Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Education | Sociology


Care, Critical Race Theory, Curriculum, Educational Inequality, Ethnography, School


My research consisted of three years of qualitative inquiry, including 62 interviews with members of the Department of Education, school administrators, teachers and students, as well as a yearlong ethnography at a transfer school that I chose because of its history of success with the city's hardest- to-reach youth. To my knowledge, mine is the first formal study of New York City transfer schools. "Transfer schools" are New York City's public alternative schools, which serve "over-age, under- credited" high school students (i.e. students who are "behind" in school). These students experience many challenges and interruptions to their education, including homelessness, incarceration, immigration, financial hardship (that can require students to work during school hours), being (teen) parents, drug addiction, and having to care for sick or dying family members, to name a few.

There are presently 44 transfer schools in the city, and the overwhelming majority of students who attend them are poor youth of color. I engage existing scholarship on education policy, social reproduction, and critical race theory, and prioritize the voices of students and teachers in my analysis.

In The Myth of the Unteachable: Youth, Race and the Capacity of Alternative Pedagogy, I make three main arguments. First, I describe how schools contribute to the reproduction of race and class inequalities. However, my data show that when economically disadvantaged students of color are instructed to locate their own academic "failures" in the historical context of an education system that has consistently produced unequal outcomes, those students can learn to see the difference between their personal failures, and the failures of the school system, and this helps them to regain the self-esteem necessary to make significant educational progress.

Second, I show how accountability-era (2001-present) education policies like the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Obama administration's Race to the Top (RTT) undermine public education and especially frustrate the work of transfer schools that serve "at-risk" youth. Contributing the case of transfer schools to extant scholarship on the more general harms of NCLB and RTT, I follow education policy from the national to the local level, describing how policies trickle down to affect individual transfer schools, teachers and students in damaging and destructive ways.

Lastly, using psychoanalytic theory, I apply the concept of "working alliance" to student-teacher relationships, articulating how these relationships affect student outcomes. In educational contexts, working alliance refers to generative and productive relationships between teachers and students. The development of a working alliance entails achieving consensus about what school is for, and how learning occurs. This requires agreement about goals and tasks, and is especially strengthened by the development of interpersonal bonds between students and teachers. I describe how working alliances can be achieved, and illustrate how the development of these alliances increased student retention and achievement.