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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Options Open, Top Graduates Line Up to Teach to the Poor - New York Times

Options Open, Top Graduates Line Up to Teach to the Poor - New York TimesOctober 2, 2005
Options Open, Top Graduates Line Up to Teach to the Poor

Lucas E. Nikkel, a Dartmouth graduate, wants to be a doctor, but for now he's teaching eighth-grade chemistry at a middle school in North Carolina, one of nearly 2,200 new members of Teach for America.

"I'm looking at medical school, and everybody says taking time off first is a good idea," he said. "I think I'm like a lot of people who know they want to do something meaningful before they start their careers."

For a surprisingly large number of bright young people, Teach for America - which sends recent college graduates into poor rural and urban schools for two years for the same pay and benefits as other beginning teachers at those schools - has become the next step after graduation. It is the post-college do-good program with buzz, drawing those who want to contribute to improving society while keeping their options open, building an ever-more impressive résumé and delaying long-term career decisions.

This year, Teach for America drew applications from 12 percent of Yale's graduates, 11 percent of Dartmouth's and 8 percent of Harvard's and Princeton's. The group also recruits for diversity, and this year got applications from 12 percent of the graduates of Spelman College, a historically black women's college in Atlanta.

All told, a record 17,350 recent college graduates applied to Teach for America this year. After a drop last year, applications were up nearly 30 percent. Teach for America accepted about a third of this year's Ivy League applicants, and about a sixth of all applications.

Teaching doesn't pay much. It isn't glamorous. And the qualifications of most young people going into the field are less than impressive. A report by the National Council on Teacher Quality last year said the profession attracts "a disproportionately high number of candidates from the lower end of the distribution of academic ability."

But then there's Teach for America, whose members typically have top academic credentials - the average G.P.A. is 3.5 - experience with children and determination to get results.

Teach for America officials see their recruiting success as a sign of the post-9/11 generation's commitment to public service, and to improving the quality of education for low-income children. "The application numbers we're seeing reflect college students' belief that education disparities are our generation's civil-rights issue," said Elissa Clapp, Teach for America's vice president of recruitment and selection.

Many corps members talk passionately about the importance of education, and the need to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. But part of Teach for America's allure is that it's only a two-year commitment and a way to put off big life decisions, like where to live and what career to choose, decisions that people in their 20's are delaying ever later in life.

"I don't think very many of my peers know what they want to do," said Nathan Francis, who graduated from Yale last spring, was accepted to Teach for America, but declined the offer because he was unsure that he could be a good teacher for disadvantaged students after nothing more than the group's summer training. "A lot of people who just graduated are looking for things to do, so it seems very appealing to have something to do that's worthwhile and short term and gives you two more years to think about your career."

In fact, Yael Kalban, who helped organize campus recruiting as a senior at Yale last year and now teaches second grade in the Bronx, said that even a two-year commitment was daunting to many of her classmates.

"We'd tell people we thought they'd be great, and they'd say they didn't know if they were ready to commit two years," she said. "So we would get alums to come in and say they'd done Teach for America, and now they were in medical school, law school or architecture school, and that those two years weren't that much, and had actually helped them get into those schools."

Although more than half the Teach for America alumni remain involved with education, often in administrative or policy positions, many of the applicants do not plan a long-term teaching career. In fact, many also interview for competitive jobs with investment banks and management consulting firms.

"This is a generation that thinks a lot about keeping their options open," said Monica Wilson, assistant director for employer relations at Dartmouth. "For students who want to look for an alternative to the corporate world, Teach for America offers a high-profile alternative. They put on a real strong marketing blitz, and they are very much a presence on campus."

Rachel Kreinces first heard of Teach for America as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. She had been thinking of going straight to law school, but after starting a writing program for middle-school students in Philadelphia, she was intrigued by the prospect of teaching for two years.

After taking a five-week training program over the summer, Ms. Kreinces is teaching sixth-grade special education students at P.S. 123 in Manhattan, arriving at 7:30 a.m., prepared to offer as many tutoring hours and after-school meetings and gimmicks as it takes to help them learn. Before school started, she bought gold envelopes and cut out round "I'm a champion" medals for each student.

"In training this summer, we watched videos of this incredible teacher," she said. "He had this 'Mission Impossible' theme going, and his kids were clamoring for more homework and we were all sitting there thinking, 'How can I be this kind of teacher?' and my idea was this Classroom of Champions. I want so much for these kids to do well."

Teach for America grew out of a senior thesis by Wendy Kopp, a Princeton student, proposing a national teacher corps. Ms. Kopp quickly got seed money from Exxon Mobil, then, with a small staff, began a grass-roots recruitment campaign that yielded 500 fledgling teachers, who were placed in six regions in 1990. Teach for America has grown rapidly, with backing from corporate partners, philanthropists interested in education reform and Americorps, which provides the teachers with $9,450 after two years, to repay education loans or to pay for future schooling. Since 2001, the group has benefited from the same surge of interest that has brought record numbers of applications to long-established groups like the Peace Corps.

Teach for America is a growing presence in many school districts, including New York City, which has about 800 Teach for America members this year, twice as many as last year. All told, Teach for America has about 3,700 teachers - 2,190 in their first year and 1,520 in their second - teaching in 22 areas, from Los Angeles and Baltimore to the Arkansas Delta and the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The group only operates in regions certified as high need by the federal government and willing to employ teachers who have not yet earned certification.

As much as anything, Teach for America is a triumph of marketing. The group, based in Manhattan, recruits on more than 500 campuses nationwide and spends about a quarter of its nearly $40 million budget on recruitment and selection. The vast bulk of its members come from 141 top schools where it hires students, at about $500 a semester, to help organize recruiting events and act as headhunters.

"It's very intensive recruiting, to meet the goals Teach for America sets for us," said Mike Kalin, who was one of the Harvard recruiters his junior and senior years, and now teaches in the South Bronx. "Some of my friends might have thought I was a little too intense my first year. There were some individuals we really wanted to go after because we thought they'd be great. It helped that the class president, for the previous two years, had joined Teach for America."

It has also helped, on all campuses, that Teach for America now has a track record: An evaluation last year by Mathematica Policy Research found that Teach for America members produce slightly higher math achievement and no worse English results, than other teachers. And a June 2005 evaluation by Kane Parsons & Associates found that 63 percent of the principals in the schools where they work regarded Teach for America teachers as more effective than the overall faculty.

However, a study of Houston student achievement released earlier this year by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and others found that although Teach for America teachers performed as well as other uncertified teachers, their results did not match those of certified teachers. Teach for America officials contend that the study was flawed.

While most parents do not know that their children are being taught by Teach for America members, some New York City principals say, they love having Teach for America members assigned to their schools.

These days, Mr. Kalin's intensity is being poured into his American history classes.

"I'm having trouble sleeping, but I'm really enjoying it," he said. "It's frantic but fun. Classroom management is the hardest thing for me. I've learned that the minute I turn my back, it's a volcano in the classroom, so I won't be turning my back anymore. There's three other T.F.A. teachers in my school, and we're getting through it together."


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