Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 22 2012

Attrition Still at 11%?! Blame Recruitment, Not Institute

Gary Rubenstein points out that the attrition rate has not declined over the past twenty years, and uses this fact to conclude that institute has not really improved over time. I think framing our discussion of institute in this way misses some of the bigger goals and weaknesses of TFA.


As many CMA’s pointed out to me, the goal of institute is not to prevent corps members from dropping out. It is instead to provide them with the skills and mindsets so that they have the capability of becoming successful teachers so along as they are continually reflective and take positive steps to improve upon their weaknesses. Moreover, many of those who dropped out of TFA this year in Detroit did so not because they did not have the appropriate skills or mindsets, but rather because they realized that teaching took a personal toll on them that they decided they would not be willing to sustain for two years. On the contrary, lacking appropriate mindsets and skills often translates into spending less than average time on teaching/planning as a result of having a lower bar for excellence or diminished belief in your power to transform. I would instead measure the failure rate of institute by identifying the percent of corps members who are coasting on mediocre results—no longer putting in the time or effort to improve their practices.


But let’s go back to that attrition rate, because certainly it is a problem. Of course, having an 11% attrition rate with a corps of 5000 is quite different from having an 11% attrition rate with a corps of 500. Scaling educational training and support is a very difficult and complex task, so I am impressed that TFA has managed to grow by ten times without an increased drop in retention. That being said, I come from a region where the attrition rate is closer to 25%, so I have seen first-hand how destructive it can be. The problem though, I believe, is not institute, but recruitment.


I went to Wesleyan University, one of the many schools at which TFA frantically recruits.  Unfortunately, I have as a result seen the effects of TFA’s immense recruitment machine. It starts with a wave of faux-personalized emails to anyone who has ever stepped foot in an organization on campus about how they believe our unique leadership skills make us extraordinary candidates for TFA. The email concludes by imploring us to attend a personal meeting or information session with the recruiter. If you don’t respond after a week, another more vigorous email will be sent, begging you to at least sit down for a brief discussion. Some of my friends recount third and even fourth rounds of unsolicited emails. The meetings are similarly persistent, and convinced many ambivalent students to at least apply. I have no idea how TFA pays their recruiters, but the car salesmen-like persistence made the cynic in me feel like their salary was in some way dependent upon the number of applications their schools turned in.


I understand why TFA does this. The more people they recruit, the more selective they can be, thereby improving the admitted pool of students.  But I think this is a deeply flawed approach. First, (and admittedly this view is a bit self-centered) there was the embarrassment of hearing all the seniors at my university laughing at either how desperately TFA wanted them (liberal arts students have a tendency to earnestly believe those telling them how special they are), or recruits in general (for those who realized their emails were not so personalized). More importantly, TFA is disregarding the fact that self-selection may be the most important factor in who has the potential to become a successful corps member.  I would contend that corps members who had no desire to join TFA (or even enter education) until their local recruiter inculcated them with compliments, flowering depictions of the likely impact they will have, and vague statements about how TFA is hard but totally manageable are extremely at risk to drop out when the reality of teaching begins to hit them. Despite the warnings from the rest of the world, it’s hard for many successful college graduates to envision and emotionally prepare for the difficulty, exhaustion, constant failure (at least at first), and lack of a life and sleep that will define their first year. If you’re not ready for that kind of lifestyle, even the highest quality of institute training will not keep you in the corps.


Maybe I’m totally off-base here as someone who had fairly realistic (if not overly pessimistic) expectations of TFA from the start, but I would love to hear if others who remained or quit had this same experience from TFA recruiters.



10 Responses

  1. eminnm

    I had fairly realistic expectations of TFA too, I think. But I also think my college’s recruiting process was similar to yours. I wasn’t recruited–I knew what TFA was, did my research, and decided to apply 2nd deadline before the recruiters sent any emails, which I think gave me a more big-picture outlook. A friend of mine was a student campus recruiter, though, and he said that he was increasingly pushed by his TFA staff boss to recruit even people who realistically would not be accepted (i.e. who didn’t have the grades) and felt really uncomfortable with that. It does seem like a numbers game sometimes.

    On another note, I was asked to phone conference with the new recruiter from my college (the old one left) in October as a first year CM. I basically told her that I was happy to talk to people who were applying or to be on webinars, but that I would tell them what I perceive as the truth: TFA and teaching are incredibly hard, you will not succeed as much as you wish you did, but if you work harder than you ever have before, you have the potential to make an enormous impact. Which is still rosier than it could be, honestly. But I never heard from her again. Guess it wasn’t rosy enough :-)

  2. CCCrazy

    I would go a level higher and not blame recruitment, but rather the senior leadership in TFA that has an undying desire to continually grow TFA.

    I am currently a CCC at a Big Ten school, and we are encouragedto contact EVERYONE to come apply to TFA because TFA excessive growth cause us to be less selective with our applicants. Being less selective requires that applicants not self-select, because if we left it up to applicants to self-select, we wouldn’t have enough applicants. This causes us to select people who, sometimes, don’t have their whole heart in it

    • yoteach

      Of course you’re right: you cannot really blame people for doing their jobs if they are expected to recruit with such rigor. Do you really think we wouldn’t have enough applicants if we mainly left it up for them to self-select, or perhaps cut the number of emails sent by 80% or just planned more general information sessions? The acceptance rate may double or triple even, but would that be so bad? Again, I think the people who would base their decision of joining TFA on the competitiveness of that rate shouldn’t apply.

  3. Emmanuel Parello

    I think that you hit on a good point in this post. TFA’s expansion driven model means that it prioritizes quantity over quality with recruitment. It really does make me wonder if recruitment directors get bonuses based on the number of applications that they get.

  4. Gary Rubinstein

    Great post. I think, though, that the institute is where TFA is supposed to use all their experience as a ‘teaching’ organization to teach their population, whoever they consist of, how to be teachers who will not quit. Just like when any teacher has a class with students of different ability levels, TFA has to factor who they have — with different levels of commitment and ability — into how they instruct them.

    You mentioned that it is not just about survival, but that TFA wants people to go above-and-beyond that. But perhaps there is a way that quitters can be turned into survivors while the dynamos can be life changers? It’s all about differentiation, so I still see this as an institute problem.

    I never knew about any of these issues surrounding recruitment. Very interesting to learn of another way that TFA creates the illusion of success (50,000 applicants for 5,000 spots, therefore the recruits are all superior.)

  5. BallerinaMathematician

    I agree. Even beyond the recruitment stage however, is the stage between being accepted and agreeing to join. For me, that was overkill. Suddenly I was overloaded with phone calls and emails from people in my region, people at my school, alums, etc. whose whole purpose was to congratulate me on my TFA acceptance and then babble on about how great it is and oh, have you accepted the offer yet? I actually stopped answering my phone, because I felt it was unnecessary pressure. I was going to accept the offer, and I told everyone that, but the calls didn’t stop until I did. I just needed some time to consider the reality of my decision.

    As a campus recruiter, my salary was not tied to how many people applied, although it was a constant pressure to “increase the numbers.” I do know that once you’re not just a campus intern and actually on staff, you can get bonuses tied to how many people you convince to apply AND accept the offer. And that’s where this pressure comes in. I had two friends get into the 2012 corps. One accepted, and one did not. And I think it was completely the right decision for both of them. However, their recruiter was extremely upset about the one who turned it down, and did everything he could to convince her otherwise. I think that’s totally wrong. If someone doesn’t want to be a CM, making them do it is the best way to get them to drop out.

    • Adi

      “I do know that once you’re not just a campus intern and actually on staff, you can get bonuses tied to how many people you convince to apply AND accept the offer.” I know I’m way late to the party (my perusal of TFU is not exactly linear), but aside from agreeing with most of the rest of the post and comments here, this particular statement is not accurate and seems like a pretty important misconception to correct. I know bc I work in recruitment. :-) Curious–did your boss tell you that or how did you get this impression?

  6. You are absolutely right, but don’t forget that the pressure doesn’t let off many applicants until they are fully signed as corps members. I applied with relatively minimal recruiting because I applied early. However, after I got my placement I did not respond immediately. I had deep reservations about my region and subject matter and how they would help or hinder my success. I began not only receiving emails but phone calls multiple times a week from regional staff and recruiters. I hit a breaking point when a recruiter sent me an email with quotes from my application, along with a commentary that I essentially was a hypocrite unless I joined. I joined, became a terrible teacher, and quit after 6 months.

  7. I wonder what TFA recruiting looked like earlier in TFA’s lifespan? When I joined there was no recruiting at my school – I don’t think they were recruiting at state schools at all – so I don’t know what it looked like at the universities where TFA was active. I found out about TFA by doing an internet search looking for alternative teacher certification programs, which is kinda funny in retrospect. I only realized at Induction what I had gotten myself into :D

  8. Interesting post yo teach! I know of several people who have left at some point over the course of the year, but I didn’t think we were at a 25% rate. I guess I’m also not sure where exactly to look for the numbers either…

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