Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Re-Educate for America

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Re-Educate for America

Article excerpt

As we gathered for another meeting to tell stories, share feelings, and take guidance, I knew it wouldn't be long before the griping began. I had made the trek from my apartment in Northeast Washington, D.C., to Teach For America's office on K Street. Bright posters beamed positive messages, chips and salsa were laid out in back, and hot pink flyers were strewn everywhere.

I looked around at my fellow Transition Team Leaders, Teach For America members chosen to introduce the newest class of recruits to life in the region. We had come into the program the year before and had volunteered to offer guidance and wisdom to fresh TFA recruits. There were nineteen of us, taken from the mostly female, white, highly educated, and upper-middle-class D.C. corps.

People filed in, harried and somber. The buzz of light banter hummed in the background and I slipped into a reverie. Only a few minutes passed before it was interrupted by a statement whose tone and content were all too familiar:

There's a lot they don't get because they don't get out of their neighborhoods enough. 1 think we need to teach them how to be tolerant. Like, I heard one of my kids talking about how being gay is, like, wrong. I explained to him that families look a lot of different ways and that none of them are better or worse than any others.

The speaker of these words didn't have an ounce of prejudice in her twenty-three-year-old body. She was sure of it. I had met her a few months before and learned that she had attended American University, majored in political science, and came from a Virginia family of ample means and enlightened attitudes.

Another member of the group echoed her complaint. "Yeah, some of my kids are pretty bigoted and think some really ignorant stuff."

This one was educated at Duke, and she radiated an air of righteous outrage. Passionate in her declaration, she narrowed her eyes as she practically spat her rebuke. She turned left and right, her blonde hair swaying as she looked for affirmation from others at the table. Most dressed in the unofficial TFA uniform: modest, brightly colored blouses, dark skirts, and trendy flats. Another one chimed in:

A lot of them think that there's something wrong with being gay and when I asked them about how they could think something like that, they try and say something about God or religion or something, it's backward and ...

I'd heard the same remarks over and over, and the time had long passed when I could shrug it off as harmless grousing by overwhelmed novice teachers. My peers were grumbling about the very people they had pledged to help, treating their students not as needy minds but as examples of backward social attitudes. Their condescension was shocking, though they still believed in their charitable motives.

This was not what I expected when I signed up for Teach for America that March. During my senior year at Harvard, a persistent roommate had talked me into applying, and the mission of the organization appealed to my passion for social justice. Teach for America began in 1989 as an effort to place graduates of elite colleges into classrooms in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The idea caught on quickly, bolstering a growing education reform movement and garnering widespread support from celebrities, politicians, and public figures.

TFA seeks to address social inequality by closing the "achievement gap": the large difference between white students and black and Latino students in standardized test scores. The program identified the achievement gap as a source of negative outcomes in the lives of poor minority youths. Its goal: "eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach." Ivy League graduates began to see TFA as an ennobling term of work, and applications multiplied, allowing TFA to select the best and the brightest. I felt honored to survive the process.

"Institute," as the summer training program is known, was brutal. …

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