Andrew Gerst joined Teach for America and taught in Los Angeles schools, both public and charter. He has offered the following advice to TFA leadership:
How (I’d Like) to Fix Teach for America

For the last two-plus years, I’ve taught math in low-income Los Angeles public schools: first in the Los Angeles Unified School District through Teach for America, and later in a charter school. I have a prestigious degree, a master’s in education, and a minor in mathematics, and I’ve struggled more every single day of all two-plus years than at any other job I’ve ever had—an understatement. I feel I have had some successes, and some of our teachers have done very well. But I can say without doubt that Teach for America did not prepare the vast majority of my “corps members,” as our fellow teachers are called, and me to effectuate the long-term “transformational change” that the program strives for.

Rather than join the deafening cry of criticism over Teach for America—almost all of it, in my opinion, completely valid, and I hope it will continue—I’d like to try to offer some constructive comments on how I feel TFA desperately needs to change. I still believe in Teach for America. But if TFA doesn’t make these changes, or at least deign to publicly acknowledge its failures as school districts and universities around the country start questioning their relationship with TFA and stop hiring its teachers (Durham, N.C. stopped hiring TFA recruits in September; students and others have launched successful protests against TFA at Harvard, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Macalaster, and in the city of Chicago), I won’t be supporting TFA, or encouraging anyone to join it anymore.

1. Keep the two-year requirement. But make the first year a residency of mentorship and observation, not trial-and-error teaching.

Let me put this as simply as possible: Teach for America, you’re not teaching us how to teach.

Other programs do. It’s not 1990 anymore, and it’s time to catch up.

If I could go back in time, I would have in a heartbeat joined Aspire Teacher Residency or Match Teacher Residency—and not TFA. To me, it’s absolutely unquestionable that these programs—which both require a year of training and mentorship before releasing new recruits to the classroom—are better than TFA. In fact, I think the current Teach for America model may be considered literally illegal given its chronic inability to train effective teachers (see Vergara v. California, pending in court right now). That is to say: if we TFA corps members were held to the same standards as other teachers, we would not last very long.

Aspire, on the other hand, states that 95% of its graduates were rated effective or highly effective in their first year of teaching in low-income classrooms. That’s astounding. It’s hard to get solid numbers from TFA, but I can tell you that about 20% of my 200-plus fellow corps members in Los Angeles dropped out before even finishing their commitment. (A lot of people got fired. Others limped through. Countless alumni I encounter are bitter, though, yes, there are exceptions.) There’s no way 95% of us were effective or highly effective—if I had to estimate, I would guess the number was around 30% at best.

When I spoke with one senior TFA staff member about the residency model, the only objection the staff member seemed to raise was “cost.” As of 2013, TFA had a $350 million budget, according to CFO Miguel Rossy. If $350 million isn’t enough to train our teachers properly, maybe it’s time to change some priorities?

2. Acknowledge that classroom management is absolutely everything.

I refuse to read any education critiques by anyone who hasn’t ever taught full-time—because you have no idea about classroom management, or even what it really means. It means this: Your master’s degree is worthless if you can’t get defiant students to sit down. And a lot of the time, I couldn’t. It’s great that TFA emphasizes real talk on race, class, gender, and privilege. I say this un-ironically—these things are important. But those conversations need to take a backseat to the “teacher moves,” as Mike Goldstein of Match puts it, that make effectuating change based upon these very principles possible. It may not be very sexy, but I would much rather learn by spending a year watching a master teacher get 45 middle school students in a room to work silently on math than go to yet another lecture about diversity. It’s horribly naïve to think that 6 weeks of Institute does anything more than to provide a false sense of security in teaching ability. (A lot of us taught in Institute classrooms of 6 or fewer students, for 45 minutes a day—not the nearly 200 students we work with during the school year.) And it’s not enough to have only brief exposure to classroom management principles. The only way to use classroom management effectively, as Goldstein says, is by practicing teacher moves “to the point of automaticity.” We do have some rock stars who seem to teach perfectly right away—but I would venture to say that almost everyone else needs at least a year to get ready. I volunteered as a staff facilitator at a recent Teach for America corps member retreat. I was disappointed that we spent almost all of the day and a half oriented toward a “north star” that had nothing to do with actual teaching—just endless Youtube animations, music videos, TED Talks, and quotes from Jeff Duncan-Andrade and other education professors. We wouldn’t have gotten into TFA in the first place if we weren’t culturally literate. It’s time to recognize we came here to teach in tough schools, not study sociology.

3. End the culture of low expectations for first-year teachers.

I’m horribly frustrated by the double standard TFA has on results. When a student who can barely read has trouble with a grade-level text we assign, we’re told we as teachers must be holding low expectations. When we ourselves fail as teachers, we’re given a pat on the back. To have a bad first (and/or second) year of teaching, that is, is considered part of the experience. My school director at Institute, who’s now an assistant principal in a well-recognized charter school district, bragged to us about his years in the corps, saying, “Those students did not do well.” One of my teacher coaches in TFA—i.e., the person who was supposed to be helping me—told me she was “such a bad teacher.” TFA seems to treat the whole experience of teaching in low-income classrooms as a nice little business school case study. It’s something you laugh over while having beers with your banker friends. A “growth experience” shouldn’t come at the expense of hundreds of students and families, especially not in communities of color.

4. Listen to your alumni, disgruntled, content, or otherwise.

Perhaps the most maddening thing of all is how little TFA seems to really care about making change. TFA was revolutionary back in the early 1990s, before the charter school movement took off, before extensive research on low-income teaching had been done, before Common Core. But the game has changed. Aspire, Match, and other alternative programs (though conspicuously, still not most traditional university education programs) seem to have caught up—but I fear that TFA hasn’t. I’ve had many conversations with our local staff in LA about changing things. But I’m not sure TFA as a whole seems to care. I see a huge drop in both applicant numbers and the size of the corps, but I don’t see the model of Institute changing significantly. I don’t think that adding a few months’ part-time support for newly admitted college students, which is TFA’s latest move, will make much of a difference. And I don’t hear anyone listening. I completed a long alumni survey last year and never got a response. People seem to go to a lot of conferences on leadership and do one-off coaching, rather than forming a real relationship with corps members and alumni. One of TFA’s new co-CEOs has never even taught—just like its founder, Wendy Kopp. It would be nice to know that someone is listening.