Teach for America, the education powerhouse that has sent thousands of handpicked college graduates to teach in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, is suddenly having recruitment problems.
For the second year in a row, applicants for the elite program have dropped, breaking a 15-year growth trend. Applications are down by about 10 percent from a year earlier on college campuses around the country as of the end of last month.
The group, which has sought to transform education in close alignment with the charter school movement, has advised schools that the size of its teacher corps this fall could be down by as much as a quarter and has closed two of its eight national summer training sites, in New York City and Los Angeles.
“I want the numbers to be higher, because the demand from districts is extremely high and we’re not going to meet it this year,” said Matt Kramer, a co-chief executive of Teach for America. But, he added, “it is not existentially concerning.”
Last year, the highly selective program accepted about 15 percent of its applicants. Mr. Kramer said there were no plans to lower standards for the current year simply to yield a larger corps of teachers.
Some say the decline in applicants could point to a loss of luster for the program, which rose to prominence through the idea that teaching the nation’s poorest, most needy students could be a crusade, like the Peace Corps. Teach for America has sent hundreds of graduates to Capitol Hill, school superintendents’ offices and education reform groups, seeding a movement that has supported testing and standards, teacher evaluations tethered to student test scores, and a weakening of teacher tenure.
“We are sort of at 2.0 of education reform, and its future direction seems a little bit uncertain at this point,” said David M. Steiner, the dean of the Hunter College School of Education in New York.
Leaders of the organization say their biggest problem is that the rebounding economy has given high-achieving college graduates more job choices.
“It’s so different from three years ago, where suddenly you have candidates that may have an offer from Facebook and Wells Fargo and an offer to join the T.F.A. corps, and clearly, the money is going to be radically different,” said Lida Jennings, executive director of the Los Angeles office of Teach for America.
Mr. Kramer dismissed the idea that the group’s philosophy was driving candidates away. “As I talk to people on campuses, it is not like the central thing I hear,” he said. “I don’t hear people say, ‘Oh, I hear this criticism and therefore I don’t want to do Teach for America.’ ”
Teaching in general has been losing favor. From 2010 to 2013, the number of student candidates enrolled in teacher training programs fell 12.5 percent, according to federal data.
But Teach for America’s belief that new college graduates can jump into teaching without much training, as well as its ties through prominent alumni to the testing and standards movement, may also be taking a toll, driving away the kind of students the program once attracted.
When Haleigh Duncan, a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, first came across Teach for America recruiters on campus during her freshman year in 2012, she was captivated by the group’s mission to address educational inequality.
Ms. Duncan, an English major, went back to her dormitory room and pinned the group’s pamphlet on a bulletin board. She was also attracted by the fact that it would be a fast route into teaching. “I felt like I didn’t want to waste time and wanted to jump into the field,” she said.
But as she learned more about the organization, Ms. Duncan lost faith in its short training and grew skeptical of its ties to certain donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, aphilanthropic group governed by the family that founded Walmart. She decided she needed to go to a teachers’ college after graduation. “I had a little too much confidence in my ability to override my lack of experience through sheer good will,” she said.
Founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, a Princeton University student who proposed the idea in her senior thesis, Teach for America started as a kind of civil rights crusade, with 500 novice teachers in six regions across the country.
The nonprofit organization faced financial and management challenges during its first decade, but since 2000 had been growing its teaching corps by close to 20 percent every year. Ms. Kopp, who now runs Teach for All, a global spinoff initiative she founded, declined to be interviewed for this article.
With corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo and Comcast NBCUniversal, charitable contributions from the Walton family, and foundations overseen by the families of the billionaires John D. Arnold and Eli Broad, Teach for America now has 10,500 teachers in classrooms in 35 states and employs 2,400 people across its regional offices. Last year, it had revenue of $196.2 million.
According to Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and research organization, Teach for America trains more new teachers than any other source in the country. Last year, it recruited its most diverse corps yet: Minority teachers make up half of those currently in classrooms, and close to half of them come from low-income backgrounds.
Some school officials say Teach for America has been a vital pipeline for keeping classrooms staffed. In Warren County in eastern North Carolina, a poor rural district of 2,460 students, one in five teachers are Teach for America recruits.
“If we didn’t have them, we would really have some very serious problems,” said Ray Spain, the Warren County schools superintendent. “We just aren’t geographically in that area of the state where it makes it easy to recruit teachers.”
But as Teach for America grew, it became a magnet for criticism from teachers unions, education schools and some policy makers, who argued that sending enthusiastic but untested graduates to classrooms in some of the nation’s poorest communities with just five weeks of training would not produce great teachers. They also said the program’s two-year teaching stints brought instability.
Teach for America “was always going to have a half-life,” said Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which administers a training program for high school math and science teachers.
“It did wonderful things and attracted superb people to teaching and prepared a generation of leaders for the country,” Mr. Levine said. But, he added, that was not going to profoundly change schools. “Eventually, we’re going to get to the point of trying to fix the system rather than applying a patch,” he said.
Critics said that by legitimizing the short-term teaching stint, Teach for America made it easier for some communities to paper over the fact that low-income students were regularly stuck with inexperienced teachers.
“This is not just about T.F.A.,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to improve education for low-income and minority students. But “if you even raise the subject, you are somehow calling into question Teach for America.”
She continued, “It’s still a Band-Aid, even if it’s a better Band-Aid.”
In response to some criticisms, Teach for America has started providing fellowships to corps members who commit to more than two years. It has also begun recruiting college juniors so it can provide longer-term teacher training. At the same time, its ideas have spread, and there are now a number of alternate paths to becoming a teacher.
Charter schools, which receive public money but are run independently, are particularly reliant on Teach for America. At YES Prep, a charter network founded by a former Teach for America member, about 10 percent of all teachers in 13 schools are corps members; schools in the KIPP network, founded by two alumni, also frequently recruit new teachers from Teach for America.
Caleb Dolan, the executive director of KIPP Massachusetts, which oversees four schools in the Boston area, said that Teach for America was willing to debate with students who were unsure whether to join. “Ultimately, that willingness to engage will win over the hearts and minds of kids who should be teaching,” he said.
But on some campuses, students have started campaigning against the group.
“Teacher turnover really destabilizes a learning environment,” said Hannah Nguyen, a University of Southern California junior who aspires to be a teacher but has helped organize protests against Teach for America. “So having a model that perpetuates that inequity in and of itself was also very confusing for me.”