Ohio's brain drain in action: a firsthand account from a Teach For America recruiter

Editor’s Note: Last spring Fordham released a report examining Ohio’s brain drain, Losing Ohio’s Future: Why college graduates flee the Buckeye State and what might be done about it (see here). We found that even though 88 percent of native Ohioans attending seven top universities are proud of this state, over half plan to leave Ohio after graduation. Among non-Ohioans, the reality is far worse—79 percent plan to go elsewhere after earning their degrees.

As an organization with deep roots in Ohio and a strong commitment to its future, we certainly weren’t happy to report that Ohio’s best-and-brightest college students are fleeing in droves, but the findings have spurred useful conversations among lawmakers, policy makers, and the general public about how - and why - Ohio needs to do a better job of retaining its top talent. As part of this continuing conversation, we invited Teach For America recruiter and Worthington, Ohio, native Courter Shimeall, who spends his days interacting with the state’s top college students, to share his insights on the relationship between Teach For America and Ohio’s brain drain.

I see the “brain drain” in action every day as a recruiter for Teach For America, a non-profit organization that recruits top college graduates from all academic backgrounds, trains them, and places them as teachers in America’s low-income schools. Because there is no Teach For America site in Ohio, an inherent part of my job is convincing talented Ohio seniors to leave the Buckeye State. On a given day, I meet with 15 to 20 of the top seniors from all majors at some of Ohio’s best universities in an attempt to convince them to do Teach For America and join the growing stream of talented students leaving my home state.

To understand how harmful this is to Ohio, it’s important to get a glimpse of the caliber of graduates Ohio loses to Teach For America-friendly states. Consider one of the students I recruited to TFA last year – J.T. Munch, a Cleveland native who attended The Ohio State University. As graduation neared, he contemplated staying in state to work in investment banking in the Cleveland area. As one of the top students in the Fisher College of Business, J.T. had several job business-related job offers in one of the worst economic downturns in our country’s history.

The business world was seeking his talents for the same reasons that Teach For America recruited him – he has a strong record of academic achievement, demonstrates strong leadership potential, and will be good at whatever he does. J.T. ended up joining Teach For America and is now teaching special education in New York City. He plans on being part of Teach For America’s movement to end educational inequity for quite a while and would like to stay in New York City to work in finance after he completes his time in the classroom. Had there been a Teach For America site in Ohio (like in his hometown of Cleveland), J.T. says it would have been his first choice.

Another student I recruited last year was Brooke Bockelman. Brooke is from northwest Ohio and was president of the Ohio Union Activities Board (OUAB) at Ohio State, the largest student activities board (in size and budget) in the country. Brooke managed a large executive board and millions of dollars in funding as a senior in college – a demonstration of leadership potential that Teach For America knows (from almost 20 years of experience) can translate into classroom success. Brooke was also an honor roll student. She considered law school but was swayed to do Teach For America, and now teaches elementary school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like J.T., she would have strongly considered staying in Ohio had there been a Teach For America site in-state.

J.T. and Brooke were two of the top graduates from The Ohio State University last year. While they are both quite impressive, they are representative of typical Teach For America recruits. To address educational inequality and serve our country’s neediest students, Teach For America realizes it has to attract extraordinary talent across the country, like Brooke and J.T. The average GPA for an incoming Teach For America teacher is 3.6; the average SAT score is 1327; and nearly 90 percent of incoming corps members held leadership positions while in college. We are getting some of our country’s most outstanding student leaders to teach in our nation’s neediest schools.

Unfortunately, losing this caliber of talent to other states represents more than just a loss of teaching talent for Ohio. Teach For America is also an incredible human capital pipeline in the long term. After the two-year classroom commitment, nearly two-thirds of our 17,000 alumni continue to work in the field of education, and many do so from influential leadership positions. Close to 450 alumni lead schools across the country, while more than 20 alumni have founded and continue to lead some of the country’s most innovative nonprofits.

In addition, a growing number of Teach For America alumni are pursuing careers in public service, including more than 500 who work in government, politics, or advocacy, and 26 who serve as a elected officials. Teach For America alumni include the founders of the highly successful KIPP and IDEA charter school networks, and the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, who is an Ohio native herself. (You can read Teach For America’s 2009 alumni impact report here.) Ohio thus loses out long-term by not attracting and retaining these dynamic leaders.

As an Ohio native who chose to return to my home state, I am acutely aware of our state’s brain drain. Ohioans need to realize that our state’s failure to open our borders to Teach For America contributes to this brain drain in both the short- and long-term. Last year Ohio was home to five of the top 60 contributing schools sending graduates into Teach For America and had more schools on Teach For America’s top-contributors list than any other state with the exception of California and Massachusetts. This is a sign that growing numbers of Ohio’s brightest students are leaving the state and devoting their time and energy to bettering communities elsewhere.

Brooke, J.T., and the rest of the more than 100 top seniors from the state who joined Teach For America in 2009 will do a lot of good during the next two years and beyond. Unfortunately, their home state could have benefited greatly from their services – especially considering that 2009 Ohio Achievement Tests results showing that in Ohio’s largest urban areas, only 57 percent of students were proficient in reading and only about 50 percent were proficient in math. While there is a chance some of these Ohio natives will return to their home state, the data bear out that it is unlikely.

All of this matters greatly for the state of Ohio. Ohioans should be worried that our most outstanding college graduates are leaving at high rates; and it is clear that the state needs to do a better job of prioritizing its efforts to keep its top talent. Teach For America is not the only way Ohio can do this, but it is one of the best ways to start.

by Courter Shimeall