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Bonnie Sutton

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started by Bonnie Sutton on 18 Oct 11
  • Bonnie Sutton

    Just Schools: Pursuing Equality in Societies of Difference

    reviewed by Sherick Hughes - October 14, 2011

    Title: Just Schools: Pursuing Equality in Societies of Difference
    Author(s): Martha Minow, Richard A. Shweder, and Hazel Rose Markus
    Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, New York
    ISBN: 0871545829, Pages: 300, Year: 2010
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    I am writing this book review three days after the death of iconic NYU professor, Derrick Bell, Jr., J.D. Among his many accomplishments, the 80-year-old Bell will most likely be remembered within the academy for being the first tenured faculty member of color in Harvard's Law School and for his pioneering work toward the development of Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is a critical framework that provides a base for the examination of the ingrained nature of race and racism, counter-narratives, and interest convergence. Moreover, CRT is concerned with marginalization embedded within the laws, policies, practices, and institutions of our society, including social infrastructures and resources that were initially intended to operate toward a more just society. One such resource for an early CRT examination was David L. Kirp's (1982) Just Schools: The Idea of Racial Equality in American Education. In the following excerpt from that book, Kirp describes the elusiveness of equality when pursued in a democratic society: "progress entails capturing the meaning of equality in a specific setting and translating that meaning into official action, not securing a single coherent timeless understanding" (p. 9). With a recognizable CRT lens, Bell (1983) praises the case study work of Kirp, but challenges him for abandoning an "elusive…equality" message in favor of a constitutional mandated minimum for integration for all. Moreover, Bell was unimpressed with how Kirp's proposed solution in effect masks white privilege, ignores the ingrained nature of racism, "softens differences and emphasizes the similarity of long-term goals" among racialized groups (Bell, 1983, p. 190).

    Ironically, nearly three decades later, I am compelled to apply CRT to review the co-edited volume Just Schools: Pursuing Equality in Societies of Difference by Martha Minow (Dean of Harvard's Law School); Richard A. Shweder (University of Chicago's William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development); and Hazel Rose Markus (Director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity). I found only one reference to Kirp (1982) (as a "hard multiculturalist" on p. 112) in this volume and yet, it seems to connect inadvertently to it and to conjure similar critiques when a CRT lens is applied with Bell in mind. Unlike Kirp, Just Schools as a title works for Minow, Shweder, & Markus (2010) as an intentional double entendre that "considers the problem of justice in a multicultural society and at the same time, the relatively limited means schools have for addressing such problems through policies and practices" (p. 3). The editors contend that while "schooling becomes more than a repository of hopes; it is a project of justice" (p. 3). The editors also turn quickly to the point that schools should not be expected to solve all of the inequities in society, "after all, they are only [just] schools" (p. 3).

    Without a CRT lens during my first reading, I find the book to be a progressive step in the direction toward explaining the tension of schooling for individual development vs. schooling for pluralistic purposes and goals in multicultural societies. Minow, Shweder, & Markus describe this tension as manifesting sometimes as a choice between treating each student the same or recognizing the aforementioned social differences; and at other times as a tension between commitments to desegregation and integration vs. separate instruction for students grouped by these social differences (p. 4). These tensions are central to the volume, which represents the third installment of the Social Science Research Council Working Group on "Law and Culture" (a diverse group of 18 members co-chaired by the editors). With a CRT lens (i.e., Ingrained Nature of Race and Racism; Importance of Counter-Narratives; and Importance of Convergence), some of my initial reactions to the volume remained, while some of my own blindspots were revealed in relation to the text during my fourth and fifth readings of the main points. Part I of the book includes only one introductory chapter that largely describes the other eight chapters and three parts of the book. Therefore, the remaining text (a) highlights what I found to be among the most promising elements of representative chapters from the three main parts of the book (i.e., Part II, Part III, and Part IV), and (b) addresses my CRT-based concerns about those chapters.

    Discussion of Part II: Schooling and the Equality-Difference Paradox

    In Chapter 2 of Part II, Minow (2008) describes quite well the ambiguity of school reform by asking the question "we're all for equality in U.S. school reforms, but what does it mean?" The chapter conveys the complexities of "converging around the idea of equal opportunity as an organizing framework" for just schools, and how other groups followed the legal lead of the civil-rights movement of African Americans with more or less success (including gains and losses experienced by African Americans at the hands of Brown (p. 21). The chapter describes incidents like the 2005 school board decision in Baltimore, Maryland to vote against adding Eid el Fitr, the end of Ramadan, to the school holiday calendar (p. 21), while Judeo-Christian holidays remain intact. And it also discusses Court decisions that ultimately permit "reforms admitting females in all-male schools where no comparable opportunities exist, while preserving existing all-female schools and promoting new all-female schools through a combination of tradition, informal policy, and 'success in warding off the handful of boys who express interest'" (p. 31). Minow (2008) also discussed the politics of recognition vs. the politics of redistribution (p. 28), where group disparities are recognized and groups fight for identity recognition, respect, and accommodation. Debates linger on whether to redistribute economic and other resources to the disadvantaged. This discussion concludes with the theme of school choice and vouchers (p. 35) and the questions of homogeneity vs. integration that come to the forefront and the growth of various religious and other groups continues.

    Tenet 1 of CRT implores me to appropriate the ingrained nature of race and racism in relation to the information in Chapters Two and Three. Similar to Kirp, Part 1 of the volume breathes optimism for just schools via policy, law, and theory, but omits crucial points related to the fact that both the integration and separate school movements are fueled by the knowledge that race negativity and racism have survived--and some would even say were strengthened by--the Brown decision (Bell, 1983). Moreover, Derrick Bell is cited in Part 1, but the chapters neither seemed to name CRT nor to offer a discussion of it. The second tenet of CRT involving the importance of counter-story also illuminates crucial omissions. For example, the editors could have moved toward multiple authors, where the counter-narratives like those of some Latino scholars compel us to consider authors like Valencia (2005) who even supplements Bell (1980) with additional information about the less popular, yet extremely important 1947 California circuit court class action case, Mendez v. Westminster. The Mendez court seems to have also set a precedent for Brown by ruling the segregated schooling of approximately 5,000 Mexican American students in Orange County as unconstitutional. Mendez and Brown are linked inextricably as (a) "Mendez was a federal, Fourteenth Amendment case grounded in a theoretical argument known as integration theory that stresses the harmful effects of segregation on students," and (b) the attorneys in Mendez made that Fourteenth Amendment argument "using social science expert testimony . . ." and "theoretical arguments that later proved very useful in Brown" (Valencia, 2005, p. 389). Brown's visibility in the nation's highest court struck down Plessy and ultimately overshadowed the exclusion, classifications, and violations questioned previously by Mendez and other similar local, state, and federal court battles. Finally, Part I cites Gloria Ladson Billings, but failed to connect her work to CRT. In fact, Ladson Billings and Bill Tate are credited for bringing CRT to Education. Ladson Billings has been a champion for changing the under-theorized nature of race and racism in Education and she seems to be skeptical of pursuits of equality in societies of difference and just schools that deemphasize race and racism and mask white privilege.

    Discussion of Part III: Just Schools in Context

    In Chapter 4, Austin Sarat uses ethnographic methodology to study the culture of the self-proclaimed liberal and largely middle class White school district of Amherst, Massachusetts. Due to a growth of African, Latino, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) youth in Amherst, the district, guided by a seemingly well read and informed group, developed guidelines for the Becoming a Multicultural School System (BAMSS) initiative. Yet, even with the most sincere initiative on paper, Austin Sarat finds that everyone has their own view of multiculturalism and list of justifications to support that view. He labels his findings in terms of themes of soft multiculturalism and hard multiculturalism (p. 122). Residents seeking "soft multiculturalism" suggest that they are okay with some cultural accommodation for student differences, in order to raise student test scores, close the achievement gap, and prepare students for a competitive world (p. 122). Conversely, residents seeking "hard multiculturalism" support efforts where the school does what it takes to make each child feel welcome by accepting the customs, speech, dress, attitude toward authority, and slang the child brings- even if this requires some trade-offs with the teacher's authority and expectations of scholastic achievement, mastery of standard English, and assimilation to mainstream cultural norms or standards (p. 122). It concludes by stating that the residents are joined in their commitment to the multicultural movement, but disjointed in what they think the schools should do about it and what public education should be (p. 123).

    The second tenet of CRT, again encourages counter-narrative/counter-story. In Education, it works to challenge dominant ideology and to center voices of communities of color as they differ from mainstream portrayals. Similarly, in Anthropology, Law, Psychology, and Sociology, counter-narrative involves naming one's own reality or voice (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). The point on diverse co-authorship is key here to realizing the possibilities of voices different from the homogeneous voice shared by the single authors of the chapters. Invitations for co-authorship opportunities to the African, Latino, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) youth of Amherst of the representative Chapter 4, Somali Muslims of Maine in Chapter 5 and Arab Muslims of Chicago and France in Chapters 6 and 7 of Part I may expand the questions, methods, analyses, and conclusions. Yet, the author who initiates action from a space of privilege at predominantly white institutions in a society where racism is alive, must sincerely ask Spivak's (1988) question, "Can the subaltern speak?" "If so, under what conditions and how might I begin co-constructing those conditions with participants?" The third tenet of CRT stresses the importance of interest convergence and underscores the power of white privilege. Contemporary CRT scholars find that "racism remains firmly in place but social progress advances at the pace that White people determine is reasonable and judicious" (Milner, 2007, p. 391). And, those with power are frequently least aware of-or least willing to acknowledge its existence (Delpit, 1995). Part III of the book has been described as the case study chapters, yet there is only brief mention of the terms "case study" and "interviews." I could find no discussion of the research design, sampling, and data collection techniques and analyses. The American Educational Research Association (AERA), the flagship association of educational research, in 2006 began calling for more clarity and transparency in research methods. It is in the best interest of scholars of color and white scholars to be explicit about our methodology, thereby avoiding strategic ambiguity, strategic obfuscation, and limiting generations of students who may seek transferability or generalizability from faulty research.

    Discussion of Part IV: Just Schools in the World

    In the concluding Chapter 9, Richard Shweder begins by reviewing the previous chapters briefly. He then names four core and yet conflicting liberal values or expectancies that are visited in-depth later in the chapter and how they help and hinder the progress toward just schools: "(1) autonomy, (2) merit-based justice, (3) equality, and (4) benevolent safekeeping of the vulnerable" (pp. 254, 265-266). Shweder (2008) offers interesting inquiries that challenge the utility of our past reforms and their abilities of getting our multicultural society any closer to universally just schools (p. 259) and then he "comes to terms" with multiculturalism and how the different factions who use it have contributed to some of the skepticism surrounding the term (p. 260). The chapter returns to the theme of complexity and cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time where he was sure about integrated public restaurants, buses, fountains, restrooms, but not so much interested in integrated public schools in Southern contexts where White teachers may not have Black students' best interest in mind. In another example of philosophical thought, he channels Hannah Arendt and her complex thoughts on social and private discrimination (parent choice) working currently with acquiescing to a necessity for at least minimal aims toward a public citizenry (p. 271). Shweder (2008) concludes the book by discussing the master narratives, chiefly, the master narratives of Judeo-Christian European, African American, and Native American folks involving different emphases upon the four liberal ideals that he names earlier in the chapter and supports more research, experimentation, and openness to various forms of school choice including public support of parents' private choices about how best to educate their children (pp. 280, 281, 282, 285).

    The first and second tenets of CRT applied to Part IV of the volume encourage revisiting the powerful invisibility of racism for the privileged and center the necessity of counter-narrative/counter-story to challenge the dominant ideology underlying the professors' voices, including my own. Although both authors may self-identify with marginalized, racialized groups, without CRT and with single-authorship, they are trapped by the dilemma of representing the underrepresented. Centering voices of communities of color as they differ from and concur with the professors' portrayals could open crucial information about the problems and possibilities posited in Part IV. For example, the authors like their peers in Parts II and III limit discussions of the ingrained nature of racism and its inextricable link to poverty; an important point when you consider the argument that Bowles and Gintis (1976) foreshadowed over thirty years ago in their seminal piece: "We conclude that the creation of an equal and liberating school system requires a revolutionary transformation of economic life" (p. 265). Perhaps, CRT tenets one and two would move the authors to consider the liberal ideals instead as ideals that are at least, in part, myth. For example, the merit ideal is present, but largely as myth. There is certainly a merit and hard work frame, but that frame is surrounded by frames of acceptance and rejection at the hands of racism. These frames still disproportionately determine how far our merit and hard work will take us in our society. Moreover, the master narratives were careful and thoughtful and the preamble to them was considerate, however, CRT compels me to be skeptical of someone of insider/outsider status or someone going native portraying the master narrative of my racialized group home. It is unclear why the authors cite Ladson Billings, but fail to cite her education debt theory. Explaining the economic underachievement, crime, and educational underachievement of minorities (African American and Latinos) in the United States, scholar Ladson Billings (2006) asserted "we do not have an achievement gap, we have an education debt" (Ladson Billings, 2006, p. 5).

    With a CRT lens, disproportionality is also noticeably deemphasized in the book. Disproportionality is one major barrier to just schools at the hands of racism and classism with over 40 years of research providing evidence of Black, Latino, and impoverished youth being (a) placed inequitably in Special Education (Blanchett, 2006), (b) withheld inequitably from gifted education (Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005), and (c) disciplined inequitably at school (e.g., Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002). In fact, an entire issue of the Educational Researcher, a flagship journal of the AERA, was dedicated to disproportionality in 2006 (i.e., Artiles, Klingner, & Tate, 2006). The omission of this type of work coupled with calls at the end of chapters to be open to all the schooling possibilities, and school choice, renders the work as part suspect with a hidden agenda (perhaps neo-liberal or radically moderate aspirations). The third tenet, interest convergence, is mentioned in passing in Parts II-IV without a CRT connection. Perhaps a healthy dosage of critical reflexivity and positionality may have helped to convey and to understand the complications of the authors' positions toward just schools. Questions from Spivak (1988, p. 25) seem to adapt well to a CRT examination of texts when potential crises of interpretation and representation arise. "Do I base my assumptions about group mobility on faulty observations of the exceptional?" "Can the subaltern speak?" "If so, under what conditions?" "How might we co-construct those conditions to expand our understanding and critique?"

    Concluding Thoughts

    Overall, this book identifies the necessity of seeking and embracing the complexity of educational goals in a multicultural society. However, I find each chapter missing one or more tenets of critical race pedagogy, a brief discussion of data collection and analysis, and critical reflexivity. If present, CRP coupled with some methodological clarity and critical reflexivity could have served (a) to diversify the authorship (and co-authorship) to have multiple representatives (i.e., folks of color and K-12 teachers; and participants) with the legitimate authority to tell their own stories and to member-check and critique the authors' analyses and accounts-such diverse representatives could have served as critical friends, (b) to give the reader more intellectual resource materials to contemplate, weigh, consider, and critique, thereby adding clarity and transparency, and (c) to support critical reader comprehension, inquiry, and dialogue. Still, I find that with my reading and critique of the book, Just Schools may provide some thought-provoking insight into the complexity of education in a pluralistic society for teachers, learners, policymakers, government researchers and professors of K-12 Education; Migration/Immigration; Religion; U.S. Law; U.S. Culture, Psychology, and Policy.


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