Learned hopelessness

Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major is a parody story in The Onion. But it’s not that far from reality.

NEW YORK — Teach For America, a national program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income rural and urban communities, has devoured another ethnic-studies major, 24-year-old Andy Cuellen reported Tuesday.

“Look, the world is a miserable place,” said Cuellen, a Dartmouth graduate who quit the TFA program Monday morning. “All people — even children — are just nasty animals trying to secure their share of the food supply. I don’t care how poor or how rich you are, that’s just a fact. I’m sorry, but I have better things to do than zoo-keep for peanuts.”

Just one of the 12,000 young people TFA has burned through since 1990, Cuellen was given five weeks of training the summer before he took over a classroom at P.S. 83 in the South Bronx last September.

. . . According to Dartmouth literature, as a member of the ethnic-studies department, Cuellen learned “to empower students of color to move beyond being objects of study toward being subjects of their own social realities, with voices of their own.”

Teach For America executive director Theo Anderson called ethnic-studies departments “a prime source of fodder.”

“Oh, I’d say we burn through a hundred or so ethnic-studies majors each year,” said Anderson, pointing to a series of charts showing the college-major breakdown of TFA corps members. “They tend to last a little longer than women’s studies majors and art-therapy students, but Cuellen got mashed to a pulp pretty quickly.

TFA recruits graduates of elite colleges. Most are not ethnic studies or women’s studies majors. And they commit to teaching for two years before moving on to other careers or deciding to become certified teachers. But many are thrown into high-stress teaching situations at high-poverty schools where it’s nearly impossible to make a difference. I’d bet the Onion writer knows at least one TFA teacher.

About Joanne


  1. Tom McMahon says:

    About 40 years ago my father became a substitute teacher in inner-city St. Louis. He lasted about a month. It was impossible to maintain discipline because the kids knew that you could never hit them as hard as they got smacked around at home. Sad then, and sad now.

  2. You know you’re in trouble when a parody is indistinguishable from reality.

  3. The Onion piece isn’t far off the mark.

    Some time ago, City Journal had a devastating acount of the experiences by someone who actually was a TFA teacher. http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_1_how_i_joined.html

    The task of improving inner-city schools appears insurmountable, especially when one misdiagnosis follows another.

    Here is a brief description of the training TFA candidates received:

    “But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training. My group spent hours on an activity where everyone stood in a line and then took steps forward or backward based on whether we were the oppressor or the oppressed in the categories of race, income, and religion. The program had a college bull session, rather than professional, atmosphere. And it had a college-style party line: I heard of two or three trainees being threatened with expulsion for expressing in their discussion groups politically incorrect views about inner-city poverty—for example, that families and culture, not economics, may be the root cause of the achievement gap.”

  4. instructivist wrote:

    The task of improving inner-city schools appears insurmountable,

    Not only is it surmountable but examples of the surmounting have appeared on this blog. It’s insurmountable when the effort expended to do the surmounting is either symbolic or misdirected.

    Putting up a new, state-of-the-art central administration building doesn’t constitute surmounting. Reorganizing the administrative structure doesn’t constitute surmounting. Complaining about insufficient resources, i.e. money, doesn’t constitute surmounting.

  5. Allen,

    When TFA candidates get training like THAT, improving inner-city schools would seem impossible. What TFA should be doing is taking their candidates around to schools like KIPP academies where the techniques in place are actually working, and then teaching teachers why they work. But that would make too much sense, and it most certainly wouldn’t be PC. (I mean, to suggest that poor minority kids can learn in spite of the fact they’re poor minority kids, honestly!)

  6. Adrian wrote:

    What TFA should be doing is taking their candidates around to schools like KIPP academies where the techniques in place are actually working, and then teaching teachers why they work.

    Which presuposes that education is the most important function of and in a school district. It most assuredly is not.

    Education is what gets attention, if it does at all, after the more immediate and pressing demands of creditors, suppliers, unions, staffing, finance and the egos of various officials on the school board and in the administration have been stroked.

    But that would make too much sense, and it most certainly wouldn’t be PC.

    Actually, it makes the most perfect and brutal sort of sense. It makes as much sense as the gulag did in a totalitarian dictatorship: the inevitable result of a given set of assumptions.

    In this case, what’s more important, the ego of a school board member or an administrator who are loath to admit that they have anything to learn from a charter school or an improvement in the educational environment of the school?

    You know the answer. The reason for the answer is that education is less important then the bloated ego of someone who can’t be held responsible for not doing their job.

  7. Here’s Delaware’s latest attempt at addressing “the gap” which plagues many inner-city schools.

    Just another feel-good fad….

  8. Adrian,

    TFA is too politically correct to take its members to KIPP schools? KIPP was founded by TFA alums. Many, perhaps even most, teachers at KIPP schools are TFA vets. And as a current member of TFA, I can assure you that the organization strongly encourages and even sponsors trips to KIPP schools.

    Please don’t lump TFA into some caricature of progressive education just because of a quote in that Manhattan Institute hatchet job. One of the healthiest things about TFA is that it pollenates the education field with talented people who don’t come pre-committed to a pedagogical agenda. There is some PC in the training, but there is also a deep, deep committment to adopting teaching methods that lead to demonstrable gains in student achievement.

    The Onion article pretty accurately describes how many TFA members often feel, especially on bad days. As Joanne says, the writer clearly knows a few of us. But there are good days, too, and they become more frequent as we gain experience. You can get a pretty good sense of the highs and lows from the last couple of posts on a few of my friends’ blogs, MzSmlph.com and Skressed.blogspot.com . My sense is that after their full two years, most TFA teachers come away from the experience feeling like they have done quite a bit of good but frustrated that it is still little more than a drop in the bucket. I’ve often thought that we might do more good if we were concentrated in KIPP-style charter schools or even in KIPP schools themselves.


  9. We have been told that since the No Child Left Behind Act also includes students that are bullies/defiant/disruptive/or just plain lazy, would it be too much to ask someone from Washington to come down here to southern California and show us classroom teachers just “how it’s done?”

    I would love to observe how one of those “Washington Educrats” would handle a class of 35 inner-city kids just after the class has been thoroughly disrupted by a: false fire alarm/student fight/drugbust (Take your pick.)

    The expert-educrat-from-Washington would soon learn that goals set from behind desks in the nation’s capital aren’t as easy to obtain as they are to set.

    Maybe then the Educracy wouldn’t be so eager to keep setting the NCLB goalposts BACK each year.

  10. I know a TFA teacher in Manhattan. She’s been doing it a little over a year. She looks exhausted all the time.

  11. Rob – I stand corrected. Glad to TFA is on the right path. Ideally, they could get that some PC out of the training, but if it’s only some, then y’all are doing way better than most other routes to teaching.

  12. Mike in Texas says:

    Once a week last summer the Houston Chronicle ran stories about students in Houston’s alternative teacher training program. In particular, they were very interested in the story of a young black male entering the profession. I’m making the assumption that since he was featured in so many articles he was probably considered one of the stars of the program.

    Along comes the first day of school for this person and the Houston Chronicle is there. Our star students makes a blunder straight out of Teaching 101, he only plans 20 minutes of activities for a 90 minute class.

    I now wonder about the competency of some of the people running these alternative programs. Although there has been plenty of bashing of teacher training programs I haven’t seen any calls of accountability for the alternative programs.

  13. Mike in Texas wrote:

    Although there has been plenty of bashing of teacher training programs I haven’t seen any calls of accountability for the alternative programs.

    Maybe it hasn’t become inescapably obvious yet that they’re misreable failures.