If getting into teacher preparation programs were as difficult as gaining admission to law school or medical school, would education graduates be more effective teachers? Colleges and universities around the country have been under pressure to make their teacher preparation programs more competitive and selective, as the increased pressure for teacher accountability continues. Programs like Teach For America (TFA) offer an alternative to the typical teacher preparation programs.

Debates about teacher accountability have been widespread throughout the media, partially stemming from a proposal by the Obama administration in early 2012. The $5 billion grant, called the RESPECT Program, plans to reward states for improving teacher effectiveness in a variety of ways, including making teacher education programs more selective.

Colleges of education do not agree that simply making their programs more selective will produce more effective teachers. They feel that attracting smart and talented students to teaching is important, but good preparation is even more critical. Leontye Lewis, dean of the School of Education at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina and a selected member of a U.S.Department of Education panel to review standards for teacher prep programs, says, “High school GPA is a good determining factor for success in college, but it is not a determining factor for effectiveness in the classroom.”

One concern with emphasizing selectivity is that it could lead to fewer minorities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds that might not have excelled in high school. The importance of a diverse teaching staff is especially important in urban schools, where achievement gaps are clearly visible among students of different ethnic backgrounds.  Jane West, senior vice president for policy, programs, and professional issues at the American Association for Colleges for Teacher Education, says, “It’s very important to get minority candidates from and of the neighborhood where they will be serving students… They have skills related to cultural knowledge and being of the community that can be significant in how well they work with students.”

Teach For America is an alternative to undergraduate teacher preparation programs.  TFA’s mission is simply to provide an excellent education for students in low-income communities. The organization was founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp as an outgrowth of her undergraduate senior thesis at Princeton. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have reached more than three million children nationwide. Teach For America recruits a diverse group of leaders with a record of leadership and academic achievement. The new teachers work for two years in a low-income community. TFA provides intensive training, support, and career development, in addition to requiring the members to enroll in a graduate certification program while teaching. The program has become popular across the country. At more than 130 colleges and universities, over 5% of the senior class applied to Teach For America. Spelman College had 27% of its senior class apply, while 18% of Harvard’s seniors applied.