Why I Didn’t Choose TFA

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons.

On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves.

Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations.

Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals.

By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain.

As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators. Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education.

By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field!

Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize?

I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals.  If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist?

I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits? The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America.

In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.

  • Excerpt from one of my BTR essay responses is below. The question was something along the lines of “Why BTR?”

    In thoroughly researching various alternative teaching entry programs available to career-changing professionals, Boston Teacher Residency has consistently stood out. While larger, national programs, such as The New Teacher Project and Teach for America, often grab headlines for their work in transforming education, these programs lack the rigorous teacher preparation and holistic investment in the local community that I believe are fundamental and necessary to effect truly transformative change.

    I am impressed at how Boston Teacher Residency has actively incentivized immersive, Masters-level training in advance of school placement, as well as the honest and effective commitment to long-term teacher retention. Furthermore, I believe that it is important to consider the source of an organization’s praise in addition to its content; the success stories about Boston Teacher Residency come primarily from teachers and principals, and only secondarily from politicians and corporations. This leads me to believe that Boston Teacher Residency’s positive reputation is based on what matters: 1) it’s relation to the school system and local community, and 2) the long-term success of the students that it educates.

    • Thank you Demian, I appreciate the re-post. Your blog seems quite interesting from my cursory skim… I will be sure to read through it in more detail when I get a chance.

  • Nalin, Boston Teacher Residency is an amazing teacher-training program, but it’s fundamentally different from Teach for America. Whereas TFA’s mission is to close the achievement gap by sending teachers to Title 1 (high-poverty, usually high-minority schools), BTR’s mission is to place high-quality teachers in Boston, without regard to actually placing them in needy schools.

    After their year of residency, BTR teachers are free to teach at whatever schools in Boston they want. Because it is such an amazing program, they are recruited by the top public schools – you can even see it in their website, where alumni are highlighted as teaching in Boston Latin, one of the top schools in the nation. BTR teachers end up teaching at schools which already perform above the Boston average and have a long line of great experienced teachers that would love to work there. Subsequently, BTR is more guilty of “replacing veteran teachers during a recession” by providing a cheap talent pool than TFA teachers who work in schools that other teachers wouldn’t want to work in.

    TFA wouldn’t be TFA if it sent its teachers to the best schools in the nation to teach middle-class and upper-class predominantly white students. Nor would it be TFA if the teachers didn’t get paid the first year, and instead had to pay out $10,000 dollars. BTR is amazing at what it does, and is proof that alternative certification can be done effectively, but it’s not exactly fair to compare the two programs when the stated goals are so different.

    BTR was already up and running before Boston Schools brought in Teach for America – the reason being precisely that BTR wasn’t geared towards closing the achievement gap and BTR teachers don’t teach in needy schools, but rather in well-resourced schools that don’t need them. Before you respond, please look up the % of BTR residents that work in Title-1 schools, and the % of TFA teachers that work in Title-1 schools, and publish it in response.

    • Wow, I didn’t think anyone was actually reading this blog… I confess to being somewhat unprepared for public comment.

      That said, thank you for adding these important distinctions to the discussion. I am in the process of trying to find the numbers you requested, and will post them if/when I do.

      In the meanwhile, I’d like to address a few of your comments with numbers that I could find.

      → In re: BTR residents serving in the top public schools for middle and upper class white students:

      I am not aware of the pedigree of the schools in the area, so I will take your word for it that some of them are highly desirable schools in which to teach. However, I am not sure your characterization of the schools BTR serves as a whole is accurate.

      Going down the list of high schools featured on their blog, and looking up the data on http://www.doe.mass.edu:

      Boston Community Leadership Academy: 27% limited English proficient, 16% special education, 7.4% white, 74.7% low-income.

      Boston Green Academy (Horace Mann Charter School): 13.1% limited English proficient, 24.5% special education, 13.1% white, 66.6% low income

      Boston Latin Academy: 1.1% limited English proficient, 1.6% special education, 28.5% white, 52.8% low income.

      Excel High School: 22.3% limited English proficient, 25.2% special education, 12.6% white, 80.3% low income.

      Fenway High School: 8.4% limited English proficient, 13.4% special education, 7.8% white, 69.3% low income.

      I’m also going to add the school in which we had Selection Day, which I know for sure is served by BTR, but for some reason isn’t on their website (not sure why)

      Jeremiah E. Burke High: 25.1% limited English proficient, 20.4% special education, 1.1% white, 75.9% low income.

      Ok, so going down that list, certainly Boston Latin Academy stands out significantly in terms of all the demographic numbers, and looks like Fenway also stands out a little bit … but you’ve picked the one example among the whole list that has anything close to those kinds of numbers, and even in that “best case” example, you still have over half of those students on free or reduced lunch, with almost three-quarters of the students non-white. Is that a school for “middle to upper class white kids”? It looks like I have a choice between several high-needs options here.

      → In re: Replacing veteran teachers during a recession.

      With both TFA and BTR, the exact numbers of this happening are hard to come by. But I think the key related point is retention. If this is happening at all, I’d much rather have the case of BTR’s 80% retained highly-effective teachers (since you agree that the training provided is excellent) than TFA’s 15% retained (the five-year stat) in the classroom replacing them. It’s a question of turnover. In one case, you (possibly) replace a veteran teacher with one who is well-trained and likely to stay for the long haul. In the other, you (possibly) replace a veteran teacher with one who is much less well-trained and highly likely to leave within the next few years.

      → In re: finances of preparation through BTR.

      It is true that my salary will go from something definitely not-zero down to definitely zero next year. It is also true that the cost of the BTR program is $10,000 plus around $5,000 for the M.Ed. through U Mass. However, there are three important mitigating factors which allow me to consider this as irrelevant. 1) The $10k is loaned to the resident and fully forgiven after three years of service in BPS (making it effectively zero if you stay for three years), 2) the $5,000 tuition to U Mass is completely covered by the AmeriCorps Education Award, and 3) On top of having zero effective cost of the preparation, residents are concurrently AmeriCorps service members, which makes them eligible for a $12,100 stipend during their residency year before becoming teachers of record.

      On the whole, a lot of this comes down to the questions of preparation and retention. Ok, so I’m a rocket scientist… that doesn’t mean that I am prepared to teach anything. I believe that I am coming in with exceptional content and contextual knowledge of my subject, and a huge passion for the field and its applications. However I fully understand that teaching is a profession that requires study and preparation, something that I do not think TFA properly provides. No, I haven’t gone through it to actually know first-hand, but that is my honest assessment based on what I do know from analyzing the program and from discussing the matter with people who have been there.

      Right now, I do not feel prepared to teach in any school, especially in the schools with the highest need. Why would I turn down a far more rigorous preparation program, which bears no additional cost to me and still gives me the chance to contribute back to high-needs schools, when I am very concerned about doing this well and doing this right?

      Thanks again for your comments, I do appreciate the discussion. You should know that I am not opposed to TFA in principle; if I didn’t think that there was the possibility of doing good through it, I would not have continued with the application process. I just think that there are serious practical concerns to be addressed with TFA’s approach, in the context of what I have concluded is most valuable to teacher entry programs. When I declined my TFA offer, I made sure to indicate that I would seriously have considered TFA in spite of my concerns if they increased the preparation period to at least six months (or a semester) and actively incentivized staying in the classroom beyond one’s service commitment.


    • I have yet to find the exact statistics you are looking for, but please post them if you find them before I do.

      I think we can very strongly infer what we are looking for from data I could find though. Consider the footnote on page 21 of “Investing in Student Success: Financing School-Connected Initiatives in Boston”, pdf linked at: http://www.fssroundtable.org/pdfs/Investing-in-Student-Success.pdf. The first sentence of footnote 22 reads:

      “In Boston, nearly all schools qualify for “schoolwide” Title I dollars, meaning that at least 40% of students in the school are low-income.”

      Doing a quick search for the ESEA, Title I, Part A on the ED website (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/titleiparta/index.html) confirms the 40% threshold. By this definition, even the most “privileged” example we have under discussion, Boston Latin Academy, would fall under Title I with a demographic that is 52.8% low income. I checked this via a lookup on Mass DoE (http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/general.aspx?topNavId=1&orgcode=00350545&orgtypecode=6&), which indeed shows that BLA is classified as a Title I school.

      This leads me to infer that nearly all schools in Boston served by BTR (and TFA for that matter) are likely to be Title I schools, and any comparison is probably moot on this point (maybe why it’s hard to find exact numbers on the original question).


  • I have to apologize, I didn’t do a good enough job of reading your initial post and have a better understanding now of where we disagree. I believe that you’re making a mistaken comparison between TFA and BTR – and the mistake became evident when you said “Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…” and I regret not addressing it then, because I had skimmed your post. Let me clarify something: the goal of TFA is NOT to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators.

    In this way (and a few other ways), TFA and BTR are fundamentally different, and a lot of the criticism TFA faces comes from a misunderstanding of this fundamental point. TFA and organizations like BTR have some things in common (both offer a non-traditional entry into the teaching profession, both have a rigorous summer institute program, both have a selective admissions process) but the similarities end there, and at the core they serve different purposes:

    The second you go on TFA’s website, you are bombarded with messages about the achievement gap in our country – statistics and personal anecdotes that explain how deeply unfair this gap is and how every child deserves an excellent education. Teach for America’s mission is to close this achievement gap through the long term impact of the leaders that it recruits into the corps. TFA teachers make up way less than 1% of all teachers nationally, so it’s clear that “One day all children will have access to an excellent education” isn’t going to happen because TFA has grown to 100 times its current size and is teaching all students. Rather, TFA hopes to use the conversations it’s been starting since 20 years ago and its alumni network to catalyze a change in the public education system that will lead the achievement gap to close, solving a major social injustice that plagues our nation.

    When you visit BTR’s website, there is virtually no mention of the injustice of the achievement gap or teaching as a pipeline into leadership that will solve a social problem. BTR’s mission, word for word, “is to drive significant student achievement gains through the recruitment, preparation and support of exceptional teachers in Boston. By placing an emphasis on preparation in the urban classroom setting and providing extensive ongoing support, BTR directly addresses the high teacher turnover rates that cost districts millions and leave students with inexperienced teachers.” In other words, BTR is a teacher pipeline – it’s an alternative way to train and retain teachers who will make an impact in Boston classrooms.

    Teach for America hopes to solve a major social issue by mobilizing a community of leaders to make an impact on the achievement gap – and TFA alumni make an impact in many ways. Some stay in the classroom and teach for dozens of years, some go to different classrooms and teach for dozens of years, some go on start nonprofits to address various underlying behind poverty/achievement gap, some go on to start charter schools that also serve those communities, some go on to become lawyers and provide financial support to those communities, some go on to run for office and advocate for students and equal access to education, some go on to start companies that provide educational services to those students, some go on to become doctors and volunteer time in those communities, etc, etc, etc. TFA alumni are responsible for the founding of KIPP, a charter network of over 100 schools, at TEP, a school that pays teachers $125k/yr in salary. TFA alumni are responsible for shining a spotlight on DC Public Schools, and changing the laws in Colorado so that teacher are evaluated in part on student performance. TFA’s belief is that CMs, after making an impact in the classroom, will each find their own way to work towards closing the national achievement gap and ending this great social injustice.

    BTR hopes to solve a relatively local problem of Boston Public Schools not having a great teacher training program. By providing a strong foundation and pushing for 3-year commitment, BTR hopes that its alumni will stay as teachers in BPS so that there will no longer be a shortage of high quality teachers. Ironically, the schools that BTR places in don’t have a shortage of high quality teachers, because those schools are above the median – this was what I was trying to get at earlier, but it was a mistake to bring it up, because its not relevant to the underlying discussion.

    By giving your post a title like “Why I didn’t choose TFA” (… and chose BTR instead being the implication) you’re basically saying that TFA and BTR are two version of the same thing, but BTR is structurally better. This is a misunderstanding. TFA is a program for leaders (of all ages, mind you) with a track record of success who are passionate about closing the achievement gap and want to start by giving a group of students (that would otherwise have no teacher or a permanent sub) the best education they possibly can, and then continue to fight against the social injustice that afflicts these students. BTR is a program for leaders who want to become career teachers and want to join a strong training program that will prepare them for success in the classroom they teach in.

    I’ll be the first to admit that BTR is a much better teacher training and retention program. But that makes sense, BTR’s goal is for 100% of its teachers to stay as teachers. TFA’s goal is to close the achievement gap. CMs that are passionate about teaching and wish to stay in teaching for a career are free to close the gap that way and are supported and celebrated. Often these alumni serve as mentor teachers to new corps members, and help provide continuity in the schools they serve. But CMs who wish to take another avenue towards closing the achievement gap through other venues are open to doing so.

    So, why is this important? Well Nalin, congratulations, just as I am a public representative of TFA, you are now a public representative of BTR and a loud voice in the education reform movement. The reason I found your blog post is because it was reposted by somebody who is very anti-TFA in another forum, and you can expect this post to be re-posted in many other anti-TFA forums out there. People will now be citing you as an expert as to why TFA is terrible and should be dismantled at all costs. Those who hate TFA will use your words to educate others who don’t know better, and use BTR as their justification to fight TFA tooth and nail.

    As I’m sure you know (since you are so well researched), TFA itself is incredibly receptive to feedback – the organization is deeply imperfect and goes out of its way to collect data and use feedback to make itself stronger on a year by year basis. Yet, there’s a difference between giving useful feedback that TFA and its alumni can use and outright attacking and undermining an organization that you’ve never worked for.

    Ironically (and I know this because I personally know Jesse Solomon, the founder and Exec Director of BTR), BTR and TFA don’t see each other as rivals. Rather, they see each other as partners in the education community, hoping to make an impact that will help our nation’s education system become stronger in the future. TFA learns from BTR, just as BTR has learned some things from TFA, and both organizations see each other as complements, not competitors, that do very different things. Just like all TFA alumni (I don’t work for TFA, btw, and I stopped teaching after 4 years), I’m very passionate about closing the achievement gap and very critical of TFA as an organization (there are so many ways it can improve) – if you still think that TFA is so terrible that you want to stand up in public as an anti-TFA voice, then I welcome the debate.

    • Thank you for clarifying your comment, and I appreciate the insight. I think you hit on the key point here: the metric by which I am evaluating the two programs is from my own standing on what I would like to accomplish in education.

      So here is a public clarification for those reading this post and its comment chain: As I’ve stated above, I do agree with TFA’s goals, but have determined that it’s methods are not to my preference for the reasons stated. My preference is quite strong, to the point that I have a distrust of TFA as an organization, but this does not extend to its mission or individual corps members.

      As we are both aware, the invective surrounding TFA on the web is quite strong on both sides of a much broader and tangled set of issues. I had no idea that this blog was being read and quoted so widely, or at all — posts have been to document my personal views as I go along this journey, and probably will remain so (though I will be more careful about my phrasing in the future).

      I have no desire to take sides in whatever turf battle is going on, mostly because I know that I cannot properly understand the issues at stake until I have directly experienced them. My goals are simple: Bring my passion for science and engineering to a classroom where it is most needed, be the best educator I can be, and see if I can make a fulfilling career out of it. I’m glad I made the choice that I did, and will stand by it for the reasons I have explicated above, bearing in mind that these are my personal metric of what I want in a program. I will also continue to call things as I see them, and most definitely invite you to comment and participate in any dialogue that ensues.

      I’m quite willing to acknowledge your position as legitimate, and perhaps agree to disagree on a few points. My goal is certainly not to convince the internet that I am right. (Has anyone ever succeeded in that anyway?) 🙂

      Thank you for the perspective.


      • It’s very understandable that you don’t agree with TFA’s methods, but I’m curious – why do you distrust TFA as an organization?

        • I’m sorry, but I don’t care to get drawn into a back and forth about TFA with you. There are plenty of other places on the internet where that seems to be a daily occurrence, and I don’t intend to add my blog to the long list of sites that encourage or flaunt it.

          I think I have been quite open to your perspective and have made a public clarification of my post to accommodate what points you made that I saw as sound. I also thanked you for your insight and offered to let it rest at that.

          Since TFA is not my path and the decision is behind me, I see no further purpose in belaboring the issue. This is not an anti-TFA blog… it is a blog that may on occasion mention TFA. And in this as with all issues, I will call it like I see it to the best of my knowledge and be open to new perspectives. That’s really about all I have to say on the subject for now.


  • Quick addendum: The title “Why I Didn’t Choose TFA” is due to the fact that this the question typically posed to me when I explain what I am trying to do. “Why didn’t you just go with Teach for America?” or “Is that like Teach for America?” I think the title is appropriate, since that was the motivation for explicating my reasons for making the choice I did.

  • Hello I work in education in NM and I just came across this post. First of all THANK YOU for writing this comparison. Secondly I think you should stick to your guns and not let TFA make you back down like this. You proved his first outrageous posting wrong and then instead of acknowledging it he completely changes his argument to something out of a TFA brochure and attacks you directly. Whenever anyone questions TFA in any way they think they can contain you find public image agents trying to bully differing voices down like this. I know you don’t want your blog to get nasty but my opinion is that when you have the intelligence and word smithing skills to nip this kind of thing in the bud, you should. Then on the other hand, I see you have the sense to be civil and that is something sorely missing from many education sites. That will help you in many ways. I pray people like you can stay positive in this field.

    Irregardless, I think people who are looking for a good entry into teaching AS A CAREER will find this post very useful, to know that there are other, maybe better ways to do that than TFA. People should not assume it is the only way just because it is big and has good PR. Thanks again.


    • Teresa,

      I certainly do not feel as if I am capitulating to a bully… I merely conceded the point that my comparison is based on my own personal metric of what I want in a program. Our TFA Alumni here has implicitly conceded a point as well, that programs like BTR would be better than TFA for those seeking to become long-term educators since TFA focuses instead on what they say is building leaders to close the achievement gap. TFA’s goals may be more aligned with someone else’s view of what they want to accomplish. Acknowledging what makes sense in someone else’s view is not a surrender, it is simply having a reasonable discussion.

      So, while I thank you for the supportive words, I have to say I don’t appreciate the ones which seem to provoke more divisiveness. I didn’t start this blog as a forum to hate on TFA or anyone else.

      Thank you for adding your views, and I hope you enjoy continuing to read the blog.


      • I completely agree that programs like BTR serve as better pathways into a career in teaching. BTR’s raining and residency model is far superior to TFA institute, and also better than anything the schools of education have to offer.

        I also know that BTR and TFA work as intellectual partners in the city of Boston, and am friends with the founder and exec director of BTR. Both organizations are on the same page.

        I’m not trying to pick a fight here, but I’m not just going to stand by while somebody attacks an organization I was a part of which serves a social mission that I strongly believe in. TFA has one goal – to close the achievement gap, because it’s downright unfair, unethical and immoral that kids from low-income backgrounds don’t get access to the same excellent education that middle and upper class kids get. This is something that me and Nalin both strongly agree on. TFA’s methods aren’t always the best, but it’s trying to get better and its heart is in the right place.

        There’s no conspiracy theory behind TFA, we’re not out to break the unions or hand over kids to corporations, we just want to close the gap. Nalin, you’ve spent the better part of your blog up to this point discussing your deep distrust and skepticism of TFA. When you declare to the public things like “I have a distrust of TFA as an organization” you should feel ready to engage in dialogue with someone who disagrees and back that statement up. I know you don’t want your blog to be about TFA (anymore), Nalin, and I acknowledged that by not responding earlier, but we both know that last thing our kids need is for teachers working towards the same social mission to undermine each other in public, or for representatives from BTR to be accusing TFA, one of their partner organizations, of foul play and being ‘untrustworthy’.


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