For years, top college graduates clamored to be accepted by Teach for America (TFA), the education juggernaut that sends thousands of new teachers to the nation’s neediest schools for two-year stints in the classroom. But after 15 years of steady growth, TFA may be losing some of its allure: applications to the program are down 10% compared with last year, and the 2014 total was 12% below that of 2013.
The falloff has much to do with the improving economy. During the financial crisis and recession, jobs were scarce for graduates of even the most elite universities. The selective TFA program offered a prestigious way to try out teaching without footing the bill for graduate school. Now that hiring has rebounded, TFA faces more, and often far-better-paying, competition for those top graduates.
But TFA, which since its founding in 1989 has been closely aligned with both the charter-school movement and the testing- and standards-based model of education reform, is also buffeted by the charged debate over public education. To TFA’s critics, the application drop is evidence that more aspiring teachers oppose its approach to reform. They argue that the way to fix ailing schools is not by packing classrooms with inexperienced new teachers but by providing higher salaries and better training programs for career educators.
Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of TFA, acknowledges that the “political vitriol” surrounding education reform is an issue. “There’s just so much more public controversy than we’ve historically contended with,” she tells TIME. A February report by Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that often works with reformers, found that public criticism of TFA has affected recruiting.
But Kopp points to the increasing competition for talent, especially among technology firms, as a more significant culprit. In the past, TFA could appeal to young people’s sense of idealism. These days, she says, deep-pocketed companies like Google are all about “‘making a difference’ and ‘changing the world’ too.”
This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.