CPS and the Myth of School Choice

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

Daniel Tucker interviews Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers Jesse Senechal (js) and Maura Nugent (mn) about their teaching and research at Kelvyn Park High School (KP) on the Northwest side.

Your research was inspired by Arne Duncan‘s (CPS’s CEO) assertion that schools should be like a market, where the student is a consumer and makes decisions about which school to attend and how to structure their education. You focused in on the concept of “Choice” in education. Can you explain what methods you used to explore this idea and what your findings were? Were they different than you expected?

JS    Arne Duncan states, “It’s important to our city that people with the means to choose, choose our schools. That’s why our goal must be to make every Chicago public school a school of choice – and by that I mean that it must be a school that families of every income choose to attend – no matter what the obstacles or challenges.”
I remember pulling this quote off of the CPS website at some point in 2003. It was part of one of Duncan’s regular “state of the system” letters from the CEO (“Dear CPS Community”). I couldn’t find the exact citation date so I just googled the quote and found it again on a 2003 CPS financial report. Anyway, it obviously became a popular sound bite that year, and for good reason. In just two sentences, I think it really captures the struggle around the issue of choice in CPS. The simplicity of the first statement – a basic appeal to those with the “means to choose” who have traditionally not chosen CPS (i.e. white, middle class, gentrifiers) – is juxtaposed by the second rambling sentence which concedes the complexity of choice in a system where some, through forces of economics or other “obstacles or challenges,” may not have the same “means to choose.” It walks a careful line between the idea that choice is the solution to the problem of inequity in our schools and the idea that choice could, if not correctly managed, exacerbate the differences between the choosers and non-choosers.
The question it leaves is—how is CPS managing the idea of choice in a way that isn’t increasing inequity? Really, I can’t say this quote was an inspiration for the research we did. It is not exactly an inspiring quote. However, it certainly resonated with some other collections of data we had been thinking about at that point.
One data source were numbers that related to how the district was choosing to use resources. Since I started teaching at KP in 1995—and for years before—KP has been an overcrowded school. Although recently we have found relief with the opening of North Grand High School, for many years we regularly had around 2000 students in a building built for 1300. Without going into too much detail I will just say that the challenges of teaching and learning within an overcrowded school are overwhelming.
Through the height of our overcrowding in the late 90s, CPS spent a significant portion of its budget on a series of six new college prep magnet schools (one for each school region). The two jewels of this plan were Northside College Prep and Walter Payton College Prep – each costing tens of millions of dollars to construct. When you looked at the attendance numbers broken down along race and class lines, you could clearly see that these schools were not built to relieve our overcrowding. Rather, they were schools built to entice those who were not currently in the system, who had the “means to choose.”


The other collection of data was student writing we collected the first year of the Social Justice Academy (SJA) at KP. We were doing a unit on analyzing and re-imagining school. In a journal entry we asked the students “Why did you come to Kelvyn Park?” The answers to this question were surprisingly consistent.
“I am here because I had no choice… I never did apply to another school because I was too lazy. Anyway, my stanines were too low for me to apply for a better school than KP.”
“I am at Kelvyn because first of all I had no choice. I didn’t want to go to another school and plus this is my district school, and my brother and cousins and friends go here. Second of all, why am I in KPHS? Cuz I wanted. I don’t care what people say. I’m here to learn and not give other people pleasure.”
“I came to KP because I had no other choice. I came to KP to get an education, not to mess around. I want to be able to get a good job… I want to be the first in my family to graduate. I’m going to plan to go to college. I’m going to make something of myself. My mom says, it’s not the school that makes you. It’s what you make of the school.”
“Why am I at Kelvyn Park? Because I had no choice. Because my mom was saying we were going to move to Iowa. So I just didn’t sign up for any high schools. I didn’t send my applications to the high schools I wanted to go to… But it doesn’t matter anymore because I am at KP and I’m going to stay in KP until I graduate. Because I want to get an education.”
“I’m at Kelvyn Park because no other high school accepted me. In a way I kind of wanted to come to Kelvyn Park because my sister told me it wasn’t as bad as people made it seem… I think that it doesn’t matter which school you go to all it matters is if you get your education.”

KP is seen by these students as the school of last resort. Although, as you can see in the student responses, they might rationalize their fate in different ways [resistance: “I don’t care what people say”; resignation: “I was too lazy”], none of them wanted to be there. I regularly heard stories from my incoming freshmen about 8th grade teachers who, before the ISAT tests, would announce “you better do well on this test or you are going to end up at Kelvyn Park.” To “end up at Kelvyn Park” is a badge of shame. This negative image of the school in the community was reinforced by CPS as they annually published rankings of the schools that labeled high scoring schools as “schools of distinction” and low scoring schools as “schools on probation.” To attend KP is not only shameful but somehow criminal (an act worthy of probation).
In lieu of this data, when you return to Duncan’s quote and the question, ”How is CPS managing this system of choice?” you can see that it is not exactly supporting equity. Inasmuch as the magnet school push – and now the Renaissance 2010 push – is promoting a diverse marketplace of school options, I believe it is creating more divisions among those with the means to choose and those without. The market is based on a model of winners and losers. When the market of schools has fully realized itself there will still be KP (and other schools of last resort) just as there is still poverty in our country.

The general pattern of school reform seems to be consistent with the breakdown of many other aspects of the social welfare state, which are being replaced by less regulated, non-union private entities. These entities are often unregulated because the logic they are based on assumes that the free market will account for and resolve problems that are encountered in the same way that a market will respond to an impediment to profit by correcting itself. This logic is as old as capitalism and as old as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” But what do you see being the real on-the-ground implications of this thinking in the classroom? How is it changing what is taught and how it is taught?

JS    I think there are a couple levels to this. On one level I could say that there are fundamental flaws in the idea that applying market forces to schools will move us towards quality education for all (as Duncan’s quote seems to wish for). I’m not a student of economics, but it’s fairly clear to me that the market serves rather than challenges the divided class society. There are certain types of stores for rich folks and others for poor folks. They might both be profitable, but it’s generally true that the quality of the product and the service at the rich folks store is going to be vastly superior to that at the poor folks (e.g., Whole Foods versus ALDI). As we continue to disinvest in public education and hand over control to market forces, we are going to expand the already large gap between the schools that serve the rich and the schools that serve the poor.
So, on one level, I say, “Damn it! Don’t you get it? This isn’t working.” However, the truth is that at another level it is working. As the schools become tied more closely to the market, the schools begin to serve the market. This is basic reproduction theory. Schools reproduce the divided class society.Northside College Prep students become the next generation of doctors, lawyers, and political leaders. KP is preparing the next generation of service industry workers, soldiers, and prisoners. As much as political leaders and school leaders talk about equity, their actions seem to be serving different interests. I don’t have the evidence to say that Daley or Duncan or anybody else is purposefully widening that gap. In fact, I generally think that at some core I-believe-in-the-American-dream level, these guys do want all students to succeed. What I do think is happening is that hegemonic forces are creating common sense understandings of what schools should be that make these people believe that this policy direction will work. It’s effectively putting blinders on them.
Getting to the second part of the question, what are the ground level effects? In this sort of system it really depends which ground you are on. Although my experience is limited, I believe it to be generally true that the effects of the free market model on selective enrollment schools (schools of choice) are positive: better facilities, more resources, more space, more time, less bureaucratic mandates, more rigorous curriculum. What my experience teaching at a school on the other end of the spectrum (a school of last resort) has taught me is that the most profound effect of this tiered system of education is not so much related to the way the system distributes resources, but rather the way it creates student identities. “Ending up” at KP has a deep effect on students understanding of themselves as learners, as choosers, as agents in society. The fact that the school is under-resourced supports the idea that, not only have they “ended up” at this school—but that they got what they deserved. I imagine there is a reverse effect on the sense of the identity created by the selective enrollment school (i.e. success, entitlement).
What is the ground level effect? Students in the system are being prepared both materially and ideologically to take their place in society.

If schools are not a marketplace of options and ideas, then what should they be?

JS    First off, I’m all for schools being a marketplace of ideas. That’s a metaphor that works for me. I want schools to be places where conflicting ideas and forms of culture, society, and politics are presented to students. I want schools where students are given the analytical and practical skills to negotiate that marketplace of ideas and make educated consumer choices. That’s great. In fact that’s one of the things the current system is really lacking. In my estimation, the drive towards expanding school options has been coupled with a drive towards limiting what is taught. The high stakes testing movement that has engulfed our country over the past twenty five years has not only served the market in terms of being the sorting machine and gate keeper (it is the test that determines your educational fate) but also serves the market by defining what is worth knowing and, in many schools, what is taught. The choice of ideas within the current system is often limited to A, B, C, D or E (all of the above). Ideas that might question the logic of the market, or give the students the skills to resist their own oppression (or resist being the oppressor) are not on the test. The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.
And although it might appear otherwise from my arguments, at a fundamental level, I support the idea of school options. Ideally, all students would be empowered to make choices about schools, classes, teachers, and programs. Not only would this allow students to focus their studies on particular interests and post-secondary / vocational paths, but it would also prepare them for making choices in the larger society. My argument is not against school options; it is against the unregulated market, which—when left to itself—leads to the unfair distribution of options. What is frustrating is not just that the school choice movement, as it is being presently managed, has served to widen the gap between the high performing and low performing schools—but also that in many cases the language of choice has been co-opted and used rhetorically to give the pretense of equity.

Are there ways of changing these trends in education as teachers within the schools? What can people outside of schools (parents and non-parents alike) do to support the strengthening of public education and reforms towards a more egalitarian educational system?

mn    I believe there is actually a great deal that we as teachers within the schools can do to effect change. (If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t keep doing what I do and working where I work.) The most important thing teachers can do is to empower our students to be agents of change through what we teach and how we teach, and by the kinds of real life examples and experiences we provide for our kids. Jesse and I were fortunate to be at a school with a principal that supports creative and liberatory work by her teachers. So even in this climate of things like scripted curriculum—which tries to strip teachers not only of their professional identity but of their humanity—teachers at our school are empowered to create curriculum and make collective decisions about what serves our students best. And perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I believe ultimately all teachers (in any situation) do have control over how they teach and how they relate to our students; it’s just that we have to be courageous enough to do what we really believe is best for our students.
The other thing critical teachers need to do is make our voices heard: within our own school, in our community, in the city, etc. We need to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to critically question the hegemonic view that tells us things like “our kids deserve what they get”, or that “a successful student—at schools like ours—should be defined as someone who does what he or she is told”, or that “the most important day in our students’ lives is the day they take their high-stakes standardized test.” (It is surprisingly difficult to question these things because we are so saturated with the hegemonic view that sometimes we start believing things that we never would have accepted as fresh-minded teachers.)
The most important thing people outside of schools can do to affect change is to listen to teachers and students, who are the real experts on public schools. Our students especially need to be listened to. We all need to listen carefully, closely, and thoughtfully to what they have to say about what their lives inside and outside of school are like. It is too easy to be fooled by the story that the mainstream media and certain politicians tell us about public schools. In understanding any educational policy decisions, we need to scrutinize the situation and ask: “Who does this really serve?” We have to remember the powerful interests that are behind decisions about education.

When you talked to your students about the drastically uneven distribution of resources between different schools, their reactions mostly seemed to suggest that they felt like the fact that their school was poor was somehow their fault. They thought that schools with resources were for good students and that their school’s lack of resources was a reflection of their individual qualities. What kinds of specific reactions did you get when doing this research? And how did you go about debunking their internalization of this blame?

mn    As Jesse said above, I think the most detrimental effect of the bogus system of “choice” is the way it creates student identities. Our students internalize the dominant hegemonic view about who they are to such an extent that sometimes it seems they will come up with any explanation of inequities – no matter how illogical – as long as it fits in with the hegemonic view.
The time that I remember this illustrated most was in a conversation I had with a few of our students about the inequity of resources in education. The students were commenting that they felt KP did not have up-to-date computers or books, that the conditions of the bathrooms and lunchroom were bad, etc. I asked them why they thought KP had (or didn’t have) these resources. The kids seemed stumped at first and then began offering the possibility that if we had nice things, KP students would probably destroy them. One student concluded, “Probably we had lots of computers, and stuff, but then kids mess them up and steal them so we can’t have it anymore.”
The explanation our students fell back on when trying to make sense of inequality is one that is mirrored in dominant ideology: if certain people do not have the same benefits as others, it must be because they deserve it. Rather than conceiving of a possible unjust society or system, they constructed an explanation that once upon a time KP had material resources, but that the students “messed it all up.”
A piece of theory that helped us make sense of the students’ “logic” was from Raymond Williams, in Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory. He makes clear the prevalence and the saturation of hegemonic discourse when he writes:

“[H]egemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely supersecondary or superstructural like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which even constitutes the substance and limit of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure.” (37)

In other words, the students are so saturated with the hegemonic discourse that it becomes their common sense. If they do not have what others in society have, it must be because they do not deserve it. This seems like the only possible answer to them.
On the other hand, students’ perceptions, ways of thinking, and identities are also more complicated than I may be making them seem here. Society’s inequities and hegemonic discourses do not just push on them; our students push back. Some of our students have an incredible capacity for socially critical thought and expression. I am thinking especially of two of our students who worked as co-researchers this most recent year.
In a recent interview, one of these students talked about something she had learned from doing the research. She commented:

“…like how our schools are built and how, you know, the whole thing that Mr. Senechal was telling us about, the class thing, how schools produce more of what’s already there… how, like, they train us to work at <b>McDonald’s</b>. You’ve got to wear the uniform, you’ve got to wear the ID, you have to be there on time. They don’t prepare us for out-of-the-box, for wanting to do more and having a better job. You know, they just prepare us for that, because I guess that’s what they expect. And that’s not what we want. And we’re realizing that and we’re able to push out of that…”

As you see, she is able to understand and articulate reproduction theory. The truly remarkable thing is that while she does not give herself credit when she says “the whole thing Mr. Senechal was telling us about,” she actually understood and could articulate reproduction theory long before Jesse or I “told” her about it. This student does not internalize blame for the inequities of society; she resists it by naming it. Many other students also resist – often in complicated and contradictory ways. The important thing is that as powerful as hegemonic discourse is, it can be resisted.
However, the fact remains that it is incredibly powerful. Along with the example I gave above of students blaming themselves for the lack of resources at KP, we have numerous other examples of the same kind of thinking. So, how do we go about debunking their internalization of this blame? That is probably one of the most central and driving questions of our research and our teaching. How do we teach against hegemony? It is a question that we will have to continually ask and live out as teachers and researchers. After three years of research, I think we have some ideas.
The first thing is that critical teachers need to assert their voices in a confident and strong way in the classroom, while balancing that with privileging and giving power to student voice. One thing we struggled with in our first year of teaching and research in SJA (and continue to struggle with) was the balance between these two. Our initial assumption was that a social justice curriculum should entail privileging student voice in the classroom. This was partially because we are aware of how our position as white, middle class teachers is problematic. Recognizing that we are necessarily blinded in some ways by our privileged position, we want to give space for student voices to shape the curriculum and the knowledge that is produced through investigation and dialogue.
In addition, we wanted to allow student voices to be primary in the classroom as a way to avoid replicating a banking model of education. Our goal has been to develop in our students an ability to critically question all knowledge, not simply to accept a different body of knowledge. We conceptualize teachers as critical co-investigators with the students rather than authoritative voices. (A primary theoretical grounding here comes from Paulo Freire.)
However, the problem with privileging student voice when students are so saturated with the dominant hegemonic ideology is then what happens in the classroom may be that the dominant discourse is simply echoed and further ingrained in us.
So, it becomes a delicate balance that as a teacher you have to always be struggling with. I can think of examples when I needed to speak clearly as an authority in the classroom, in order for students to begin to break out of hegemonic thinking. I can also think of examples when I needed to play a smaller role and let student voices dominate the dialogue. We saw turning points in classroom discussions and student thinking that came about because of critical student voice. Usually what would happen is that discussion about an issue would go on for awhile with no forward progress, but then a student would break in with a challenge or question that caused a break—a positive problematic disruption—which would force other students to re-think their own “logic” and work again at their understanding and knowledge.
The second thing needed to debunk the internalization of blame, or challenge the dominant hegemonic view, was simply time. At the end of our first year of research we identified what we called “residual turning points.” That is, we saw classroom discussions growing more complex and contradictory—among the students and even within the same student—in regards to issues of equity and race. Now that we have had three years of the research, and still have contact with the students from the first year, we continue to see “turning points” in students’ understanding of societal inequities. Disrupting the dominant discourse and transforming internalization of blame to a critical consciousness and sense of agency is not a quick and easy fix. The trend in education seems to always want a quick and easy fix. But if there is one thing that we have learned, it is that social justice education takes time and patience.
Finally, what is needed to debunk the internalization of blame is for the class to move outside the walls of the classroom. I don’t just mean figuratively, I mean literally the students need to leave the school building and engage in thinking and work outside of KP. Something we realized at the end of our first year of research was that, while students had developed a great deal in their critical social analysis skills, they were often defeated in a way because our curriculum was not providing enough of a sense of hope. By hope, I do not mean something frivolous and purely ideological. I mean something concrete and essential. If we move students away from an internalization of blame, but they have no sense of agency—in other words, they no longer feel their situation is their fault but they also feel there is nothing they can do about it—then we have done them a great disservice. A sense of agency, or a sense of hope, is key. I believe this comes from action-oriented projects. Our “slogan” for the Social Justice Academy is “classroom reflection, community action,” and we have striven in the past two years to live up to the community action component. The projects that were most important were the ones where there had been a specific, measurable outcome that served as evidence to the students that they have power to affect change.
Moving outside of the classroom walls also entails our students having contact with critical, activist adults in the community. I believe our students need concrete examples of how to make sense of the world and act upon the world, and Jesse and I are not enough. The more they know people who, unlike Jesse and me, grew up in their neighborhoods or similar neighborhoods, and are critical of social forces and working actively to change inequities, the better off they are. We have tried to accomplish this through bringing in speakers and classroom volunteers, and having students work with community members on community projects. We work closely with one neighborhood social change organization that provides our students with these opportunities and in fact now employs several of them as interns and research assistants.
Lastly, moving outside the classroom walls is also about our students presenting their work and participating in real discussions about social inequities that are happening beyond our classroom. Again, I want to return to the words of our co-researcher students. About presenting their work, they said:

It makes me look at many different things and many different situations. Like, when I think about and when I see other people present or when I present, I think when all the different questions and answers… every time there is a presentation or whatever… like, I think of everything and how it connects. And how it is important as women and especially minorities to stick together and try our best, because I think that’s our power and we just don’t realize that.

Or like, how people were amazed that we were able to do this. And we were at the ethnography conference, one of the guys was older—he was a white guy, and he was like a teacher, a professor—and he was like, “How did you understand about hegemonic views/hegemony? … He was like, my students don’t understand, you know, I guess… because, I told him, I was like, when they read it to me, I understood it. It was so simple, I felt, because it related to me, you know? Not because you’re white or you’re older, or you went to this college, you’re going to always understand everything, you know. So, it was like, presenting, like, sometimes, I would be amazed—Damn I’m smart, I know what I’m doing.

Here, they articulate that through presenting their work, and hearing others present, they realized how their lives were connected to larger social issues. More importantly, they realized they had power to change things. Furthermore, they realized they were smart. This last one is not about some trumped up sense of self-esteem; it is about our students being able to reject an internalization of blame, and remove the “hegemonic goggles” to see themselves as they really are: smart, powerful young adults.

Your research revealed that only some students in the educational system feel that they have the options that CPS is promoting. How do you account for this difference in agency? Does it break down strictly along class lines or are there other factors? When teachers become conscious of the role that cultural capital plays in their students’ lives, can they adapt the classroom to enable students to increase their cultural capital?
Oftentimes when cultural capital is cultivated through family contexts it is normalized and integrated. When it is taught more consciously it can often result in a kind of entrepreneurialism that teaches young people that they can alleviate “their problems” through pulling themselves up by their bootstraps—or in today’s terms, by their sneaker laces. Is there a way to do this critically so that students are not simply adapting to the demands of the market through “working the system” for their own benefit but actually are able to both achieve their desired level of education and also support the struggles for a better society that might allow all students equal and free education?

MN    I’d like to answer the two questions above with one answer, because I believe they are closely enough related. Ernest Morrell’s work (from UCLA) has been helpful to us in thinking about how to approach these very questions. Jesse and I heard him speak during the first year of our research and since then we have frequently returned to a framework he provided: the pedagogy of access and dissent. I would call adapting the classroom to enable students to increase their cultural capital a pedagogy of access, and enabling students to “work the system” for their own benefit while supporting the struggles for a better society is a pedagogy of access and dissent.
Ernest Morrell writes and talks about an educational philosophy and practice that empowers students both with access to power and an ability to be critical of societal power structures. I believe it is possible – and in fact imperative – that we teach students the skills to succeed in the system, or to work the market to their benefit, while at the same time teaching them to be critical and to work towards something different.
There is often criticism of social justice education by people who think social justice education is not about teaching students the skills they need to survive and thrive in the world. Unfortunately, some of what is called social justice education may fall into that trap – but I believe that is not true social justice education. If we have only taught our students using a pedagogy of dissent, then we have done them a great disservice. They need, and deserve, access as well. However, the tensions between access and dissent will make the practice of this kind of pedagogy a constant challenge.
The first and most basic thing I believe we need to do is to be honest, direct and explicit with our students. We need to say to them, “This is how I see society. I see that some people are ‘born with’ or ‘given’ certain tools that afford them economic and political power. And other people have different tools that society is not recognizing as valid, even though they are. I want you to have both. I am going to try to give you the tools that will give you power. And what I hope you will do is use the tools you already have, and the tools I try to give you, to change society so that it is more fair.”
I’d like to again quote one of our co-researcher students. I feel that she articulated what it might mean to have access and dissent when she said:

I guess it is just giving us tools to be able to fight our battles in different ways. You know, I don’t know how to say, it’s hard to explain – just being like able to switch off. I am not saying that I am not who I am, but it’s just I am able to switch in the situation I am in. I like that, I like being able to do that. ‘Cos my voice gets heard.”

When she talks about “code-switching” she recognizes that by switching she is not changing or de-valuing who she is—she is accessing the ability to have her voice heard. She recognizes that she needs to speak a different language to get heard by certain audiences, and she is willing to do that because she knows what she has to say is important. And in fact, what she has to say is all about dissent: critiquing the system. But she knows she needs to use the language of access in order to dissent.
One example of a pedagogy of access and dissent would be curriculum on exactly what she is referring to: the power of language / the language of power. Language and literacy offers the perfect context for access and dissent. Students speak languages that are linguistically sound languages, and are completely literate in ways other than what is valued in schools. One option then is to value their languages and literacies, and empower them to use them. We can even focus on how different languages and literacies are tied to power and how that is unjust and racist. But that would be only a pedagogy of dissent. Another option is to teach them standard English language and literacies associated with power and with success by the gatekeepers to further education, such as standardized tests. But that would be only a pedagogy of access. A pedagogy of access and dissent would do both: it would explicitly recognize different languages and literacies as equally valid; it would recognize that society has afforded certain languages and literacies with economic and political power, and that that is unjust and racist;  it would provide a bridge between our students’ languages and the language of power; and it would attempt to imbue the students with an ability and a desire to change things so that all languages are recognized as valid and powerful.
The last part may seem tricky because it is trying to teach students to value justice enough to work for it. I think if we are successful then our students are not only walking away with skills, they also leave us with a vision of their future that entails working for or within their community for social change. Our two co-researcher students, talking about their visions for their futures, said this:

Wanting to work at something that pays good, but at least that I’m passionate about… it’s being able to [say], “It pays good, but, damn I like what it is to work.” Not that everyday is going to be perfect and skipping flowers, but it’s going to be like, man, I’m going to be doing something that I know I can probably make a difference. I’m going to help someone out. For me, that’s what it is.

Sometimes, I don’t really know what I wanna do, but I just wanna do something that helps other people. And myself too. You know, my future, my future generations, something that’s good for them. That’s just what I want to do, I don’t know really what.

Their hopes for their future of course include having material goods beyond what would be available to them by minimum wage work. But at the same time, key to their vision of their future is that they are working to make a difference, to help others, to do something that is good for their community. (I’d like to point out that it is not that we necessarily gave that vision to these two students; we just helped nurture it.) For me, that is what success is: if my students walk away with tools of access to power, critical tools of dissent about how power works, and a desire to change it. That is what we need to strive for.
Part of it too is what I mentioned before: giving students contact with critical, activist adults from their community and culture. They need concrete examples of what it looks like to be someone who has made it through the system, who has worked the system, has acquired the cultural capital tools to access power, and is now using that access to change society. Again, Jesse and I are not the examples for them in this case. We were “born” into our cultural capital, so it is not the same. Our students need examples of people who had to learn the language of power to succeed, and now are not only teaching others the language of power so that they can succeed, but are trying to change the unjust power relations of society.

How did you develop these methods of “action research”? What traditions or practices were they inspired by? Do you have any advice for educators or activists who would like to do similar work? What worked and what didn’t?

JS    I did my first action research project in 2000. I took a sabbatical from teaching and went back to graduate school to finish my masters’ degree. My advisor, Pauline Lipman, led me to a number of methodological readings around ethnographic and qualitative research with specific focus on teacher research and practitioner research. I used these methods to study how board-mandated curriculum was being negotiated within the culture of KP teachers. The research resulted in the development of a curriculum coordinator position at our school and a commitment to creating more professional development time for teacher dialogue around curriculum issues.
Our current research, which has spanned over the past three school years, is based on the same methodology, although the focus of the work is primarily centered on classroom practice. The further we get into doing this type of research, the more I see that it essentially involves a dialogue among the researchers around three core elements: the research question(s), data, and theory. It is important that these elements are dynamic. In the research process, any of the elements can be re-formed to adapt to the others. Questions can be revised; new data sets can be collected based on new ideas; theoretical focus can shift. Another important quality of this type of research is that there is a dynamic relationship between research and practice. Because we are both researchers and practitioners, the knowledge that we gain from a research meeting on Saturday informs the way we teach on Monday.
With this said, there are several lessons we have learned. The first is the importance of sticking with theory. The questions will always be there, and, as teachers, there is certainly no shortage of data (every interaction, every essay or journal collected, every discipline referral is potential data). The real challenge that we encountered was finding time to seek out, read, and discuss relevant theoretical work. While every pre-service teacher is presented the standard regimen of pedagogical theory, when you actually enter schools there is very little, if any, time or place for professional engagement with it. I believe that it’s part of the whole de-skilling of the profession of teaching. And as much as I knew it was an essential part of good research and good teaching, I found it hard to fit it in to my school routine. In a job that is exhausting and intense and packed with concrete tasks and hundreds of direct interactions with members of the school community, it was hard to refocus on the abstract quality of theory. Reading books and articles about schools or ideas that were in varying degrees removed from KP not only took time, but also required shifting my intellectual focus. Nonetheless, it is the theory that we have read that has really shaped not only the findings of our research but also core aspects of who we are as teachers. The pieces of theory that were most important were the ones that resonated with our experiences and offered us a framework for understanding that intense reality of teaching.
The second lesson is the importance of outsider perspectives. Although Maura and I have been the core of the research team through the three years, we have had a number of co-researchers in that time including university folks (Pauline Lipman and several graduate assistants), fellow KP teachers, and now two KP students. These co-researchers at different times participated in all aspects of the research including formulating questions, collecting and analyzing data, discussing theory and presenting. I don’t think there is any way we would have come so far in our thinking without these voices. The problem is that Maura and I have worked so closely through the years (developing curriculum, teaching the same students, working in adjoining classrooms) that our vision has become myopic. I think this happens to all teachers. You work so closely and intensely within a culture and you develop strong beliefs about why it works the way it works. Often it takes an outsider coming in to challenge those basic assumptions that hold you back from really developing your thinking and changing your practice.
I think this year has been especially eye-opening in that respect. Collaborating with students on research about success and failure at our school has really changed my perspectives. Their insights into the student’s reality have been invaluable.

How do you present this work? And who is the audience?

MN    In some ways, our first audience is really ourselves. Our impetus for the research was—and still is—to try to understand our own practice and improve upon it. It has helped us become better teachers, and I think in a way it helped our co-researcher students become better students. (Doing the research, they were better able to understand their own situation and actions as students, and make choices for themselves with more knowledge.)
That being said, I think the primary larger audience for our research is teachers and educational researchers who are concerned with and interested in the same things we are.
We’ve presented various versions of our work at the Ethnography in Education conference (2005 and 2007), at multiple Chicago Public Schools and KP Best Practices Fairs, Chicago Teachers for Social Justice Curriculum Fairs, and at the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at University of Illinois at Chicago (formerly the Institute for Teacher Research and Development at DePaul.) We were fortunate this past year to work with two of our students as co-researchers and so they presented with us. We have also co-presented with some of the people from the community organization we work with frequently. Besides formal presentations, we also often informally share our thinking and findings with our principal and other teachers at our school.
Presenting our research is important. It has been essential in helping us clarify our thinking. Furthermore, I believe our research is important because there are not enough teacher-researchers out there. More teacher voices – and more importantly, more student voices –need to be heard in educational research.

What kinds of research do you want to continue with?

MN    In the SJA we hope to continue with our action research process, following the same process we have followed the past few years. This next year, we are unfortunately losing Jesse as he moves to Virginia with his family, but we hope to involve more teachers, students, and community organizers in our research through an inquiry group. The inquiry group will read theory and analyze data in the context of the theory, and try to clarify and share our thinking through formal and informal presentations.
In many ways, our question remains the same it has always been: what does it mean to practice social justice education, particularly in the context of KP, CPS, and the larger educational and societal context? Different elements of this question emerge at different moments. Something that has been a theme in our data and our thinking recently has been about student resistance. I personally am currently interested in continuing to try to understand student resistance and student failure, with the goal of finding how social justice educators can effectively tap into student resistance and move it towards transformative—rather than self-defeating—resistance.

JS    I am really sad to be leaving KP, the SJA, and this community of researchers in Chicago. I hope that I can take what I have learned about research and about critical pedagogy into my new school in Richmond. I am particularly interested in how media literacy curriculum can move students towards more transformative forms of resistance.


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