy will be in part informed by the RAND finding that corps members were substantially more successful when they worked in schools with five or more TFA-affiliated peers.
“We’re working on how we can have more density of talent that we’re providing to schools,” Petersmeyer said, naming college tutors, corps members, alumni who stay in the classroom, and alumni who go on to school leadership roles.
“We are very focused on supporting schools to reach key learning outcomes and key outcomes around student wellness and belonging,” she continued. “We think Teach For America leaders have a big role to play in all of that.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as Once a Big Player, Teach For America Tries to Regain Its Footing