TFA: A Corporate Approach
Why 18 percent of last year's graduating class applied to teach in America's worst schools.
"I will be on the second floor of the new Starbucks, right next to the Harvard Square T, sitting at a table with a Teach For America water bottle.”—an email from Michaela Grosso, Manager of Recruitment for Teach For America.
Eighteen percent of the Harvard class of 2011 applied to Teach For America. It’s not a hard statistic to find; a quick search yields results from The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other sources. Harvard, according to Teach For America’s website, contributes more students than any other college of its size.
This surprising statistic is the result of Teach For America’s aggressive recruitment strategy here: five individuals—a recruitment manager, a recruitment associate, and three student campus campaign coordinators—are responsible for TFA recruitment at Harvard. This recruiting team forms a tight unit, rigorous and thorough. They aren’t on the “front lines” of the fight against educational inequality, but they are essential to TFA’s operation. Per size, Harvard has more recruiters than any other college in the area but for MIT, which has an equivalently -sized team.
TFA’s recruiting strategy is inseparable from its mission. In 1989, Wendy S. Kopp was a senior in college, unemployed and looking for work. Her campus was “swarming” with investment banks and management consulting firms, she later wrote, so in December, Kopp applied for five jobs, including two at consulting firms and one at an investment bank. She was rejected by all. Even then, Kopp was interested in teaching, but no one would hire her. (Most teachers without a degree in education were customarily hired after Labor Day.) Kopp became increasingly “convinced of the need for a teacher corps that would recruit as aggressively as the investment banks and management consulting firms,” she wrote in her book, “One Day, All Children...”. In April 1989, Kopp turned in her 177-page senior thesis to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Service: “An Argument and Plan for the Creation of the Teachers Corporation.”
The aim: the most gifted graduates in the country would dedicate their first two years out of college to helping the most under-resourced students. Some would stay in education; some would enter other sectors but remain agents for social change and education reform. But unlike other organizations with similarly lofty aims, TFA would make teaching in low-income communities attractive to the most distinguished college graduates by “surrounding it with an aura of status and selectivity.” Kopp once said she wanted admittance to the Corps to have the same cachet as a Rhodes Scholarship.
In so structuring TFA’s recruitment, Kopp simultaneously appealed to students’ altruism and more selfish concerns: earning something competitive, and also commendable. At Harvard, where recruitment is even more aggressive than at most colleges, students are taking the bait.
“I am reaching out today because I was impressed to learn of your role as ________, which demonstrates your distinguished leadership at Harvard.”—an email from Christa Luft, Recruitment Associate at Teach for America.
Approximately 300 members of the Class of 2011 applied to TFA; 66 joined TFA’s ranks. In other words, roughly one fifth of students who applied joined the corps. The TFA matriculation rate at Harvard—those who apply, are accepted, and commit—is nearly double the 11 percent acceptance rate nationwide. Assuming that some students who are accepted by TFA do not take the job, Harvard’s acceptance rate is possibly even higher than 20 percent.
As the numbers suggest, TFA’s recruitment at Harvard is intense, and intentionally so.
“It’s a self-reinforcing thing,” says Tony, a TFA applicant in the Class of 2012 who requested that his name not be printed so as not to bias TFA against his application. “The only reason Harvard looks good is because if everyone thinks Teach For America is a big deal, it will become a bigger deal.”
But it wasn’t always so. Beth A. Simpson ’99, a lecturer on education and Director of the Harvard Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, was a former TFA corps member at a middle school in Durham, NC. She recalls only one TFA-hosted event during her time at Harvard—maybe 25 people attended. As best as she can remember, only four students from her class joined TFA upon graduating.
“It was a table at the career fair, at the edge of the fair, and not too many people were there,” she says, describing how she first encountered the organization on campus. “...[T]hat’s what TFA looked like through my eyes.”
Current seniors don’t have to wait to find TFA on the periphery of a career fair across the river. Seniors, and in the spring, juniors too, especially those in prominent leadership positions on campus, receive communication from TFA frequently, electronically, and at length—largely by email after email after follow-up email.
“Teach For America is trying to create a quality brand by recruiting quality applicants,” says Tony. “We [Harvard students] are competitive; we’re legitimate. Quality builds quality.”