Jamie Locher had a rough time in Teach for America. She taught in a Baltimore high school.

Jamie Locher had a rough time in Teach for America. She taught in a Baltimore high school.

Even in the best of times, college seniors have to arm themselves with parent-ready responses to the stinging question: “What’s next after graduation?”

But for students like Claire Steinbeck, who are hunting for entry-level jobs in a down-market that launched the unemployment rate to 12.5 million in February, the answer does not come easily.

That’s why Steinbeck and thousands of others are crossing their fingers that they can reply, “Teach for America” the next time mom or dad drills them.

Founded in 1990, Teach for America (TFA) is a national organization that recruits graduating seniors to train and work as teachers in underprivileged public schools, while earning a master’s degree in education. With its stated aims to close the achievement gap and end educational inequity, TFA has long been a mainstay for altruistic collegians who have an interest in public service but aren’t quite ready to commit to a career path.

Many view the two-year program as the perfect way to gain work experience before pursuing a business or law degree, and that having it on a resume will strengthen their application for either.

But with dwindling career opportunities and ubiquitous hiring freezes, joining Teach for America’s ranks to close the achievement gap has never been more appealing.

“People are looking for things to buy some time before they look for a real job because they feel like there are no job opportunities out there,” said Steinbeck, explaining why so many of her peers at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., are increasingly interested in post-grad opportunities like TFA.

Applications to the program were up by 42% this year, with about 35,000 candidates vying for less than 4,000 spots.

On paper, and in this recession, it all sounds really good: a guaranteed two-year job, a partly subsidized master’s, and a unique chance to enrich the lives of disadvantaged students. But how many of these TFA-bound graduates will have a gratifying experience trying to turn hopeless dropouts into motivated learners like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds?

Results will vary, according to TFA alums. It could very well be life-changing. It could be a venture you regret. It could be a new vocation or it could be the reason why you never teach again.

They all agree on one thing though: a two-year tenure with Teach for America is very, very hard.

“Emotionally, it’s very draining,” warned Dwayne Bensing, a TFA corps member in his second year of teaching.  “Last year, I felt like I was failing at everything.”

TFA, while elated by the high volume of applicants this year, does not want to give the depressed economy all the credit for the program’s heightened popularity.

“We believe the increase can also be attributed to a growing interest among young people to engage in public service,” reported TFA rep Eva Boster in a recent email, “[and] the reputation we have developed among young people for achieving results with underserved students.”

But not all educators are convinced that Teach for America meets its mission of improving educational inequality. The corps of teachers they assemble may have the enthusiasm, they say, but not the skills or experience to temper the country’s poorest — and often most dangerous — school districts.

“We don’t have Doctors in America,” Stanford University professor Pam Grossman said to The New York Times in 2000. “There are places that are desperate for legal advice; we don’t send bright young graduates into the legal clinics.”

Dr. Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Columbia University, tends to agree.  While he commends TFA for its work initiative, he is dubious about the longevity of the organization’s impact on education reform.

“A program as small as TFA is relative to the size of the K-12 teaching force in the U.S.,” he said in a phone interview. “There are so many more teaching spots to be served by TFA.”

Pallas gets nervous when people advocate the ambitious non-profit as a long-term solution.  But he still thinks the program does a lot of good.

So does Lesley Young, a first-year graduate student at Tufts University in Boston. Young completed her two-year stint teaching fifth grade in the Mississippi Delta last summer, in a rural “cotton field” of a town that she said was her first choice of placement.

Living in such a tight-knit community offered plenty of opportunity for Young to get involved and know her neighbors, and despite the warnings otherwise, she felt adequately prepared and supported when she entered the classroom for the first time.

“Teach for America is very challenging, but there are a lot of practical skills to be gained and I didn’t realize how valuable they would be going into it,” Young explained over the phone. “I am organized. I have public speaking skills. I can take on a lot, and I wouldn’t have gotten that by spending a year abroad traveling in Europe or working in D.C.”

Kate Baughman, a TFA alum who is now in her fourth year of teaching at a charter school in the Bronx, was also very positive about her experience.

“I really appreciated TFA for its model and mindset,” Baughman said. “There is a lot of blame in education, but they taught me that at the end of the day, your only locus of control is yourself.”

Baughman is the ideal educator, one that Teach For America wants to clone, because her story is so marketable: She’s a driven Vanderbilt graduate who’s passionate about making a difference. Recruited to teach in New York’s needy inner-city school system, she found the day-to-day routine extremely trying but extremely rewarding — a period of great personal growth. And what’s more, she remained in the education field — a fate she shares with 60 percent of TFA alumni, according to Teach For America’s own statistics.

“I would recommend the program,” she concluded.

But TFA’s retention rate is hard to prove, according to Dr. Pallas.

“The only study that I am aware of that does bear on retention and attrition of TFA suggests that after the fifth year, fewer than 20 percent are still in the same school at which they started,” he remarked.

Regardless of the actual number, experts say that TFA corps members who do feel compelled to stay in education after finishing their initial two years become the vanguard of education reform. Anne Martin, a former TFA teacher with an M.A. in Education Policy from Harvard, can vouch for this. But she will be the first to admit that the program has its flaws, especially in regard to its organization. Her first year teaching in San Francisco was marked by plenty of tears and mishaps.  But the best legacy of TFA, according to her, is the network of alumni who survive their tenure wanting to do more.

“You take these college kids who come from privilege and expose them to this side of society and they are outraged,” she said. “Instead of law school or med school, they stay in the education field.”

That is what Martin did. She grew up in Baltimore believing that “public school” was a dirty word, and now works at a charter school in Washington, D.C. The greatest success stories that Teach for America puts forth are the ones with a similar narrative: The alumni who started charter schools of their own or run for political office touting education policy as a campaign goal.

But not everyone’s TFA experience leads to stories like these. Will Healey, a graduate of New York’s Fordham University, was as not as quick as Baughman to endorse the organization’s good will.

“A lot of people who are interested in applying call me up,” he said over the phone. “I give them the full run-through of what it’s like in the trenches. I tell them what Teach for America won’t tell them.”

He tells them, for instance, that you might end up in the Texas Rio Grande Valley instead of New York — your first choice. That you might be at a school with 17 other TFA corps members, not the average four, who are equally as clueless as you are. That you might be teaching English as a Second Language to seventh and eighth graders when you don’t speak any Spanish yourself.

“I had students who conversed with me almost exclusively in Spanish,” Healey said, bewilderment still in his voice.

The TFA administrators are guarded about testimonies like Healey’s, or the telltale account of his classmate, Jamie Locher, who quit her TFA gig at a Baltimore high school after only five months.  Her resignation followed an incident involving another teacher who was so repulsed by Locher’s novice status and method of teaching that he eventually snapped and assaulted her in front of her students. Locher recounted being forced into a headlock by a man twice her size in the hall outside of her classroom.

“I tried to be resilient all year because that’s what Teach for America tells you to be — you have to bend like a willow or make lemonade out of lemons,” she said..

After the attack, Locher sought the guidance of her TFA adviser in an effort to develop a plan of action. The adviser didn’t return her call for a week.

“I didn’t hear from her until after I decided to quit and leave Baltimore,” Locher said. “My cell phone rang as I was pulling in my driveway in Atlanta.”

Teach for America, wary that stories such as Locher’s could potentially hurt their recruitment, has enacted a policy that requires all corps members to sign a contract agreeing to not publish anything negative about their TFA experience while they are fulfilling their two-year commitment.

Dwayne Bensing is about to wrap up his two years of teaching in Philadelphia, P.A. — one of three cities that President Obama red-flagged in a recent address to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce because of its alarming high school drop out rate. Like many of his peers, Bensing’s time in Philly has been up and down — a test of his energy, emotional strength and sense of achievement.

His gripes with TFA are not unreasonable: He wishes that he hadn’t been tapped to teach social studies when he was earning his certification to teach science, and that the TFA Summer Institute training program had set more realistic expectations about lesson planning. Most importantly, he wishes that the advisers had been more encouraging of his choice to tell his students that he is gay.

But the second year of teaching has been much smoother for Bensing, who looks forward to starting law school at The University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

“On the positive side, I think TFA thinks hard about how it can be better,” he commented.  “They take feedback seriously and are always evolving their program.”

This, of course, will be welcome news to the 35,000 hopeful Teach for America applicants this year.