TFA: A Corporate Approach

Teach for America's recruitment structure simultaneously appeals 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.
By Michelle B. Timmerman

"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.”

But they recruit aggressively “for a good reason,” Tony continues. “It’s effective. It works.” And they have other firms pulling for their applications.

“Harvard students,” says Mike W. Heffner, Manager of Recruitment at Harvard, “have so many options. A lot of them are on the banking and consulting track.” So as seniors compete for jobs, he competes for them.

“I don’t have the resources to throw a huge event at the Sheraton,” he says, earnestly. “But I do have passion for my students and a desire to make sure they have

the passion[ate teachers] they deserve. I can meet with people all day long and send emails and that’s all in my control and those are the levers I choose to use.”

Iris W. Tian ’11, who is in her first year teaching the ninth and twelfth grades in Houston with TFA, has heard TFA criticized because, purportedly, it tries to “get everyone” regardless of whether or not they are committed to education. Though Tian sees a flaw in this critique— “I think that’s not necessarily true because they’re really selective,” she says—she also thinks it has validity: given that selectivity, “ Why are you trying to get anyone to apply when you know that if they’re not that into it they won’t get accepted? Why do you need all these people to apply? I guess it is a numbers thing.”

In other words, it looks good for TFA if 18 percent of the Harvard senior class applies.

What would Annasstassia Baichorova, Heffner’s predecessor and manager, say to a student frustrated with TFA’s persistent recruiting? “I would obviously want to apologize to anyone who is turned off,” she says. “In the end we don’t have a machine or computer that does it. It’s us really feeling passionate about we do.”


“As a true leader on campus, your insight into our campaign is incredibly valuable and she [Anasstassia] would love the opportunity to talk with you regardless of whether or not you see yourself getting directly involved with Teach For America.” —an email from Christa Luft, Recruitment Associate for Teach For America.

It’s been less than a month since Heffner arrived on campus. Five days a week he walks from his home on Museum Street to the new two-level Starbucks, where he sets up his laptop, sends emails, and waits. He has a favorite chair—it’s to the right of the stairs and near the elevator, and it’s the best fit for his 6’ 7” frame. The Starbucks employees know him. He’s a fixture. Every day, 10 to 15 different students come to speak with him. They know his name, but when they reach the top of the second floor stairs, they are looking for his water bottle. The students are here because Heffner is a recruiter, and Heffner is here because he believes in TFA.

Heffner’s job, like that of Baichorova, is to encourage and convince Harvard students to apply to TFA.

“When I think maybe the student I’m talking to should go on and not defer medical school,” Baichorova reminds herself otherwise. For many students in America, including her former classroom of third graders in the Bronx, deciding between medical school or other employment is “not a choice” they get to make.

Part of TFA’s recruitment success story can be attributed to Kopp’s “innocent arrogance”—a characteristic noted by her thesis advisor at Princeton. This enthusiastic naïveté, characteristic of TFA’s overcome-all-obstacles outlook, describes the national teaching corps as much as it does the founder herself. It may be both TFA’s greatest boon and blunder—the quality that catalyzed its inception and has instigated its success.

But it also has incited a negative response from some. In 1994, four years after TFA’s start, Linda Darling-Hammond, a renowned professor then at Columbia University’s Teachers College who has since moved to Stanford, published a searing criticism of TFA in the education community’s premiere academic journal. TFA almost crumpled then, under exacerbated financial constraints and negative public debate. She called the organization a pit stop, a revolving-door trip into and out of teaching. She dismissed Kopp’s well-intentioned involvement as a “frankly missionary program,” which she deemed a band-aid on the American education system’s most deeply rooted problems.

Heffner defends the hours he spends in Starbucks, sending emails, “When I go home and go to sleep and am dead tired, I think about my kids and why [I] do this.” Unlike some of the “people who work for Bain or McKinsey,” who provided Kopp with the inspiration for his job, Heffner says, “I’m not in it because they pay big bucks. I’m in it because my kids need high quality teachers.”


“You have the best education in America. Your country needs you.”—an email from Mike W. Heffner, Manager of Recruitment for Teach For America.

“This link to Harvard Law School’s website will give you a sense of the respect law schools have for applicants coming out of the corps experience.”—Michaela Grosso, Manager of Recruitment for Teach For America.

TFA is the first of its kind: a “twenty-first century hybrid,” writes Donna Foote, author of Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America. It’s one-part machine, one-part corporate engine, and one-part army—“an organization with the soul of a nonprofit and the brains of a Fortune 500.” But in adopting the brains and tactics of consulting firms, has TFA lost its soul?

TFA moves in sync with its partners in the financial sector. According to the 2011 senior survey, published in The Crimson, “the percentage of [Harvard] seniors surveyed entering finance and consulting fell from 47 percent in 2007 to a low of 20 percent in 2009, when Wall Street firms slashed hiring in the midst of the financial crisis.” Applicants to TFA jumped from 24,718 in 2008 to more than 35,000 in 2009. Since 2006, the number of seniors exiting Harvard to TFA has more than doubled.

The program is now as competitive as the nation’s top colleges: last year only 11 percent of 45,000 applicants were accepted into the Corps. And in 2009, Business Week ranked TFA as the seventh best place to launch a career. By the numbers, TFA can compete.

“TFA’s company is a monster in terms of what they can do,” says Kristen E. Logan ’12, a TFA applicant and campus campaign coordinator. A moment later, she laughs, “that’s probably not the best word to use.”

Whether she realizes it or not, by distinguishing TFA from the “company” of TFA, Logan picks up on a distinction that strikes at the heart of the discomfort many seniors feel when they think about the organization’s recruitment strategy.

“In the long-term the model works,” asserts Tony. “But in the short-term you get some weird kinks.”

These “kinks” are especially apparent on the very campus TFA recruits with such rigor. If not yet self-sustainable, the TFA brand is big, and the net cast by recruiters is wide.

“If [TFA] is still relevant in 20 years, they won’t have to recruit as hard as they do,” says Tony. “They won’t be sending those obnoxious emails, ‘if you don’t apply to TFA, a child will die.’”

TFA plays to a survivors’ guilt of sorts: you survived the American education system. You’re at Harvard; you’ve thrived. And you owe it to your country to help those who can’t. Here, they’re unique among their corporate counterparts—that’s a pitch Goldman can’t make.

But between close ties with large corporations—TFA was listed alongside Google and McKinsey & Co. as one of the initial recruiting partners for the Harvard Business School 2 + 2 Program—and emails that reinforce the organization’s close ties with Harvard Law School and other prestigious graduate programs, it wouldn’t seem unlikely that some are attracted to TFA for reasons

other than education and philanthropic engagement.

Anthony C. Hernandez ’12, President of Harvard Students for Education Reform, took issue with some applicants’ motivations for applying to TFA. “You’ll often hear seniors say they want to do Teach For America,” says Hernandez. “Rarely do you hear people say they want to teach.”

Jacob J. Cedarbaum ’12, an editor on the Crimson’s Editorial Board, says that TFA is his first-choice job post-Harvard because, like Hernandez, he is interested in a career in education and service. “But I also get the sense that there are some people looking for something that’s fairly prestigious to do right out of college, which is kind of frustrating,” he adds.

Baichorova disagrees. She maintains that over her three or four years of recruiting, during which she has spoken with hundreds of students, she met “maybe three people who shared that sentiment”—that were interested in TFA for embellishment of their resume.

She gives two reasons for why she believes Harvard students apply only out of genuine interest. First, Baichorova says, “You go to Harvard. You don’t need TFA on your resume to get the job you want.” (Seniors struggling to find jobs might provide a counterpoint.) Her second point, however, is more persuasive: TFA is damned difficult, and to do that job to strengthen a resume would be foolhardy.

But Heffner isn’t worried about recruiting the “wrong” seniors—his job is to make as many people who could be a good fit as interested as possible, he says.

Tian recalls her initial concerns during TFA’s training, as she met “people only [doing] this to pad their resumes or get into med school or law school.” But Tian believes that someone who seems the wrong person before they start teaching may be the right fit by the time they end. “Two or three years in, [I can tell] it changes people in a good way; even if they do end up going into law school or med school, their perspective on life is so much different that it is making the world a better place.”


“Teach, and no matter what you choose to do with the rest of your life, you will always know that you spent two years doing something irreproachably impactful.” —an email from Michaela Grosso, Manager of Recruitment for Teach For America.

Teaching has tended to attract weaker pools. In 2004 the National Council on Teacher Quality reported that education draws a “disproportionately high number of candidates from the lower end of the distribution of academic ability.” In 2004, the average combined SAT score for college-bound seniors was 1026; for those intending to major in education, it was 965.

According to TFA’s program, great students—and great leaders—make for great teachers. So Heffner meets with students from Harvard and MIT all day long. Harvard and MIT attract some of the best and brightest students in the world. But how does a good student make for a good teacher? Of all the debates surrounding TFA, defining the qualities of a great teacher is the most resounding, relevant, and unresolved.

A 2009 PBS NewsHour segment on TFA follows the story of five first-year TFA recruits. One, from Princeton, struggles for her first semester; her students even create a petition to get her fired. Another, a Yale graduate, never learns to control his classroom. In the end, the former succeeds, learning quickly in the classroom, improving her students’ grades and earning their respect and admiration. The latter leaves after a year, when the school at which he works does not ask him to return.

“I made great gains with my kids between where they were at with their peers in [the more affluent] Palo Alto,” recalls Heffner, never dropping the possessive when he refers to his students. “Had I shared the same racial background or experience growing up, I would have been more effective because they would have seen me as a role model. I saw other people have an extra impact.”

Ninety percent of the students in classes taught by TFA are children of color, says Heffner. According to Baichorova, 35 percent of 2011 corps members self-identify as people of color; 31 percent received a Pell Grant or identify as coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds; 22 percent are the first in their families to graduate from college.

But does the same hold true for those from Harvard? No, says Baichorova. In fact, the diversity is stronger in the corps that comes from Harvard than in the national breakdown. In socioeconomic diversity, agrees Heffner, TFA is aggressively over-representing the racial breakdown of the Harvard student body. The numbers hold true: in 2009, 35 percent of African-American seniors at Harvard applied to TFA. (TFA does not release the number of those who were accepted.)

All things being equal, relates Heffner, race is not factored into the admissions process. Fit, though, is, and people who have grown up in communities similar to those they will be teaching in make for a better fit.

Simpson, who joined TFA years ago, like many, worries that TFA’s system may be missing the point. “Something they’ve also done, inadvertently I think, but just through their focus on the recruitment of talented candidates, there has been an exaggerated focus on what it takes to be a good teacher.”


Of that initial 18 percent of last year’s senior class that applied, 66 ultimately entered the corps. They’re now in classrooms from Newark to New Mexico, learning how best to meet their young pupils’ needs and answer their questions.

But is TFA’s training enough support for recent college grads, many of whom are idealists, possessed of the same “innocent arrogance” as Wendy Kopp, new to the trenches of the nation’s most under-resourced schools? Is two years enough of an impact—will teachers have really hit their stride? Will schools suffer from the, as Darling-Hammond calls it, “revolving-door introduction to education”?

No one really knows.

“One of the clearest findings from the research on teacher effectiveness over the past decade is that it’s very difficult to predict who will be an effective teacher before they enter the classroom,” says Assistant Professor of Education Martin R. West.

But scholars do think they've made it easier to predict what a person will be like when he exits. Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics Roland G. Fryer, Jr., recently wrote a paper, co-authored with William Dobbie, a Ph.D. student at the Harvard Kennedy School, which concludes that someone who enters TFA is more likely to stay in education, have an optimistic view about the power of education, and become more tolerant.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in the New Yorker, determining which bright-eyed student will be a strict, encouraging, successful teacher in the classroom is as difficult as pinpointing the star NFL quarterback from players in the college league. They’re entirely different ball games.


The Sept. 29, 2011 scrutiny, "TFA: A Corporate Approach," incorrectly stated that Robert M. Beren co-authored a paper with William Dobbie; he did not.

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