Doing Well By Doing Good: Corporate Brand Teaching

In the old days, people who did things for love of their community, for idealism, or for a cause they believed in, were in it just for that. They deserved the respect they got. Today, volunteer work has been festooned with all kinds of goodies, and, not unnaturally, it’s drawing people more interested in the goodies than the good. And not unexpectedly, the king of “doing well by doing good” –  Goldman Sachs – is in the thick of it.

From Chicago Maroon:

“A college student’s experience is full of all sorts of wonderful little ideals of learning, free thinking, nurturing hopes, and developing skills to help change the world. The popularity of youth service programs reinforces the commitment to those ideals. A new study on Teach For America—the two-year teaching program aimed at eliminating education inequality by sending its corps of young people to revitalize struggling schools across the nation—could challenge our expectations of the program. The study, “Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach For America,” written by Stanford professors Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt, shows that those who complete Teach For America are actually less active in areas of civic involvement, charitable giving, and even voting than those who dropped out of the program or declined their acceptance. At the University of Chicago, where Teach For America is the second-largest employer of graduating seniors, this may strike an unfortunate blow to the reality of our ideal.

Teach for America itself is not doing badly by any means. They’ve had record numbers of applicants for the past two years, with a 70 percent increase in applicants from 2006, and a very respectable applicant class at that. Eleven percent of all Ivy League graduates apply to Teach For America, and 14 percent of UChicago’s class of 2009 applied. Corps members can proudly boast a 3.6 average GPA, and 1344 average SAT score, and 89 percent of them held leadership positions at their universities. The top schools from which TFA draws most of its members are among the most elite in the country, including Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Columbia University, Northwestern, UPenn, Boston College, Brown, William and Mary, and Princeton.

The focus on achievement and the elitism of the institution, however, may in fact be a force against them. Compared to grades and commitment to leadership, commitment to public service among applicants is practically reversed. Only one in 10 members say they were interested in the teaching profession before joining TFA, and the incentives applicants receive to take part in the program place a real doubt on their commitment to teaching beyond the experience. Teach for America is eager to note its “partnerships with more than 200 graduate schools” that “offer a range of benefits for corps members and alumni,” as well employer partnerships with Accenture, GE, Goldman Sachs, Google, J.P. Morgan, and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Though reputable education institutions such as Edison Schools, KIPP, and Wellstone Action are also listed, there is an obvious imbalance in the set of partnerships that cannot be ignored in light of the imbalance of both applicant goals and alumni experiences.

“The confusing thing is why are these things offered if they really do want to do this so people will become committed to teaching,” says Billy O’Connell, a fourth-year Classics major in the college who applied to TFA, but was not accepted. There is a common, if unspoken, understanding that participation in the program provides a beneficial platform for future graduate, law, or med school plans, as well as lucrative career goals. Especially at UChicago, where our heavily academic tunnel vision seems to inevitably drive us towards graduate education, these kinds of benefits are especially pertinent. The program’s design likewise appeals to those looking to avoid the current difficult, and particularly terrifying, job market. Not only is the TFA experience highly respected among employers, it provides a convenient two-year paid solace before entering the real world. “I think, in comparison to other programs, it is much more elitist and some people, even if they don’t admit it to themselves, are going through with it because it gets you all these great connections,” O’Connell stated in a recent interview. “By putting all these extra corporate incentives out there, what they do is get people interested in the corporate incentives.”

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