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Diversity on the Rise Among TFA Recruits

Fully half of Teach For America's 5,300 crop of new recruits identify as people of color, the organization announced today.

The focus on diversity is a deliberate move by the organization, which changed some of its recruiting techniques in order to have a more diverse pool of applicants. According to its figures, 47 percent of the new teaching corps received Pell Grants, which are meant for low-income college students; 33 percent are actually coming from graduate school or with professional experience, and 22 percent identify as African-American.

For comparison's sake, in 2013-14, 39 percent identified as people of color, 39 percent were Pell Grant recipients, and 23 percent were professionals or grad students.

Teach For America invests quite a lot in refining and studying the attributes of candidates who are successful. As I've previously reported, there's some evidence tying TFA's selection measures to better student achievement, though this calculus remains relatively imprecise.

For this year's cohort, the organization put a heavier emphasis examining the impact of each applicant's experiences in low-income communities, and on their ability to attain goals they've set. 

Meanwhile, the percentage of the U.S. teaching force tends to be overwhelmingly white and female. The percentage of teachers of color, at 17 percent, is far lower than than proportion of the student population that is minority—in fact, the U.S. Department of Education expects that this year, the country will pass an important milestone in which more than half of all public school students are minority.

Scholars have theorized that teacher diversity is important because teachers of color may be able to serve as role models for their students and better adjust pedagogy to help reach them. But teacher-certification programs—both traditional, university-based ones and alternative ones—have struggled to identify, recruit, and support minority candidates into teaching. 

TFA's more-diverse teaching force is unlikely to stem some critics' claims that the organization sends unprepared teachers into high-poverty classrooms. And for years, the organization has been accused of not being sufficiently sensitive to communties of color.

But the focus on issues of diversity shows that TFA is taking those criticisms to heart and trying to engage more with the communities it serves, said Christina Torres, a former social-media community manager for TFA, who is returning to the classroom this spring. And partly, that's because the demographics of the organization's own staff have also changed.

"Issues of diversity—gender, orientation, class—we talk about it now," she said. "As individuals of color move up higher in the organization, we're realizing that we have to make sure we're not seen as this white organization that acts as a savior."

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