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.