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June 30, 2009 12:09 PM Now, That’s Classy

By Avi Zenilman

N ext month, 1,000 of my closest friends and I will begin our senior year at Columbia. We will then enter a year-long panic about our futures. We’ll consider all the usual options. Wannabe lawyers will weigh medium-term futures as law students in Palo Alto or paralegals at Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Anthro and science majors alike will browse the full-page, color ads in the college paper from consulting firms like Bain and investment banks like Lehman Brothers. And then, of course, there’s Teach for America.

In “The Organization Kid,” a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article about Princeton undergrads, David Brooks admired the work ethic of elite overachievers. But he lamented their lack of purpose beyond finding “new tests to ace, new clubs to be president of, new services to perform.” Brooks had a point. As The Washington Monthly reported in 2002 (Joshua Green, “The Other College Rankings”), the nation’s best schools do a lousy job when it comes to directing their students towards community or military service. Too often, top students fall into high-status holding patterns—two years on Wall Street that’ll fill in time and resume space before applying to grad school. Short of a draft, how do you get the best and the brightest to serve their country?

Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder, seems to have figured out the answer. TFA enlists college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income, low-performing schools for about $40,000 a year. Its stated mission is to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” Like McKinsey in the 1990s, TFA has become a premium destination for elite students. Since 2000, its enrollment has tripled and its applicant pool has more than quadrupled. This year, 2,400 “corps members” will fan out into struggling schools across America. They’ll be propelled not just by the program’s earnest aims, but because TFA satisfies one of the Organization Kid’s most primal needs: prestige. Kopp has harnessed the culture of status-seeking to a greater purpose and turned national service into a resume-builder.

Kopp proposed the program in her 1989 Princeton senior thesis. At the time, according to her 2001 memoir, she was half-heartedly pursuing a job at Morgan Stanley. Her friends were headed to Wall Street because “they just couldn’t think of anything else to do.” So Kopp, who had managed a $1.5 million student group that organized conferences with corporate leaders, wrote to the CEOs of 30 major companies seeking money for her “movement.” But money alone doesn’t buy status. Kopp knew the only way to attract elite students was to “counteract teaching’s image as a ‘soft’ and downwardly mobile career.” “[O]ur goal was to appear selective,” she wrote. In 1996, six years after the program launched, she told The New York Times: “I’d like people to someday talk about TFA the way they talk about the Rhodes Scholarship.”

Teach for America recruits like a white-shoe investment bank. At schools across the country, it pays two or three “campus campaign managers”—seniors who hype TFA to their peers and scout for promising student leaders. The program also buys slick ads in campus newspapers. Perhaps because TFA rejects 80 percent of applicants (this year, there were a record 19,000), the survivors resemble prototypical overachievers. Their average SAT score is more than 1300; 95 percent have held campus leadership roles. Top feeders include Amherst, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Duke; in 2005, 10.4 percent of Yale seniors applied.

There are disadvantages to running a teaching corps like a two-year analyst program at McKinsey. In 2005, The Teacher Policy Research project found that, in New York City, teachers truly hit their stride after three years. Unfortunately, only 28 percent of TFA teachers stay that long (a lower percentage than other teachers, even after adjusting for school quality). Nevertheless, overall, TFA teachers perform as well as their non-corps counterparts in most areas and beat them in others (predictably, they always ace the certification test). In 2000, 92 percent of principals who had hired TFA students said that they’d welcome them back.

Some cities also offer teaching fellows programs, focused more on recruiting career teachers. But TFA remains the Harvard of national service. (Corps members I met talked about New York Teaching Fellows as a “great program!” in the same way Ivy Leaguers describe the University of Maryland as a “great school!”) Like any true elite institution, TFA’s prestige has become self-sustaining. Its alumni network attracts more members, and its reputation opens more doors. Top grad schools, like Yale’s School of Management, waive the application fee for TFA alums, while blue chip banks like Goldman Sachs recruit teachers at the end of their two-year stints. One alum told me that he was drawn to the program for “its networks inside and outside education.”

Avi Zenilman is Online News Editor of The New Yorker and is a former Washington Monthly intern.