With its high teacher cost, is Teach for America a viable option for schools?

There has been a steady decline in the enrollment for Teach for America. Girl Image via www.shutterstock.com

Teach for America (TFA), which has trained more teachers than any other US teacher preparation program, has been heralded by school districts across the country. But, a question being asked is whether the value of a Teach for America workforce matches its cost?

What has been of concern is that TFA has been showing a steady decline in its enrollment since 2010. Though the improving economy might play a role in this shift, factors such as the short-term commitment requirements of TFA members, the placement of inexperienced teachers in high-needs and hard-to-staff schools, and the increasing number of alternative certification programs, have all contributed to this drop.

As researchers involved in the “Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Excellent Teachers for High-Needs Schools” project, we have looked at many of the issues that are making TFA less attractive to school districts. This research is also based on our experience as teachers for elementary and secondary schools.

Is an improving economy the sole reason for declining numbers?

Started by Wendy Kopp in 1989, the goal of TFA was to provide high-quality teaching in some of the most troubled school districts. As a step towards that, young college graduates aim to participate in the scheme by signing up to a two-year teaching commitment, mostly for difficult-to-staff positions.

In the past, TFA has consistently received a large number of applications from graduating students. However, since 2010, the number of applicants and subsequently the number of corps members have decreased. As of January 2015, TFA applications were down 10% from the previous year.

So, what led to this drop in applications?

While these decreases can likely be attributed to the improved career opportunities in an improved economy, other factors have played an important role as well.

It costs schools more to hire Teach for America teachers. Teacher image via www.shutterstock.com

One, TFA teachers are expensive and cost school districts anywhere from US $4,000 to US $10,000 to hire in addition to their regular salaries and benefits. Districts who take advantage of TFA’s services have to negotiate contracts with the organization for non-refundable fees that they will pay each year of the two-year commitment for each teacher.

The fee – that could range from $2,000 to $5,000 per teacher per year – is largely dependent upon the bargaining power of the individual school districts.

TFA members have only a short-term commitment

Two, in many districts TFA teachers have not honored their commitment of staying for two years. TFA members commit to a two-year stay in one school. However, in many regions, anywhere from 6% to 22% of TFA teachers have left those placements after their first year.

The commitment required by TFA does little to help with the issue of teacher turnover in the difficult regions that they serve. It is estimated by some sources that 72% of TFA corps members leave the teaching profession within five years. This rate is higher than the national average of about 50% for high-poverty areas.

Three, TFA has been publicly criticized by teachers’ unions, teacher education programs, parents, and policy makers for placing inexperienced and less qualified teachers in the areas of the highest need.

These groups argue that the seven weeks of training that TFA members receive do not prepare them for the challenges of teaching, especially in the difficult school contexts.

As a result, many large school districts in regions such as Pittsburgh and Durham, among others, have decided to cancel their contracts with TFA.

Once school districts, who have historically called on Teach for America, decide not to renew their contracts, funds earmarked by TFA for recruiting and training future corps members, are decreased.

With more education services, TFA faces stiff competition

In addition to these factors, with more services for education being offered, the education market is changing.

For instance, the number of alternative certification programs, that offer a teaching license without completing a traditional teacher certification program, and their graduates have skyrocketed since the Bush administration first published their America 2000 educational strategic plan, widely promoting their use to meet the growing need for certified teachers.

It is commonly agreed that the number of alternative certification programs competing with Teach for America is high and becoming higher across the US. It is difficult for Teach for America to stay competitive in such a saturated market.

New accountability standards will increase costs further

Additionally, in 2013 the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) approved a series of new standards for teacher certification preparation programs that hold both traditional four-year university-based programs and alternative certification programs like TFA to the same standards.

Although these new standards are not expected to go into full effect until 2016, these standards will have a considerable impact on the recruitment, selection and assessment of candidates in the TFA pipeline. Additionally, CAEP will have stricter requirements on the level of transparency they have for stakeholders at all levels.

Finally, the increase in cost per TFA corps member over the last 10 years has been exponential. The February, 2015 Bellweather report documenting TFA’s growth found that costs per corps members rose from $26,200 in 2001 to $56,600 in 2015.

New accountability requirements will undoubtedly increase the cost even further, straining their current funding sources and potentially impeding future investments in their alternative certification program.

Like all other educator preparation programs, Teach for America will have to provide these additional data points to remain a viable option for future teacher candidates.