THE BLOG
09/18/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

What Goldman Sachs Tells Us About Teach for America

Last week, Goldman Sachs announced that it would scale back its two-year analyst program and eliminate the bonus at the end of the two years. This comes as a shock to many college seniors and forecasts a potential trend among college-hire programs in other companies. More importantly, it also provides a new perspective on a completely different organization, Teach for America, and how we can fix it.

Among college seniors, an analyst position with Goldman Sachs is often regarded as a golden meal ticket to a successful future business career. It pays well and looks good on a resume. The same could be said about Teach for America, minus the money. Both programs carry with it a certain prestige sought by frantic college seniors on the verge of graduation. This has little to do with what each college senior might want to do with the rest of his or her life, but only with the general pressure associated with scrambling to find some resemblance of security.

Before becoming officially initiated as a college senior, I had little idea of what that pressure might be. Before this stage of my life, everything had been somewhat planned. After elementary school, there's middle school, then high school, and finally college. But after college, the world becomes a scary place. No one is quite sure of what to do. The crutch that we had held onto for so long suddenly disappears. If you look closely into the eyes of a college senior, you will see a certain fear: the fear that we might finish college and still have no idea what we want to do with the rest of our lives. A fear of failure.

So most college seniors turn to our most basic instinct, what has helped us succeed for so long, and what we have in many cases been taught to excel at: competition. Among business-oriented individuals, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley become the Holy Grail. For those who are ideally opposed to investment banking, but don't yet want to go to graduate school, Teach for America becomes the goal at the end of the tunnel.

Both paths become a competition.

For some companies, this is a good thing. It means that they get to reap the best and the brightest. This is, for example, how marketing and consulting companies sustain their stream of innovation. Fresh ideas come from fresh minds. If what a company wants is something as simple as a brilliant idea, this is a great model. The company might lose time and investment in training a new employee, but if the idea that the employee generates for the company in the meantime is worth more than the loss, the company doesn't lose too much. However if the company needs to develop the employee before he or she can become particularly useful, the company takes a huge loss when the employee decides to leave at the end of the two-year contract.

For industries that need a more sustained commitment, such as Teach for America and (now) investment banking, the instinctual competition among college seniors becomes a huge problem.

Because the college senior mad dash is instinctual, few of the decisions that college seniors make is actually dependent on whether the job fits or not. Most of it depends on prestige, much like how high school seniors made their college decisions. As a result, what college seniors finally decide to do at the end of our senior year is not necessarily what is best for us or for the companies that hire us. It is most instead what is often most prestigious.

Goldman Sachs has realized this. Though their analysts work long and hard hours, the training and investment that Goldman Sachs places in the analysts far outweighs what the analysts might generate in two short years. After the college senior mad dash dies down, few analysts actually want to continue working for Goldman Sachs or in investment banking. So Goldman Sachs and other firms on Wall Street are scaling back the program to individuals who might actually stay longer than two years.

Teach for America (TFA) faces a similar problem. The college senior mad dash help Teach for America generate a large group of idealistic college seniors, ready for change. However few students realize what it means to teach in a low-income school. Though Teach for America has tried to teach skills and give resources to help the college seniors, one summer of Teach for America academy is not enough. The lack of compatibility between TFA teachers and the jobs that they are assigned to do results in a downward spiral that ultimately damages what TFA aims to accomplish.

The reason that both Goldman Sachs and Teach for America target the best college seniors for recruitment is because the best students are believed to be best equipped to overcome the obstacles that they will face. In one of the few studies that TFA have publicly published, they found that a teacher's success in the classroom is strongly correlated with Grade Point Average. However, that cannot always be the case. Not every person with a high GPA is suited for teaching. As a result, college senior mad dash will inevitably recruit students who are ill suited for teaching.

Teach for America is attractive to college seniors mainly because it is idealistic and is meant to generate public good. Unlike Goldman Sachs, whose prestige comes from the salary and bonus that they hand out to analysts, TFA's attractiveness is based on college students' general opinion about the organization. Therefore when TFA teachers do not accomplish the good that they are sent to do, simply because they are not suited for the job, it damages TFA's image. This in turn damages TFA's ability to attract the top students who are best suited for the job.

As the quality of Teach for America's applicant pool decreases, so will the applicants that they recruit. As the quality of the teachers that TFA recruits decrease, so will the quality of the program, and as a result, its prestige, which in turn affects the quality of recruits. This creates a feedback loop that is ultimately detrimental to Teach for America as an organization.

In order to stop this downward spiral, Teach for America must decrease the number of teachers that it takes on so that the commitment and quality of the recruits can be assured.

The two-year noncommittal model of recruitment is amazing for attracting high-achieving students in the college senior mad dash, but it is not sustainable for jobs that require a long-term commitment. Just like Goldman Sachs, Teach for America should scale down their two-year program to concentrate the resources that they have to ensure the best quality of teachers they can provide for the U.S. educational system.

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