Teaching turning into a rest stop on the MBA highway

April 29, 2011: 2:57 PM ET
Classroom led by a TFA corps member during the...

Classroom led by a TFA corps member during the 2008 Houston institute. (Photo: Carnavalet/Flickr)

A growing number of business and economics majors are heading into teaching, joining programs like Teach for America. Who benefits? 

By Gary M. Stern, contributor

FORTUNE -- An increasing number of business, management and economics majors are replacing their briefcases and spreadsheets with blackboard and chalk. Facing difficulty finding work and needing time off to consider graduate school options, some of these business majors have found a temporary place in the classroom: teaching in public schools for Teach for America. But does it benefit the schools, and what effect does it have on the other teachers?

In the last five years, Teach for America, the non-profit organization that trains teachers and places them in classrooms across the country, has seen a spike in applications, from 19,000 in 2006 to 48,000 in 2010. The non-profit is also seeing a rise in interest from business, finance, HR, management and economics majors. Recruits with these majors accounted for 7% of all TFA teachers in 2006, which rose to 10% in 2008 and 11% in 2010. Social science majors -- a category that includes psychology, history, and sociology -- account for 31% of the TFA teaching force, making it the most represented category of majors.

Modeled on the Peace Corps, Teach for America (TFA) participants make a two-year commitment to teaching in underserved neighborhoods. Many become math or business educators but might wind up teaching other subjects based on the needs of local school districts.

Despite the fact that most leave after their two-year commitment, these business majors "push students academically, set strong foundations and help students overcome any deficit. That's as important as someone staying for 15 years in the classroom," says Chante Chambers, a Washington, D.C.-based managing director of recruitment at TFA.

During an eight-week intensive training program, TFA teachers learn how to write lesson plans, manage a classroom and teach in summer school under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Employee partnerships with firms such as Deloitte, Bain & Company and JP Morgan Chase (JPM) enable first-year staff to defer their jobs and spend two years with TFA.

Lauren Hammond, a 24-year-old with a B.S. in business administration from Fordham University, is in her second year teaching math at Siliciana Middle School in southern Louisiana, where about 90% of students receive free lunch and the student population is 90% African American and 10% white. She's fallen in love with teaching. She has put business on the back burner and accepted a position for next year in New Orleans at KIPP, a network of charter schools. Asked how she will pay off her undergraduate loans on her $36,000 a year salary, she replies, "Slowly."

Hammond says that she has made good use of the business skills she gained at college.  She's brought a data driven approach to school-wide testing. She helped create an Excel spreadsheet that analyzes students' test scores to determine where they need extra help.

And her communications classes have helped her tailor her conversations with different students and parents. In her view, business and education aren't very dissimilar since both are "results driven."

The downside of letting biz majors loose in the classroom

Not everyone is thrilled with the movement of business majors into education. "If they're moving into teaching because of the lack of opportunities in business, that's not the right motivation," says David Ritchey, executive director of the Association of Teacher Educators.

While a business major's math knowledge is helpful in the classroom, many do not receive the same preparation as education majors, many of whom spend a semester student teaching and learning from master teachers. Teacher preparedness is critical to doing an effective job in the first few years, and just when these bright, young college graduates are getting the hang of things, many return to their business track.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and an expert in teacher education, says that business specialists who enter teaching are a mixed blessing and that they could benefit the system as long as they're well prepared. "If not, the lack of that tool kit will matter to student success and their [teacher's] attrition," she says.

In fact, a 2010 joint Education Policy Research Unit and Education and the Public Interest Center study cited that 80% of Teach for America staff leave after the third year. The report said, "TFA teachers have not made an explicit commitment to teaching, in contrast to individuals who complete college-recommended teacher education programs." The report labeled their two years in teaching "a stopover."

Harvard's Project on the Next Generation takes issue with those findings and reports that 61% of TFA's corps teaches for at least three years and 36% stay in teaching for more than four years, explaining that the joint report failed to take into account teachers who stay in the field but change schools.

Those who can't teach… lead?

Business graduates who go into teaching may produce better results in educational leadership roles than in the classroom. "Having two knowledge bases in a leadership role can be a net gain," says Darling-Hammond.

Indeed, Education Pioneers, an Oakland, Calif.-based non-profit, offers a summer 10-week fellowship program that trains 330 graduate students to become educational leaders such as heads of charter schools and non-profit organizations and finance directors. Of its 2011 fellows, 37% were MBA students.

"We see a desperate need for people with private sector experience that can bring their skills to urban education," says Scott Morgan, CEO and founder of Education Pioneers.

The fellows program attracts graduate students that have managed multi-million dollar budgets and have overseen global teams, and can transfer those skills into public education. Public education needs MBA students who are not tied to the educational bureaucracy and are more likely to embrace change, Morgan says.

One such change agent is Jimmy Henderson, who at 27 took a break from working as an analyst at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to earn an MBA and master's degree in education from Stanford University. After graduating, he joined Education Pioneers and took an internship at the non-profit New Leaders for New Schools.

After returning for six months, Henderson resigned from BCG in 2009 -- repaying much of the cost of his master's degrees to the firm -- and spurned the chance of becoming a partner and earning a lucrative salary to become COO at E.L. Haynes Charter School in Washington D.C. The independent school has 800 students, 65% of which are African American, 25% Latino, and 10% white and Asian.

An alumnus of a rural high school in Rome, Ga. with a 55% graduation rate, Henderson is on a mission to help students that don't have access to a quality education. "That was more important than making half a million dollars," he says.

As COO, Henderson uses the operations, HR, finance and data analysis skills he developed at BCG in his work at the charter school. He manages a staff of 15 people. He introduced performance reviews and staff development to boost productivity, and closed two real-estate financing deals worth $12 million to renovate and expand the charter school.

Henderson says that he feels rewarded by the impact his efforts have on children and how he can take "the best practices from the business world and [apply] it to education."

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